By Martin Evans
Ahmed Ben Bella was born in Marnia, near the Algerian-Moroccan border, although some doubt remains about whether the year of his birth was 1916 or 1918. One of five brothers of a farmer; in sociological terms Ben Bella’s family was part of the countryside elite that had been impoverished by French colonialism. From these rural roots Ben Bella rose to become the first post-Independence President of Algeria in 1963 and, until his overthrow in June 1965, one of the most famous leaders of the third world revolutionary movement that took off across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Unlike the mass of Algerians under the colonial system, Ben Bella attended primary school and secondary school. However, when he dropped out of the education system, he, like many other compatriots, saw the French Army as one of the only avenues out of grinding poverty, joining up in 1936. Enlistment gave him the opportunity to hone his considerable football skills and while stationed in Marseille he briefly played as a midfielder for Olympique de Marseille in 1939-40. During World War Two Ben Bella proved himself to be an outstanding soldier twice. In the 1940 campaign he was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Then, during the Italian campaign from September 1943 to May 1945, he was promoted to the rank of warrant officer, receiving the Médaille militaire from de Gaulle himself for bravery at Monte Cassino.
But, as Ben Bella fought to liberate Europe from Nazism, violence gripped Algeria. On 8 May 1945 at Sétif in the east of the country, a nationalist demonstration turned nasty, leading to the death of twenty-one European settlers. As the surrounding countryside witnessed further anti-European violence, the French response was brutal. The Foreign Legion, back up by air and sea power, combed the area for nationalists and the death toll was anywhere between 7,000 and 20,000. Ben Bella was horrified. Sétif was a politicising moment that made him into a militant anti-colonialist.
Within the Algerian nationalist movement, Ben Bella joined the paramilitary wing — the Organisation Spéciale — which was committed to the armed struggle. In 1949 he led a raid on the Oran Post Office before being arrested in 1951 and sentenced to an eight-year prison sentence. Shortly after, he escaped to Cairo, where, at the hub of the plans for armed insurrection, he became one of the ‘historic leaders’ of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). It was the FLN that launched a liberation war against French rule on 1 November 1954.
On 22 October 1956, he and other FLN leaders, flying from Morocco to Tunisia, were captured when their plane was forced to land in Algeria by the French Air Force: the first ever aeroplane hijack in history. Imprisoned until independence in July 1962, upon his release Ben Bella still saw himself as the custodian of the revolution. Accusing the Provisional Government of selling out to the French in the peace negotiations, he sided with army of the frontiers led by Houari Boumediène; an alliance that brought him to power in September 1962.
Ben Bella had ambitious plans for the Algeria. He wanted the country to become the leader of the third world. Yet, in practice, the country slid into chaos and in June 1965 he was overthrown by Boumediène. Ben Bella spent fifteen years in an Algerian jail before being released in 1980, shortly after Boumediène’s death.
Once free, Ben Bella veered in different political directions. An enthusiast for the Iranian revolution, he also became an outspoken supporter of Saddam Hussein, even calling in 1991 for Algerian volunteers to defend Iraq against Western Imperialism. In 1990 he returned to Algeria in the hope of igniting a new generation disaffected by the failures of post-independence. But a political comeback never materialised. For this new generation he was seen as a distant figure, too far removed from their harsh day-to-day realities to have a meaningful political message.
25 December 1918 – 11 April 2012
Martin Evans is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Portsmouth. He is the author of Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, Memory of Resistance: French Opposition to the Algerian War (1997), co-author (with Emmanuel Godin) of France 1815 to 2003 (2004), and co-author (with John Phillips) of Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed (2007). In 2008 Memory of Resistance was translated into French and serialised in the Algerian press. He has written for the Independent, the Times Higher Education Supplement, BBC History Magazine and the Guardian, and is a regular contributor to History Today. In 2007-08 he was a Leverhulme Senior Research Fellow at the British Academy.