The news went unnoticed or nearly so. Starting on 19 May 2022, two crews worked alternate shifts day after day dismantling blast furnace number 1, which had long been the centrepiece of the El-Hadjar steel complex, located some 15 kilometres from Annaba, the largest harbour town in Eastern Algeria. This demolition was an expedient at best since the mineworkers at the nearby iron deposit are often on strike and for months the supply of ore has been irregular. For a while, the scrap iron recovered thus will stand in for the missing ore.
And that is how a factory which once embodied the greatest ambitions of a newly independent Algeria has come to an ignominious ending under the jackhammers of forgetfulness. That was a period of commitment and faith in a future of factories and jobs for the millions neglected by colonisation.
A political project of a colonial nature
From the very beginning, the project was a colonial one. Scarcely had General de Gaulle returned to power than he hoped to promote a hypothetical third force to combat the National Liberation Front (FLN), laying out its economic basis with the “Constantine Plan”, inaugurated one year later. Its keystone and most spectacular aspect was the plan to cast steel locally, a far cry from the original colonial pact which had for a century confined the three departments of occupied Algeria to the modest role of providing wine and ore – the iron from Ouenza – for export under a French monopoly.
At first the French steel companies solicited to finance this project were reluctant, they disliked the prospect of losing their Algerian market and especially of having to foot the bill. Negotiations dragged on until 1960, when the Société bônoise de sidérurgie (SBS) was founded, with 43 shareholders (the French steel companies) at a time when the first talks were being held between Paris and the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA).
The following year work was finally begun in accordance with what at the time was a very classical scheme: a blast furnace which was to produce, using imported coke with the iron ore from Ouenza, 400,000 tons of molten iron –a piddling amount in the eyes of the Algerian nationalists. But in 1963, the work was stopped, leaving a mountain of concrete and a few buildings. Finally, the French government undertook to finance the completion of the site with public feuds under the technical supervision of Sofresod, an engineering company which was also French. Six years later, the furnace was fired and immediately surpassed its nominal capacity. Since neither the steel mill nor the rolling mill, those normal outlets for what came out of the furnace, were completed yet, the pig iron produced by primary smelting was exported at inflated prices.
Flagship of modernity in independent Algeria
A major player in the industrialisation advocated by President Houari Boumediene and his hyperactive minister of industry and energy, Belaïd Abdeslam, the El-Hadjar compound became – along with Sonatrach, in charge of hydrocarbons – the symbol of the new Algeria’s modernity and ambitions.
In 1964, SBS was replaced by an Algerian public company, la Société nationale de sidérurgie (SNS), piloted brilliantly by Mohamed Liassine, one of the few Algerians at the time to have a degree from the Polytechnic School in Paris.1 The firm was to provide the decor for an extraordinary human experience, since it would attract young students from universities the world over, young Algerians who had interrupted their studies to join the resistance, foreigners in search of political commitment or a change of scenery. They were mostly Algerians but also French, Soviets, Germans, and Bulgarians, all of them young and often loaded with diplomas.
Despite this diversity, the mix proved fruitful and in less than twenty years a close-knit team gave birth to a major industrial activity: the manufacture of steel. Firsts followed one another in quick succession: a factory producing spirally welded pipes for the oil industry in 1969, another for seamless pipes in 1977 also providing water pipes for the Hydraulics Ministry, two rolling mills in 1980 for profiling sheet metal and supplying the local machine industry which was developing rapidly. That same year, a second blast furnace (HF2), nearly three times bigger than the first, began production, whilst three more steelworks were built.
All in all, a decree issued in November 1977 counted 26 units under the heading “socialist enterprise SNS” which had nothing in common with SBS and its cramped dimensions, and which had even become a training school for managers and cadres of other public companies. The benefits for the Annaba region were spectacular: 40,000 workers had found jobs with the SNS, 30,000 at El-Hadjar. The area was transfigured and the country people who had come from the French army’s “regroupment camps” or from the Tunisian border discovered a new life, more modern and more open. “From the village of the beginnings to the birth of a city, from peasant life to the birth of a proletariat, El-Hadjar was at the core of a revolution in life-styles and working conditions,” wrote Rezki Hocine, director of SNS from 1977 until 1983 in a book written half a century later by the protagonists of that human and social metamorphosis which so upset the traditionalist and religious circles that the dignitaries of the town of Jijel actually resisted the construction of a new steelworks on their land for thirty years.
Restructuring as a form of industrial decline
After the death of President Boumedienne, from the 1980s onward, the national companies had lost their champion. A vast “restructuring” of the public companies was undertaken by a new strongman, Abdelhamid Brahimi, Planning Minister and then Prime Minister, who deployed unprecedented zeal “in dismantling these forty year-old monsters, regular states within the State, capable of blocking any outside effort at progress, reform or simply control, but also incapable of economic efficiency” to quote the summary contained in the 1984 edition of the Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord (no. 23, page 797).
And that is the whole story. But behind the financial argument lies a strategy of deindustrialisation by the powers that be which was in fact a settling of accounts: the politicians running the government and the society since long before independence feared the rivalry of those who were not yet known as “technocrats” but who were building a new reality which was out of their reach. The competition for power obsessed the country’s leaders. Like the other great “national companies”, El-Hadjar was demeaned and broken up into no less than 18 different firms, among them Sider, “the actual material and spiritual heir of SNS, its spirit and its know-how” (Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord, 1983, page 271).
Yet after 1982, the organic restructuring was not followed by the indispensable financial restructuring. Throughout the 1990s, Sider had neither share capital nor working capital. Worse still, in February 1996, the company’s whole general staff was gaoled – including its CEO, Messaoud Chettih – for “bad management”, a fanciful accusation which could scarcely conceal the crazy whims of the then Prime Minister, Ahmed Ouyaha, in search of a scapegoat to get over a difficult hurdle, now in gaol himself! Of the eleven officials who spent four years in gaol, only three are still alive. They were accused of selling concrete reinforcing bars too cheaply, a competition which was not to the taste of Emirati, Turkish and Qatari investors, newcomers in the business. This bad patch at the steel complex was exploited by hoodlums that Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad denounced as the “Annaba gang”, an unholy alliance of corrupt local officials, crooked union leaders and small-time swindlers. “There will be no more money going into the pockets of the Annaba isaba (gang)” the Prime Minister thundered during a visit to El-Hadjar on 13 September 2020.
Looking back, the former SNS officials all agree that a golden opportunity was missed when the company disappeared. Instead of a modern, integrated industry capable of supplying the rest of the country’s industries with quality products, Algeria no longer produces anything but steel wire and concrete reinforcing bars for the building industry and civil engineering, a far cry from the ambitions of the pioneers.
1NDT: L’École polytechnique is a higher education establishment running under the supervision of the French Ministry of Defence. It has a double status, being both an engineering school that trains civilian engineers and scientists, but also officers for the three French armies. (Wikipedia)