Jean-Jacques Cornish

Algeria offers world class conference facilities

Back home from my seventh visit to Algeria, I’m delighted at having  witnessed that country’s transition from a regional trouble spot into a world class conference centre.

Delighted because Algeria has uncompromisingly been one of South Africa’s firmest friends.

As correspondent to the United Nations, I recall Algerians playing key roles in the world organization’s Special Committee Against Apartheid.

They travelled the world gleaning evidence from victims of apartheid and publishing annual reports to fuel the onslaught against the regime in the UN Security Council and General Assembly.

Not surprisingly when Morocco invaded and occupied neighbouring Spanish Sahara in 1975 following the departure of the colonial power after the death of dictator Franco, Algeria offered shelter to Western Sahara refugees and has remained the strongest backer of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.

The international blage about the stubborn, independent-spirited Algerians is that if they fall into a hole, they tend to keep digging.

In the time of my first visit in 1995 they were delving their way out of the Islamist nightmare that began in 1992 when the military annulled elections and took power.

Algerians baulked at this being called a coup and the ensuing six  years of violence that claimed at least 150 000 lives being labelled a civil war.

Whatever history judges them to be, those dark years are  now recognized as having been as costly as what Algerians call “the blessed liberation revolution” from  1954 to 1962 which won them independence from France.

Algeria was not looking at its best at the time, but it was immediately evident why France would gladly have given up  every other colonial asset it held in Africa if it could only have maintained its 132-year hold on Algeria.

Over the centuries, the largest and most powerful African mediterranean country has a history of wresting itself free of occupiers that included the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Ottomans.

I was put in the secure St George Hotel, which was used by General Dwight Eisenhower during World War II, and ordered stay put when my two bodyguards dropped me after the day’s programme.

A French journalist who had not heeded this advice a week before had his throat slit in the casbah.

More than 50 journalists were killed by jihadis that year.

After some days, the liaison man attached to me, who could not have organized the proverbial piss up in a brewery, confessed that he was in fact my third bodyguard.

Its bloody history has forced Algeria to become an international expert on combatting terrorism.

On a later visit, I attended an international conference in Algiers sponsored by the United Nations on beating violent extremists.

Then  there was  a similar gathering under African auspices.

I stayed at some of the capital’s s more auspicious hotels.

Each time I visited the Saharawi camps, I passed through Algeria.

My previous visit was to receive an award from President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for my coverage of the Western Sahara story.

In this latest visit I was accommodated  with other journalists invited to attend the seventh summit of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF).

The GECF holds three-quarters of the world’s natural gas reserves

No fewer than 10 heads of state attended the gathering at the impressive Abdelatif Rahal Centre Internationale de Conferences (CIC)

Each day, we were accompanied  to and from this facility along the coast from Algiers  by a police motorcyclist less than gently persuading  motorists to take way for the important visitors.

The presidents went one better. The roads were closed when they arrived at and left the centre.

Both the journalists and those national leaders lounging in their their long, black limousines passed, on their way to and from the summit, by Africa’s largest mosque.

With its minaret standing 280 meters tall the holy place has surpassed that mosque the Morocco that formerly held the title as the biggest.

The Chinese built structure can accommodate 200 000 faithful. The governments of Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Abdelmadjid Tebboune overcame delays and cost overruns and inaugurated it days before the opening of the summit.

It underlines Algeria’s role as the religious, economic, diplomatic, political and military leader of the Maghreb.

Security was tight at the ICI. We went through two metal detectors and pat downs to get into the press area.

We had to pass a COVID test to get into the building on the day the presidents were there.

Inside clockwork 150 computers running with super fast internet awaited journalists able to follow proceedings on giant screens in the media areas.

We were decided up by Algerian journalists wanting to knw what we expected of the meeting and what we thought of the facilities.

Most of these were young women. This was a dramatic change from my first visit when the remarkably brave young women I met were thin on the ground.

Merely going to and from work, they risked insults and even attacks from fundamentalists who insisted their place was at home tending to their families.

As a long-standing vegetarian I can offer limited praise for Algeria’s varied cuisine.

The Mediterranean plates offered in the leading country of the Maghreb – the place where the sun sets on the Arab world – competes deliciously with dishes served in the the Mashrek – the Mpumlanga of the Arab world where the sun rises.

The historic interest and natural beauty on offer in Algeria makes it well worth visiting.

While it offers exemplary facilities for conference and business visitors, it is has all the attributes to become a tourist mecca. 

Right now it relies on substantial income from oil and gas to boost the standard of living  of it 44,6-million people.

Certainly the 5-million inhabitants of Algiers live at a standard equal to those of the counterparts on the northern shores of the Mediterranean.

When  the tourists start coming to enjoy the coast, the High Atlas mountains of the north, the semi arid high plateaus in the centre and the vast Sahara to the South, we will see nothing short of a  bonanza.


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Jean-Jacques Cornish is a journalist and broadcaster who has been involved in the media all his adult life.

Starting as a reporter on his hometown newspaper, he moved briefly to then Rhodesia before returning to South Africa to become a parliamentary correspondent with the South African Press Association. He was sent to London as Sapa’s London editor and also served as special correspondent to the United Nations. He joined the then Argus group in London as political correspondent.

Returning to South Africa after 12 years abroad, he was assistant editor on the Pretoria News for a decade before becoming editor of the Star and SA Times for five years.

Since 1999 he’s been an independent journalist writing and broadcasting – mainly about Africa – for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape
Talk, Radio France International, PressTV, Radio Live New Zealand, Business Day, Mail & Guardian, the BBC, Agence France Press,
Business in Africa, Leadership, India Today, the South African Institute for International Affairs and the Institute for Security Studies.

He has hosted current affairs talk shows on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He appears as an African affairs pundit on SABC Africa and CNBC Africa.
He lectured in contemporary studies to journalism students at the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Pretoria.

He speaks on African affairs to corporate and other audiences.
He has been officially invited as a journalist to more than 30 countries. He was the winner of the 2007 SADC award for radio journalism.

He’s been a member of the EISA team observing elections in Somaliland, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Egypt and Tunsiai.

In October 2009 he headed a group of 39 African journalists to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

In January 2010 he joined a rescue and paramedical team to earthquake struck Haiti.

He is immediate past president of the Alliance Francaise of Pretoria.

Jean-Jacques is a director of Giant Media. The company was given access to Nelson Mandela in his retirement years until 2009.
He is co-producer of the hour-long documentary Mandela at 90 that was broadcast on BBC in January 2009.