Quake Demolishes Confidence in Algerian Rulers

Quake Demolishes Confidence in Algerian Rulers

By Craig S.Smith, New York Times, 30 May 2003

ERGANA, Algeria, May 28 — More than just buildings collapsed in the earthquake that shook the central Mediterranean coast of this country a week ago. Public confidence in a government plagued by mismanagement and corruption collapsed, too.

President Abdelazziz Bouteflika has called for an official inquiry into why so many relatively new apartment buildings crumpled in the May 21 earthquake, killing more than 2,200 people and injuring at least 10,000. Strong aftershocks have continued to rattle nerves this week, with three people killed on Tuesday.

But the destruction is clearly linked to shoddy construction materials and the building of homes on unstable soil in a region prone to seismic activity.

« Here’s a gift from the Algerian government, » said Djenadi Zoubida, 40, planting a chunk of crumbly gray concrete into a reporter’s hand outside the wrecked second-floor apartment.

A group of men around him in this small town, 10 miles east of the capital, chimed in with visible anger. « The state is completely absent, » said one white-haired man who declined to give his name.

The military-backed government’s responsibility in the disaster has accelerated what until now was a slow-motion political crisis that began more than a decade ago when the Algerian military canceled elections that risked putting an Islamist party in power.

The earthquake has crystallized public anger that has long been brewing over government ineptitude in a country where, despite generous reserves of oil and gas, millions of people live on just a dollar a day and at least a third of the work force is unemployed.

Without a viable opposition, however, there is little hope of real change, politicians say. The military’s intervention gave rise to terrorism that was blamed on Islamic militants. But the army’s iron-fisted response eliminated any effective political opposition.

Meanwhile, the government’s responsibility in a series of natural disasters have sapped public confidence in the political system.

Mr. Zoubida said his first home was swept away in a flash flood two years ago when water from torrential rains cascaded through Algiers’ streets instead of its sewers, which the army had blocked to impede the movement of terrorists. The state gave Mr. Zoubida his new home here, but now the confluence of government mismanagement and natural disaster has left him homeless again. Previous earthquakes have also laid bare the shortcomings in the government’s supervision of construction practices.

On Sunday, during a visit to the area most damaged by the earthquake, about 30 miles east of here, Mr. Bouteflika was shouted down and some cars in his entourage were kicked by enraged residents. Since then, some newspapers have called for his resignation, while others have derided him for his preoccupation with the presidential election next year.

« The state never came to inspect anything, » said Dellachi Hocine, unshaven for days and standing before a tent erected in front of a damaged four-story concrete-and-clay brick building here.

Another man said, « Either the government didn’t spend enough money or it didn’t control the private developers who had contracted to do the construction. »

Many of the buildings destroyed in the earthquake were recently constructed public housing. Architects and engineers maintain that for years there has been no real enforcement of laws designed to ensure buildings are reasonably earthquake-proof in an area where major quakes hit roughly every 20 years.

« There is no culture of listening in this government, » said Abdelhamid Boudaoud, president of Algeria’s national college of architectural experts. He flipped through a 500-page report on preparing buildings for natural disasters that his organization issued after a conference in March. The document was sent to Mr. Bouteflika and government ministers but Mr. Boudaoud said there was no response.

He said architects and engineers are paid primarily for their signatures, used to secure building permits and bank loans, but that their recommendations are routinely ignored. Among the changes he and his colleagues have called for is a requirement that developers have a qualified expert on site to oversee construction.

« Some builders can’t even read a building plan, » Mr. Boudaoud said.