Ben Bella, Algeria’s Charismatic Freedom Fighter

African Update – 07/06/12

In this article, Stephen Atalebe pays tribute to the Algerian Charismatic Freedom Fighter Ahmed Ben Bella who died on 11 April 2012. He was the only remaining founding fathers of the Organisation for African Unity and was one of the continent’s most respected anti-colonialists. On May 1963 in Addis Ababa, he was the one who bravely declared that Africa’s liberation was something that we should all “die a little or even completely” to attain.

He was born in Maghnia, western Algeria, to a Sufi Muslim family who originally came from Morocco and attended school in Tlemcen. During this time, Algeria was under French rule and Ben Bella was mostly troubled by the discrimination towards Muslims by his European teacher, as a result he failed his brevet exams and later left school altogether.

However, he opted to volunteer in the French Army which was one of the few paths for advancement for Algerian Muslims during colonial rule. He was posted to Marseille and instead became a footballer and played center mid-field for Olympique de Marseille in 1939 to 1940. In 1940, he enlisted in the French Army again and was awarded the Croix de querre and later disbanded after France fell to Germany. He however joined a regiment of Moroccan infantry to support the Italian campaign. He was later promoted to the rank of warrant officer and received a medal for bravery at Monte Cassino from Charles de Gaulle.

When he was appointed as an Officer’s Commissioner, he refused to accept the offer after learning of the harsh French repression after a Muslim uprising in the Algerian town of Setif, 200 miles east of Algiers, in May 1945. The people of Setif staged an anti-colonial protest march which later turned violent leading to the death of French settlers. French soldiers and vigilante groups exacted revenge killing as many as 10,000 Algerians. There and then Ben Bella ended his army career and pledged himself to a new cause - independence of his homeland.

He became the founding member of the Special Organisation which was an underground movement pledged to fight colonial rule in all its forms. He was arrested in 1951 and sentenced to 8 years behind bars at the Blida Prison where he managed to escape to Tunisia and then to Egypt. In Egypt, he was received by Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt who gave him not only material and emotional support but also political support for the Algerian independence movement. This goodwill from Abdel Nasser would later cause France to attack Egypt in the Suez crisis of 1956.

In Cairo, he became one of the nine members of the Revolutionary Committee of Unity and Action  of the Front for National Liberation (FLN). During this time also was the outbreak of the Algerian War in 1954. When the airplane that he was in was controversially intercepted and brought to France in 1956, Ben Bella was arrested at the airport. Even while he was still in prison, Ben Bella was elected vice-premier of the Algerian Provisional government. On 30 April 1964, he was awarded the title Hero of Soviet Union for his bravery in opposing and resisting French repression and brutalities.

When the French eventually gave up and Algeria gained independence, Ben Bella soon became very popular creating rivals because he openly opposed the leadership of Benyoucef Benkhedda. But it was not until 1963 that he elected President of Algeria. When Morocco invaded Algeria in the Sand War, Ben Bella led Algeria in a costly defense and was able to stabilise his country. He embarked on a series of land reforms which made him become so popular among the landless class but also made enemies as a result. His policies of Autogestion or Self-management led to the seizures of lands illegally acquired by French farmers and settlers during the colonial era. The French government did not take this lightly and started working closely with army strongman and close friend Houari Boumedienne who evenly deposed Ben Bella in a coup in 1965. Ben Bella was placed under house arrest until 1980 when he was granted exile to Switzerland where he stayed for 10 years until he was allowed to return home in 1990.

He was elected president of the International Campaign Against Aggression on Iraq and also became the chairperson of the African Union Panel of the Wise which is required to advise the AU Commission on issues related to conflict prevention, management and resolution together with ex-President Miguel Trovoada of Sao Tome and Principe, Dr. Salim A. Salim former Secretary-General of the OAU; Dr. Brigalia Bam Chair of South Africa's Electoral Commission; and Elisabeth Pognon former President of the Constitutional Court of Benin.

Ben Bella died on 11 April 2012 at his family home in Algiers, capital of Algeria. Eight days of national mourning was declared in Algeria.

His memories will continue to inspire African people to fight all forms of discrimination and aggression whether from within Africa or anywhere else in the world where African people are found.

Author: Stephen Atalebe, African student of Economics, Mendel University Brno, Czech Republic

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Our library has aquired a number of new and interesting books. Here is the list of the latest titles.

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  • Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Robinson, James A., Acemoglu, Daron
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  • Children in Slavery through the Ages by by Gwyn CampbellSuzanne MiersJoseph C. Miller
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  • Women and Slavery, Vol. 2: The Modern Atlantic by Gwyn Campbell
  • Cahier d'un Retour Au Pays Natal by Aimé Cesaire
  • Healing Traditions: African Medicine, Cultural Exchange and Competition in South Africa, 1820-1948 by Karen Elizabeth  Flint
  • Global Education Policy and International Development: New Agendas, Issues and Policies by Antoni Verger
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