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Algerian change—again

A lack of leadership continuity in Algeria's energy sector is a product of the FLN's struggle to retain political power

Algerian energy minister Noureddine Boutarfa learned he'd been sacked the day that was supposed to represent his crowning achievement, with Opec's signing in Vienna on 25 May of an extension on its production cuts agreement.

Nine months in the making, Opec's first such accord in eight years was completed after much shuttle diplomacy by Boutarfa. He'd initiated the process himself, winning an outline agreement on the principle of the cuts policy at an Opec meeting he hosted in Algiers last September. Then, the local papers were full of praise for their champion.

Months of criss-crossing the globe followed as Boutarfa met with oil producers inside and, crucially, outside Opec, balancing each producer's demands into a workable agreement.

But as he chaired a meeting with fellow Opec ministers on the first afternoon of the May conference, he heard via Algerian media reports that he'd been dismissed. No reason for his dismissal was given, other than that the ruling FLN party, having had a drubbing in parliamentary elections earlier that month, had decided to ring the changes, also firing the prime minister, foreign and finance ministers.

Boutarfa, formerly chief executive of Algeria's state gas firm Sonelgaz, had held the job only since July 2016. The position goes to a man with equally solid technical credentials, Mustapha Guitouni, who also replaced Boutarfa as head of Sonelgaz. The hope of energy sector officials is that Guitouni, an uncontroversial choice, will stay in the post for some time. But no one is optimistic.

Boutarfa's sacking is no surprise to observers of the musical chairs among Algeria's energy officials. Sonatrach, holding company for Algeria's hydrocarbons assets, has been through six chief executives in seven years. The latest, Abdelmoumen Ould Kadour, formerly head of US-Algerian firm Brown & Root-Condor, got the job on 10 March.

Algeria's governing elite are notoriously opaque, so the reason for removing an oil minister just as he had accumulated kudos across Opec for nifty diplomacy can only be guessed at.

But the ministerial changes come as Algeria's ruling FLN party faces an existential crisis, with the generation that led the fight for independence against France in 1962 dying off. Surviving FLN leaders argue that, having fought and won the war for freedom, they are entitled to govern the peace. But the wartime generation is not getting any younger, with Bouteflika turning 80 and FLN chairman Djamal Ould Abesa 82.

They won't last forever, and the new generation of FLN leaders, too young to have fought in the war, may struggle to explain why they deserve to run the country.

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