Ahmed Ben Bella, a leader of Algeria’s liberation struggle and the country’s first president, died on April 11 at his home in Algiers. His age was reported as either 95 or 96.
He spent 23 years of his life in prisons and a decade in exile, yet never ceased in his condemnation of injustice, particularly of imperialism, most recently NATO’s bombardment of Libya last year.
Ben Bella was one of the founders of the National Liberation Front (FNL), the movement that freed Algeria from over a century of French occupation. His tenure as president of an independent Algeria was short, as he was overthrown by the military only two years after assuming office.
While he is one of the giants of anti-colonial fighters in the post-Second World War period, he has a mixed reputation in his own country, which only one month ago celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence.
Born to a peasant family near Algeria’s border with Morocco, Ben Bella already joined an anti-colonial party at the age of 15. By his late teens, he enlisted in the Free French forces and fought with distinction in the Second World War, receiving several medals, including a decoration for bravery from General Charles de Gaulle himself.
At the same time, according to The Telegraph newspaper, the French military labeled him “intelligent and dangerous.”
Like countless veterans across the colonial world who fought to free Europe from fascism, he returned home bitter at European hypocrisy and determined to fight for his own people’s liberation. The massacre of thousands of Algerians by European colonists in Sétif in1945 was one of the major sparks for the development of a militant liberation movement.
In 1947, with Hocine Aït Ahmed, he established the paramilitary Organisation Spécial, and two years later they raided a post office in the city of Oran. Jailed by the French colonists, he escaped in 1952 by sawing through his cell bars using a file smuggled in a loaf of bread.
Based in Cairo, he co-founded the FLN in 1954, and spent the next two years traveling across independent North African nations acquiring weapons for the liberation fighters and coordinating their activities. On a trip to Tunis, the plane carrying him was hijacked by the French who captured and jailed Ben Bella and four other Algerian leaders.
During imprisonment, Ben Bella emerged as one of the key leaders of the Algerian liberation movement united within the FLN. Inspired by the Vietnamese victory against the French, the FLN waged war from bases within the giant North African colony as well as in neighboring countries like Morocco and Tunisia. The French tortured, raped, mutilated, and killed millions of Algerians and labeled the FLN fighters “terrorists” in their effort to retain Algeria, which they considered inherently part of France.
After almost a decade of war, and approximately one million Algerian causalities, protracted negotiations between de Gaulle’s government and the FLN led to Algeria’s independence in July 1962. Ben Bella was released from jail that March, and he was elected President of Algeria in September the following year.
Like many leaders of newly independent nations, Ben Bella was faced with a host of obstacles to stability and development: the continued dependence on and interference of the former colonial power; balancing competing ideological and regional groups within the country; and satisfying the expectations of a long-suffering people.
He pursued a socialist path such as massive construction of schools, redistribution of land to peasants, and the creation of a national oil and gas company.
As importantly, he established Algiers as a base for the global anti-colonial struggle, hosting liberation movements and providing training and arms to their fighters. Amongst the many anti-imperialist heroes who spent time in Algiers during Ben Bella’s presidency were Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and Yassir Arafat.
Nevertheless, lingering rivalry from the years of struggle against the French and accusations of autocratic and corrupt rule led to Ben Bella’s ouster by his own defense minister, Houari Boumediene in June 1965. Held under house arrest until 1980, he then lived in exile in several European countries before returning to Algeria and being pardoned by Boumediene’s successor in 1990.
Ben Bella then led a small political party he formed, but it did not fare well in elections. Nonetheless, he was recognized as an elder statesman in his final years, particularly in Africa and the Arab world. While he no longer advocated socialism, he remained committed to the anti-imperialist politics of his youth and he spoke eloquently about the plight of Palestinians and other oppressed peoples.
As Vijay Prashad, professor of International Studies at Trinity College and author of The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third Word, explained to People’s World, “Ben Bella moved from Marxism to an Arab-Islamism, but what remained intact was his fierce radicalism and patriotism.”
According to one Algerian academic, “The death of [Ben Bella] was unnoticed by ordinary people. . . Maybe nobody knows him, especially the new generations, because those who have been ruling the country did not want people to know who Ben Bella really was.”
Another Algerian scholar declared: “No one can deny Ben Bella’s key contribution to Algeria’s independence and his exemplary anti-colonial struggle owed him worldwide fame. Algerians were deeply saddened by the news of Ben Bella’s passing.”
Indeed, Algeria declared eight days of mourning following his death. And tributes from governments, (including the United States) political parties, and organizations around the world were issued to Ben Bella, who was, in the words of Prashad, the “guts and inspiration” of the Algerian Revolution.
Photo: Ahmed Ben Bella Ahmed Ben Bella, the first president of independent Algeria, waves to crowds in Algiers in 1965. (AP)