Decentralization in Algeria

Decentralization and federalism are terms usually described as twin concepts but the semantic lining is important to consider (evidently the first can come without the latter and the latter supposes the former) albeit the blending that does occur in the real world. Democracy and accountability are ‘promised’ when empowering regional and local levels of government.

This process of democratization and localization was part of the Libyan “jamahiriyya.” Federalism or decentralization in general intend to bring good governance and efficiency. The 10 additional new wilayas in Algeria allow closer access to federal government offices for official paperwork and increased budgets for more concentrated territories. Public policy laboratories closer to the regional level and customized to local circumstances allow councils the chance to address concerns much more directly. The needs of Tindouf will be different from those of Skikda. 

Everyone knows this, but not everyone is aware of what the current structures are and why there is no quick fix or obvious overnight solution. Unlike decentralization, federalism requires a constitutional recognition of the autonomy of regional units. They are both non-majoritarian arrangements but this distinction is crucial after all, and it will determine our diagnosis and prescription. An explicitly federal solution might not be a viable one due to potential reactions and opposition within and outside regions. Federalism allows regions a constitutionally legitimate basis on which they can disagree with the center or even with other regions. It does in “fractions” what the trias politica does at the center. It seeks to prevent the territorial concentration of power. Executive, legislative, and judicial powers and their distribution across orders of government (deconcentration) is an indispensable part of federalism and to a lesser extent decentralization. 

The Algerian constitution prescribes for the parliament a role in “general debate” of the executive program (Article 80). Moroccan members of parliament are more active than Algerian members in lawmaking activities, some argue that this is expected in monarchies as opposed to former one-party states within the class of hegemonic electoral regimes. 

While lack of capacity is a legitimate component to local levels of government in Algeria, there’s not really an excuse for the parliament. Monarchs don’t really endow parliaments with greater material or human resources than do presidents. The amount of staff and level of indemnities members receive does not appear to be substantially different (although the makhzen have greater access to networks through which they can at least comparatively succeed in district projects, pending new university in Laayoune for example). “Though decentralization is not per se a ‘hot topic’ in relation to security interests of authoritarian regimes, special care is important when dealing with state-elite relationships, discrepancies between the text of laws and their implementation as well as country-specific red lines (for example the decentralization process in Morocco is strongly connected to the king, the unsolved Western Sahara question, and even the protest movements in the northern Rif region).” [1]

Members of parliament in Algeria also complain that citizens do not understand their national lawmaking mandate, and confuse their function with that of a local official. While the Moroccan parliament plays a slightly greater role in policy-making and oversight, this role is viewed by many as being for the service of an elite class and in which membership is particularly corrupt and unresponsive. The public opinion in Algeria of members is that they are self-enriching and unwilling to stand up for the public interest. Confidence in the parliament, as a form of specific support, is low in both Morocco and Algeria. The executive power is about carrying out or overseeing the implementation of legislation and other government responsibilities. Bureaucrats either administer these policies, or they supervise private and semi-public institutions who do. 

We see more of the executive power devolved to regional and local levels, and some limited legislative power is required for the administration of these devolved policy areas. Within the terms of the logic of the regime, since the coup d’etat of 1965, the contest between legitimate power and executive power resolved itself fatally in favor of the former. Boumediene hid behind fictitious collective decision-making and kept a firm hold on both.

The word federalism itself can scare people off, reminding them of separatism and dismemberment. It’s also associated with public administration and public management best left to expertsState architecture can display strong federal characteristics while avoiding the formal label of a federation. All Maghribi governments claim to have decentralized, based on the power transfer from central decision-makers to democratically-elected local institutions. The center simply devolves some of its powers to the lower levels of government.

The central state keeps certain exclusive jurisdictions, which does not mean cutting ties to the rest of the country or turning a blind eye to common concerns (although unfortunately this does occur and we will explore how). In federalism, cooperation is a constitutional commandment (this could be seen as encroachment by the center at times). But in general, in a decentralized state, different issues, different political loyalties, and different priorities guide the citizens’ relationship with multiple orders of government.

Territorial federalism based on ethnolinguistic stripes (like in Nigeria, Ethiopia, or South Africa) wouldn’t work for Algeria (MAK would beg to differ, but they’re another story). Many of the demands in the El Kseur document during the ‘Arush movement in Kabylia circa 2001/2002 were actually of socio-economic nature, even if concerns of cultural significance were also a factor in the organization of protests. Nonetheless, proper care of diversity remains an issue across the board and transcends the Kabyle question (or perhaps comes back to it if we are talking about overrepresentation as a consequence). 

The most visible and symbolic element of corporate representation is in the parliament. But its visibility and symbolism can be decorative rather than purposeful (integrating the periphery with the core). The low level of confidence that Algerian publics place in the parliament and their limited knowledge of its legislative work facilitates strong discontent over their difficult economic situations. Few people think members from their district are doing a good job.

Nonetheless, federalism is not about solving divisions, and in general, we should probably be suspicious of those who peddle final solutions to problems. 

While Algeria is defined by great linguistic, demographic, and geographic complexity, managing territory and autonomy based on these differences wouldn’t make sense. There is historical fluidity that attends the territorial distribution of communities. Furthermore, we are likely to be of the view that natural resources extracted in Algeria belong to the entire country, and therefore some sort of regional equity should be ensured. If Chlef is far from being Dubai, then you can imagine Laghouat, Ouargla or In Salah. This is very different from, say, the beylik of Constantine possessing a budget that was three times that of the central state according to population and resources.

We can spare the details of state control, elite primacy over society, and national unity over pluralism that characterized Algeria entering a new era of indigenous rule, because I think these points are obvious. But it may be worth noting that those tendencies had repercussions on the nature of the polity, even if it was predictable and not so unique. From the jump self-rule was asserted through the development of the security apparatus. The instrument for exercising that monopoly was crucial in expanding financial, legal and administrative control. 

The new leaders’ clamor for modernization proceeded on the assumption that they alone knew what was best for all their people, and the most effective way of achieving it. Of course, this is very presumptuous, and clearly not successful since the country fails to balance the judiciary, legislative, and the executive arms of State power. The absence of an independent judiciary branch tells us that the root of the issue begins here.

In organic terms, State power is a form of hierarchy, in which each level has the prerogative to be obeyed by the level below. At various levels of the administrative ladder, a subtle pecking order distributes power so that each successive rank has progressively more power than that below it, and less than the rank above. 

The Agrarian Revolution (discussed in the late 1960s) in Algeria that aimed to develop the countryside stressed decentralization and self-sufficiency using nationalist sentiment (“If Algeria cannot feed itself, then it is still subject to the vagaries of the world capitalist market. If the Algerian people cannot govern and manage themselves, then they are still subject to the sway of the Francophile or Americophile elite”). The army approved of the mission out of appeal to populism but also to halt rural-to-urban migration. 

Recalibration was accelerated in Algeria in the 1970s, following Boumediene’s 1970-73 decentralization plan. ⅔ of the 900 major industrial projects were implemented in collectives and villages using local manpower. To solve regional disparities, the government set up a series of special programs each with its own special budget independent of both the operating budget of the central government and the development plans. So between 1966 and 1972, a total of 2,240 million DA was spent on seven different regional plans, geared toward the construction of schools, houses, medical facilities and job-creating industry. More recently, the solidarity fund grant has been allocated to communities where wealth indices are lower than the national average.

Algeria’s provinces (31 at the time) were made autonomous units in control of their own development programs under the umbrella of the national plan and supervised by the ministry of the interior. Each had a popular assembly and delegates to which were elected by universal suffrage (historically out of lists of candidates named by the FLN and the army). This assembly has a deliberative function – it establishes policy for the province to follow. Policy is carried out by an executive board, which is also responsible for maintaining law and order, running local enterprises and schools, and keeping the province’s financial state solvent. On the local level, the political structure of the baladiya (township) reflects that of the wilaya (province) in microcosm.

So how is it that Hassi Messaoud, home to the nation’s greatest resource, has not been able to communicate its development potential to the areas it is supposed to feed? Changes in the structures of the governates led by their walis (officials) have come about slowly and reforms less thorough. The only two powers municipalities play absolutely no part in are energy and transport. The rest (local economic planning, water/waste/sanitation, security, town planning, basic services like health and education, sport/leisure, and culture/tourism) is technically under their belt to some degree. For example, communal popular assemblies were handed the task of designating beneficiaries of the land reform process in part because these bodies simply have the necessary local knowledge. Of course, national ministries are still major key players in this form of shared-rule. Inherent deficiencies in infrastructure and personnel at the subnational level bring the central government back in.

Because of underdeveloped hospitals at the local level, people farthest from the center (Tindouf, Adrar, Tamanrasset, Illizi), have to be transported hundreds, even sometimes over a thousand kilometers (Tindouf-Bechar 800 km, Tam-Algiers 1900 km, Illizi-Ouargla 1000 km, Adrar-Laghouat 1000 km for perspective). While Ouargla may have a modern inner-city transportation system, plane ticket prices for those in the deep south are most of the time, unaffordable. 

The multiplication of policy areas due to technological advancement has not only increased the profile of the central government, but also the regional governments. This means not everything is exhaustively tallied in constitutions; but all in all, decentralizing activities in Algeria are challenged to the point where they are virtually non-existent. Decentralized institutions have not always delivered the exact intended outcomes. Through interaction with the broader historic, political, social, and economic context, decentralization reforms have engendered political consequences beyond decentralization itself. 

There’s distance between what was in the institutional blueprints, introducing large scale, top down decentralist reforms, and the facts on the ground years later. Years after the reforms, decentralized institutions remain in pro forma terms, but the workings of politics have reverted back to nationwide terms. One reflection of this phenomenon is the recentralization of de facto political power that comes with large-scale national infrastructural projects. Nationwide policies subsequently bring in the central government into policy areas that formally belong to regional and local governments.

Baba Ali from Tamanrasset was an important voice for the deep south regarding uneven development. Saadaoui Slimane from Naama continues to criticize the failing centralized system. Studies of deconcentration in Algeria, Libya, Tunisia have all come to similar conclusions: the performance and impact of decentralized administrative units have been positive in some cases, but have not matched the goals of decentralization policies as a whole by any means.

Control over financial resources continues to be centralized; local and provincial organizations continue to have severe shortages of qualified personnel, and they lack the capacity to carry out the responsibilities transferred to them. 

Deputies who have direct connections with ministers and bureaucrats have more success in solving casework requests (the infamous maarifa). In order to fulfill the needs of citizens and district development districts, they almost always need to have a private relationship with someone in power. If a deputy runs into a problem with the wali, nothing gets solved. Writing letters and recommendations to ministries yields no response. Deputies who don’t play according to the rules also risk losing personal privileges. 

To add to that, there isn’t much of a deputy-citizen relationship either. The establishment of patron-client relationships are important. This two-sided blockage brings major shortcomings in both national lawmaking and local constituency service. Deputies lack staff, resources, and responsive higher powers. This is true for Morocco as well.

Most deputies believe that the material and logistical resources available to them with which their mandates are vastly insufficient to fulfill their role as defined by the constitution. They could be well-intended people, but simply cannot navigate the hurdles. Members may feel the pull of multiple arenas—the need to serve citizens and to placate elite (party) interests—simultaneously. 

In both Algeria and Morocco, all deputies are members of a committee and thus have multiple opportunities to debate a law. Based on a dissertation by Lindsay J. Benstead, nearly all members have done so at least once (89.8% of Moroccan members and 78.8% of Algerian members). The higher proportion on the Moroccan side suggests that debate, albeit within the guidelines of “constructive opposition”, is more acceptable in the Moroccan case than in the Algerian setting. In other words, unlike in Algeria, participation in parliamentary debate (e.g. commissions, plenary sessions, etc.) may be rewarded by access to patronage networks for resolving requests. Moroccans members are also more likely to have the stature to question and approach ministers than are Algerians members.

The historical nature of clientelism in the political system, including in the parliament, induces citizens to bring both valid as well as illegal requests to members. While Algerians may be split regarding how fair the House of Representatives looks like in the country, there is definitely unanimous critique of communication between deputies and citizens. And it’s not because Algerians don’t know who their district deputy is, they often at least know their name (especially in rural areas). Bureaucracy in Algeria, unlike notables and landowners in Morocco, is mass and popular.

Deficiencies in regional state capacity, administrative capacities, trained personnel, and financial autonomy all prevent the regional and local levels of governments in Algeria from engaging with the central government on an equal footing. 

Just looking at the way the constitution divides power, or looking at the way political institutions are formally organized, or the way the party system functions, is not going to help us understand how things work in practice. The legal angle is quite pronounced in older and established federations of the West. But there is also an alternative perspective to federalism that highlights uncodified aspects, particularly the social structure. 

Politically salient social divisions could still reflect a federal city and in certain respects wilayas are those administrative divisions – so where does the problem lie? “Power is in the center,” Okay, yes, but what does that mean when it is technically connected like underground sewage?

Obviously, there’s electoral corruption: Members of parliament are not merely engaged in negotiation with incumbent elites (ruling clique of military generals whose accent is crucial to major policy decisions) who control the outcome of elections through election structuring (RND and FLN monopolizing power) and the electoral code (Hare formula which tends to produce overrepresentation of larger parties, a party could receive as few as 30% of the votes but get ⅔ of the seats). 

Two traps await analyzing “elections without democracy”: (1) highlighting the preponderant role of electoral fraud denies any interest in the very subject of electoral policy (2) evading strategies exercised before and after elections by an authoritarian regime leads to taking poll results literally. To overcome these pitfalls, it’s best to work on two axes: electoral registration within the framework of the authoritarian system and everyday policies that informally take shape. Understanding elections through qualitative analysis of a social game (which operates in the hollow of a political game) sheds light on the underground logic that innervates polity – without prejudging the participation rate, nor results.

Citizens influence (though they do not determine) the outcome of semi-competitive elections by giving or withholding political support. Viewed this way, the preferences of constituents serve as a contextual factor in elite-level bargaining over the outcome of elections. It’s not enough to just say the government makes up numbers and that public opinion in Place Audin is the same everywhere – even if a degree of statistical manipulation is certainly expected and the “loyalist”/”passive” vs “politically conscious” scheme (all problematic terms) in respect to region (remote areas vs the metropole) is a very reductive caricature. 

The expectation that deputies contribute to real social and economic change is shared among people who believe elections are no longer flawed and people who still mistrust the system. From most important to least, when it comes to obtaining funds for development projects, taking care of citizens’ requests, writing and debating laws, informing citizens, and organizing meetings with party members, deputies are seen to prioritize these tasks in nearly the reverse order. Moroccan deputies handle 98 requests per month, on average, while Algerian members handle 44 requests, on average. Caseload varies from 0 to 1600 in Morocco and from 0 to 210 in Algeria. A statistically significant bivariate relationship exists between district magnitude and casework provision in Algeria. Independents and members of small parties also have significantly higher caseloads than deputies from other parties. 

There’s also an institutional difference. Article 105 of the Algerian constitution stipulates that the post of deputy may not be held concurrently with any other mandate or function. No such prohibition is found in the Moroccan constitution. In Morocco, almost half of the members hold a second public function (minister or being a member or president of a local (municipal) or provincial council). Ministers and the heads of municipalities (mayor) and provinces (governors) have contacts and resources, as well as a mandate, to provide resolution of casework requests. Individuals in these positions say that there is no formal distinction in their casework as a deputy and as a member of another local, regional, or national office. 

Society, politics, law, all seem to matter. None of these academic disciplines on their own could provide a comprehensive and coherent answer, and yet neither do their findings seem to be inherently combinable, that is, adding them on top of each other is not going to provide a successively clearer picture. Since the starting points of analysis rest on different intellectual foundations, and since different scholarly disciplines have different goals and different aspirations, the insights do not seamlessly come together at the end. 

Nevertheless, it is imperative that we employ these different perspectives in order to reach the closest holistic approximation to a solution where decentralization plays a part. Today, that involves focusing on the administrative divisions (wilayas) that exist. It’s worth looking at literature that conceptualizes decentralization beyond an ethnolinguistic territorial angle. Provinces also might not have the numbers to form sustainable ‘states.’

Politics and society are the factors that determine the day to day working of decentralization, as well as its long term historical trajectory. “Political culture” in Algeria is attentive to historical contingencies, social asymmetry, and political domination. Understanding culture from this perspective and observing conflicts that pervade interior arenas, distribution of power within local society, and the forms of state involvement in daily local politics, help to grasp a dialectical relationship between systems and practices. 

Constitutions often refer to decentralization across the board, as part of the comprehensive overhaul of the entire political architecture. While doing this, constitutions do not specifically acknowledge individual local governments. 

Like most pre-modern polities, pre-colonial Algeria was defined by many different segmentary structures. These structures, of course, evolve. But for most federalism scholars in Africa, the concept of federal society denotes demarcation of territory based on ethnolinguistic diversity – in some areas of Algeria it could make sense, and others, not at all. Many, if not most, would reject such an idea. Even for the places we assume would work fine under these parameters, new minorities would be created in those ‘states.’

Analyzing different actors and levels of interaction requires a magnifying glass. The development of a “tribal code” in Khenchela in August 2008, the multidimensional conflict in the Mzab (1985, 1990, 2008, 2009, 2013), receptions reserved for notables of different regions in the country during pre-electoral campaigns between 2003 and 2004, “tribal rivalries” around the legislative elections of 1997 and 2002, disputes at the border between the wilayas of Djelfa and Laghouat in June 2006, are all examples that necessitate understanding traditional segmentary social organization/forms of rule or influence and how parties/the state have incorporated them.

The FLN, which stood as the national ruling party for quite some time in modern Algerian history, has a resume of pursuing a policy of co-opting traditional political and religious leadership not for the sake of preservation at the local level (“resurgence” or maintained prominence of traditional local authority tends to occur in centralized systems) but to maintain central power. This doesn’t mean that these traditional local systems are inherently bad. On the contrary, it’s the way they are treated by an overarching political ventriloquist. Cue the recent appearance of the amenokal of the Hoggar region in Tamanrasset. The very creation of local government in Algeria wasn’t really intended for traditional chiefs and paramount chiefs to exert their uncodified form of political authority in these smaller settings, and people have different opinions about the ‘legitimacy’ of local customary law in modern nation-states. 

These structures were used by former colonial powers as a shortcut to establish control over a wide swath of territory with a small contingent of soldiers and officials. Chiefs and elders had become partners to the colonial system of indirect rule, or they were loosely co-opted into colonial administrations. Nowhere in Africa did indigenous legal traditions find their way into the formal design of decentralized institutions. The institutional blueprint was often carbon copied from the West. Instead, traditional systems are meddled with– among the Nememsha in Tebessa, the Brarsha tribe was often placed at the top of the FLN list because it was the strongest branch of the confederation. This is practical knowledge, from the well-off to the unemployed, from truck drivers to neophytes of local politics, from bureaucrats to smugglers, everyone knows the “tribal cartography” of their region. The indigenous model is included in confidential reports of local police branches. 

In the Mzab, which has four seats, the FLN found Mzabi candidates to fill at least the first two names on the list (in 2002 all four FLN list members were Mzabi) in order to gain the support of leaders among the majlis (council). Leaders choose a party and the group votes as a bloc. In a larger district like Bejaia, with twelve seats, the FLN would find a mix of candidates and strategically class them according to their family and area of residence in order to maximize votes from people in the district who would know or have a family connection with individuals on the list.

While parties generally select candidates, candidates sometimes select parties. Some members in both Morocco and Algeria said that they had been asked by parties to run on their lists, generally because of the personal and family standing of the candidate in a region. Further, candidates might be attracted to a particular party for various reasons; among them, to gain access to ministers from that party. Others simply agree to be classed in a low position on the list in exchange for the help of the candidate who is elected in the unsuccessful candidate’s bid for local election. Those who have worked for the party will have a share in the benefits and networks once the party does well such as seats in parliament, senate seats, ministerial posts, etc. 

It helps that constituents seek candidates they “know” and “trust” before voting for a party list. The preferences of party selectorates in both Morocco and Algeria suggest that deputies seeking reelection must also promote their party’s reputation. They are strongly tied – RND was born with a mustache as we say.

There’s a visible distance between the pro forma letter of the law and the practice on the ground, but it doesn’t necessarily lean toward strong legal pluralism.

Economic growth has a complex and multifaceted relationship with decentralization, it is not simple and linear (as in decentralization directly causes economic growth). That being said, the CNDDC has rightfully fought for a workforce that privileges locals first. Most advanced economies happen to have decentralized political systems with strong local governments. Bringing democracy closer to citizens, the empowerment of local communities, and the political accountability and transparency that come with small scale politics are the component parts of this notion of good governance.

In order to combat the persistent economic problems that are too big for local and provincial levels of government, the developmental state assumes nationwide responsibility. This is especially the case with developmental infrastructure responsibilities in peripheral poorer regions. Policies adopted according to the logic of the developmental state could easily end up circumventing the constitutional division of responsibilities between the center and the administrative states and local governments. While decentralization reforms had focused on development, they yielded varied consequences, based on what’s deep inside our political soil. 

Whether or not decentralization could deliver on its promises hinge upon whether different political parties occupy the various local regional and national levels of government. When a single dominant national party sits above decentralized institutions, no matter how expertly and elaborately designed, intra-party politics seems to sit above these decentralized institutions and takes precedence. This means that national political patterns will tend to superimpose themselves onto the regional and local. 

Creating decentralized institutions with a stroke of a pen does not automatically bring out the same good governance indicators that correlate with decentralization in the West. Lack of governance capacity at the local level, infrastructural weaknesses, and deficiencies in personnel have prevented many local governments from meeting their competences and responsibilities. After all, decentralized institutions are not painted onto blank canvases. Provincial and local levels of government still lag behind in state capacity. 

Formal institutional reforms cannot deliver on their promises if deficiencies in provincial capacity prevent the subnational units from fulfilling their responsibilities, balancing off the center and so on. If there’s anything to take from this, it’s that the zeal for certain institutional engineering should be subdued while we think of how to go from here. Long term structural policies should target these deficiencies in provincial capacity. What makes political and economic institutions deliver in the West might not always be because of these very institutions, but it might be a reflection of the longer-term structural factors beyond the institutional blueprints.

[1] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13629387.2020.1787837?needAccess=true 

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