Ahmed Ben Bella’s intelligence, ambition and love of his country marked him as a natural leader. Born on 25 December 1918 in the Algerian town of Marnia to Moroccan parents, he showed promise from a young age.
Ben Bella’s father believed the same and moved his birth year to 1916 so that he could leave school early and begin work on the family’s farm and later qualify prematurely for military service. Deployed to Marseille in 1936 for the Second World War he served with distinction and was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
His talents on the football pitch whilst in Marseille earned him further recognition but he declined an offer to play professionally and instead returned to Algeria where he joined a Moroccan regiment fighting with the Free French movement, which was led by Charles de Gaulle and fought in exile against the Axis powers.
As Europe celebrated the end of the war on 8 May 1945, 4,000 Algerians joined an anti-colonial demonstration in the city of Sétif against the French, who had ruled Algeria since 1830. But in the following days colonial forces massacred thousands of Algerians. For Ben Bella this was a turning point – achieving independence would become his main goal.
Returning to his home town Ben Bella was elected town councillor and later joined the Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties (MTLD) led by the father of Algeria’s nationalism, Messali Hadj.
The French saw Ben Bella’s vision as a threat and in 1949 he was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for robbing the main post office in Oran to raise funds for the movement’s paramilitary wing. His sentence was cut short two years later when he managed to escape using tools smuggled in a loaf of bread.
From his exile in Cairo Ben Bella began to form the beginning of Algeria’s war for independence. He and nine members of the Revolutionary Committee of Unity and Action established the National Liberation Front (FLN) to organise an armed insurgency against the French, which began on 1 November 1954.
Ben Bella coordinated arms to be delivered to Algeria and was appointed vice-chairman of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA). He narrowly missed two assassination attempts on his life in Cairo and Tripoli, Libya. On 22 October 1956 the French finally managed to trap their most wanted and diverted a plane Ben Bella was flying on with other members of the FLN.
Held in France for the next five and a half years, Ben Bella was treated as a valuable asset for the French in negotiating a peace deal with the GPRA. By 1961 he was in a key position to negotiate independence with the fatigued French and in 1962, when the Evian Accords were signed, Ben Bella returned to an independent Algeria and became the first president of the Democratic People’s Republic of Algeria in 1963.
Ben Bella promised to transform Algeria into a non-aligned secular socialist republic; “Castro is my brother, Nasser is my teacher, Tito is my example”, he would often say. But his ambitions often met obstacles. He launched an ambitious but economically disastrous land-reform programme based on peasant self-management.
Ben Bella’s strong anti-imperialist and pan-Arabist stance paved the way for strong alliances in the Arab world and beyond. In an attempt to Arabise the education system he turned to the strong pan-Arab nations of Egypt and Syria and visited Cuba to hold discussions with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
However his leadership became autocratic and the FLN grew unpopular. As he undertook extreme measures the tide began to turn against Ben Bella. Opposition parties the Algerian Communist Party and the Party of Socialist Revolution were banned and the leader of an unsuccessful coup, Mohamed Chabani, was executed.
“Ben Bella always wanted his teammates to pass the ball so that he could score”, a former schoolmate said of him. “He was the same in politics.”
His own personality cult alienated many former comrades – army strongman Houari Boumediene was one of them. Ben Bella once jokingly introduced Boumedienne at an official lunch as “the man who is plotting to overthrow me”. He later asked, “How are your intrigues going?” to which Boumedienne reportedly replied, “very well, thank you”.
On 19 June 1965 Boumedienne succeeded in overthrowing Ben Bella who was placed under strict house arrest until Boumedienne’s death 14 years later.
His mother saw marriage as a way for him to escape his solitude and arranged a marriage with a young female revolutionary, Zohra Sellami, in 1971. After Boumedienne’s death Ben Bella and his family moved to Spain and then Switzerland where he networked with other exiled compatriots and international sympathisers and tried to maintain his political relevance.
He launched the Movement for Democracy in Algeria (MDA) in Switzerland in 1984. “My life is a life of combat”, he told an interviewer in his last years. “It is a combat that started for me at the age of 16. I’m 90 years old now, and my motivation hasn’t changed; it’s the same fervour that drives me.”
Six years later he set off for Algeria expecting crowds to greet their old war time hero. Instead he was met with silence at the empty docks – the new government had succeeded in removing his name from history.
An Arab nationalist who saw the rise of radical Islam as a “misreading of the Qur’an”, Ben Bella spent the last two decades of his life travelling between Switzerland and Algeria, campaigning against imperialism from the “globalisation of poverty” to the 2003 war in Iraq.
Over the years his stance mellowed, and eventually was invited to state functions by the fifth President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and given a generous pension and a residence in Algiers.
Ben Bella died on 11 April 2012 at the age of 95 and in a last farewell to a man so vital to Algeria’s independence movement and its post-colonial transition was afforded a state funeral.