“Peace does not include a vendetta; there will be neither winners nor losers”. – Ahmed Ben Bella
Ahmed Ben Bella is remembered as one of the greatest figures in Arab nationalism. As a young boy in school, he was deeply affected by the racial discrimination perpetuated over the indigenous people by the French authorities. He joined the French army and served with distinction during the Second World War. He returned to his homeland, and became a prominent part of Messali Hadj’s underground movement. He became the founder-leader of the Organisation Speciale (OS), which was the military wing of the movement. He was sentenced to eight years in prison for robbing a bank, but managed to escape. While in exile, he founded the National Liberation Front (FLN) which spearheaded the Algeria’s struggle for independence. He was re-arrested and imprisoned for six years. He was appointed vice premier of the provisional government while in prison, and was elected President when Algeria became independent. A socialist, after independence, he followed the policy of autogestion; the peasants were allowed to seize the land owned by the French settlers. He was also obsessed with foreign affairs; his foreign policies were pro-Arab and anti-imperialistic. When opposition to his autocratic rule increased, he imposed one-party rule. He was ousted in a bloodless coup, and for the remainder of his life, played a limited role in Algerian politics.
Childhood & Early Life
Born to Moroccan Sufi Muslim parents, Ben Bella was one of seven siblings. He spent his childhood in Tlemcen, an Algerian city. His father eked out a living as a small-time trade and farmer. He was affected by the racial discrimination perpetuated by the French settlers. He failed his brevet exam, and discontinued his schooling. He joined the French Army in 1936, and was stationed at Marseille. Interestingly, between 1939 and 1940, he played for the French football team Olympique de Marseille as a mid-field, and for IRB Maghnia, an Algerian football club, but rejected offers to be part of either team.
During World War II, he re-enlisted in the French army. When France fell to the German forces, he was discharged. He joined a Moroccan infantry division, and by 1944, he had risen to the position of sergeant-major. In 1945, the punitive action by the French authorities after the uprisings in Setif resulted in the deaths of thousands of Algerian Muslims. This incident made him determined to work for Algeria’s independence. Returning to Marnia, Algeria, he was elected town councilor and joined the Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties (MTLD,) led by Messali Hadj as a smokescreen for the outlawed Algerian People’s Party (PPA). When the French authorities seized his farm in Marnia, he fled to Algiers, and went underground. He refused to bow to the intimidation, and became one of Messali Hadj’s ‘Young Turks’. When Marcel-Edmond Naegelen became Governor-General of Algeria in 1948, following a rigged election, he established the Organisation Speciale (OS, Special Organization) to begin an armed struggle against the French rule. In 1950, he was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for robbing the main post office in Oran, but escaped after two years. He fled to Egypt, where he re-established the OS. In 1954, he, and nine Algerian emigre leaders residing in Egypt met secretly in Switzerland. They decided to establish the National Liberation Front (FLN) and to organize an armed insurrection against the French. Back in Egypt, he coordinated arms supplies arriving from Middle East countries The FLN absorbed almost all of Algeria’s nationalist groups except Messeli Hadj’s, Algerian National Movement (MNA). In 1956, he escaped two attempts on his life. Later that year, while flying for peace negotiations in Rome with the French premier Guy Mollet, his airplane was controversially intercepted and taken to France. Imprisoned from 1956 to 1962, he was appointed vice-chairman of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA). Distanced from FLN’s activities, he escaped being implicated in MNA’s atrocities during the Algerian War. In 1962, the Evian Accords was signed by the French government and the FLN’s GPRA. He was elected the first president of the Democratic People’s Republic of Algeria under a new constitution, the following year. As Algeria’s President in 1963, he aligned with anti-Zionist Arab states, and desired good relations with France. Committed to the Organization of African Unity, he supported nationalist movements in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola. His leadership became autocratic and the FLN became unpopular. Other political parties such as the Algerian Communist Party and the Party of Socialist Revolution were banned. In 1965, he was removed in a bloodless military coup led by Houari Boumedienne, and was put under house arrest. He remained in house arrest until Boumedienne’s death, fourteen years later. He launched the Movement for Democracy in Algeria (MDA), in Switzerland, in 1984. Six years later, he returned to take part in the country’s first multiparty election. His party was eventually banned in 1997, but he continued to be active in Algerian politics. He tried to convince the Islamic Salvation Front to give up violence. He was elected president of the International Campaign Against Aggression on Iraq in Cairo and chaired the African Union Panel of the Wise, which advises on prevention and resolution of conflicts.
As President in 1963, he allocated 1/4th of the budget to education. As for agricultural reforms, he adopted autogestion, or the nationalization (without direct state control) of large farms formerly owned by French settlers. He signed a peace agreement in 1964 that successfully resolved the border dispute between Algeria and Morocco. Morocco had claimed the Tindouf and Bechare regions which were annexed to Algeria by the French.
As a soldier in the French army, in 1940, Ben Bella was awarded the Croix de guerre (War Cross). Four years later, he received the Médaille Militaire (Military Medal) from President de Gaulle. Ahmed Ben Bella, the first president of Algeria, was honored with the title ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ on 30 April 1964. The title was the highest distinction in the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Ahmed Ben Bella married Zohra Sellami, a journalist, in 1971; the two had met when she had visited his home while he was under house arrest. They adopted two daughters, Mehdia and Nouria.He died on 11 April 2012, at the age of 95. On his death, he was accorded a state funeral at El Alia Cemetery. The funeral was attended by the Prime Ministers of Mauritania and Morocco and the Presidents of Sahrawi Republic and Tunisia.