Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire, at the MECAWI office in Detroit, on March 15, 2008, right before the downtown demonstration against the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war. (Photo: Alan Pollock)., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Ahmed Ben Bella Inspired Millions Around the World
Algerian leader made monumental contributions to the African Revolution
By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
Ahmed Ben Bella, 95, passed away on April 11 leaving a legacy of struggle for national independence, state building and democratic processes in the 20th and 21stcenturies. His name became legendary during the 1950s when he and other Algerians initiated the movement aimed at liberating the country from French imperialism.
His death comes on the eve of national elections scheduled for May 10 in this North African state which is rich in both oil and natural gas. The country has played a significant role in the overall post-independence development efforts which seek to transform society from dependency and colonialism to genuine economic independence and national sovereignty.
Ahmed Ben Bella was born on December 25, 1916 to a peasant family in Marnia on Algeria’s border with Morocco. He aspired to achieve a quality education but was a victim of the national discrimination of French colonialism that had ruled Algeria since 1830. Ben Bella was forced to leave school at an early age and later joined the French military in 1937.
During World War II he re-joined the military fighting with the Free French Forces in Italy and was awarded five decorations including the coveted Military Medal. Nonetheless, in the aftermath of the war the promises of freedom made to the colonies by the imperialist-allied states proved to be totally false.
In 1946, in the aftermath of the Setif rebellion of 1945 and its bloody suppression by the French colonialists, he joined the Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties (MTDL), a nationalist party which fielded candidates for the national assembly in Algeria. The following year, 1947, Ben Bella was elected as a municipal councilor for Marnia and in 1948 he ran for the assembly but was impeded by the French colonial authorities from assuming office.
It was the period after World War II that Africa and other regions of the world experienced an upsurge in the national struggle for liberation from colonialism. Oftentimes those soldiers who had fought against fascism in Europe and the South Pacific became the leading forces in the rising consciousness among the masses yearning for freedom and independence.
Therefore with respect to Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella organized a resistance group called the “Special Organization” (SO) following the National Assembly elections of 1947 where the legitimate political aspirations were thwarted by the French. In 1949, the group carried out its first military operation in Oran which led to the arrest of him and other nationalist comrades.
Later in 1952, Ben Bella escaped from prison and fled to Egypt where the Free Officers Movement under Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power from the monarchy and moved the country towards a national democratic revolution. In Cairo, Ben Bella and his compatriots would plan the next phase of the Algerian independence movement forming the National Liberation Front (FLN) in 1954.
In 1954 having exhausted all other means of political activity inside the country, the FLN embarked upon the armed struggle against French imperialism in Algeria. Over a period of two years, 1954-56, Ben Bella traveled extensively throughout North Africa organizing operations and supplying arms to the National Liberation Army (ALN).
On August 20, 1956, an historic conference was held at Soumman. The FLN sought additional assistance from the governments in Morocco and Tunisia aimed at accelerating the struggle for independence. In the aftermath of the conference, a plane carrying Ben Bella and other leaders was forced down in a flight from Rabat to Tunis by the French military and the entire leadership aboard were captured and imprisoned.
Ben Bella would spend the next six years in a French prison while the armed struggle for liberation reached unprecedented heights. During his prison years he read avidly and developed a coherent political ideology that would guide the independence struggle towards victory in 1962.
French reprisals toward the Algerian people were genocidal in character. It is estimated that a million people died during the armed struggle between 1954-1961.
Algeria and the African Revolution
Algeria was not alone in its struggle for national independence. In Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast, the ex-servicemen’s demonstration was attacked in 1948 ushering in a more militant era in the struggle for liberation from British imperialism.
Kwame Nkrumah returned to the Gold Coast in late 1947 as an organizer for the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC). In 1948 Nkrumah formed the Committee on Youth Organization (CYO) and founded the Evening News daily journal, both of which were militant in character.
Frustrated with the moderate line of the UGCC, Nkrumah’s followers among the youth, workers and women demanded that he form his own organization to lead the movement. On June 12, 1949, the Convention People’s Party (CPP) was initiated with 60,000 people in attendance at its first rally in Accra.
After a general strike in 1950, Nkrumah was jailed by the British for one year. While inside detention, the CPP continued to organize and entered the legislative elections of 1951 winning broad support prompting the release of Nkrumah and his appointment as Leader of Government Business.
By 1957 Ghana would gain independence and become the focal point of the African Revolution aimed at liberating the entire continent and building socialism. In December 1958, the First All-African People’s Conference (AAPC) was convened in Accra enjoying the participation of 62 nationalist organizations from throughout the continent.
Frantz Fanon, a French-trained psychiatrist and veteran of the Second World War, fought also during the imperialist war. He took an assignment with the French Overseas Service to work as a medical doctor in Algeria and would soon join the FLN as a committed militant and journalist.
In December 1958, Fanon was sent to Accra as a delegate for the FLN to the AAPC. Along with other militants from throughout the African continent deeper political ties were formed that would accelerate the national liberation movement against colonialism.
Fanon wrote in El Moudjahid, No. 34 of December 24, 1958 that “We have discovered in Accra that the great figures of the Algerian Revolution—Ben Bella, Ben M’Hidi, Djamila Bouhired—have become a part of the epic of Africa. A special place has been made for several members of our delegation.” (Toward the African Revolution, Fanon, p. 150)
He went on to note that “One of us has been on the Steering Committee of the Congress and all the others were elected by acclamation to the chairmanship or the vice-chairmanship of the various committees.”
Fanon continued with a very important observation saying “Such unanimity with respect to fighting Algeria has manifestly displeased the colonialists, who like to think that the struggle of the Algerian people has awakened no echo among the men and women of Africa south of the Sahara. In reality, the Algerian Revolution has never been so acutely and so substantially present as in this region of Africa; whether among the Senegalese, the Cameroonians, or the South Africans, it was easy to recognize the existence of a fundamental solidarity of these peoples with the struggle of the Algerian people, its methods, and its objectives.”
In relationship to the newly-independent Guinea-Conakry, then under the leadership of the Democratic Party of Guinea and its Secretary General, Ahmed Sekou Toure, there was strong affinity between the struggle there and the ongoing battles in Algeria. Guinea had stood up to French imperialism on September 28 of that same year, by voting to reject a neo-colonial scheme of Charles de Gaulle and opt instead for full independence on October 2.
Ghana came to the rescue of Guinea after the French withdrew all technical support leaving the country administratively stranded. Nkrumah’s government loaned Guinea $25 million enabling it to continue with its revolutionary process.
In the same article Fanon said of the Guineans that “Guinea was likewise applauded, but was particularly applauded as being the first important consequence of the Franco-Algerian conflict. The comrade ministers of Guinea present at the Conference have asked us to communicate to our government the deep gratitude of the Guinean people to fighting Algeria.”
In March 1960 Fanon was appointed to Ghana as a representative of the FLN and the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA). At this time the armed struggle inside the country was being strangled by the deployment of French troops and the capture and mass killings of the revolutionary leadership.
Col. Amirouche of the Wilaya III was sent to Tunis to explain the situation and was intercepted and killed by the French colonialists. While in Ghana, Fanon worked to open up the southern frontier through Mali then under the leadership of Modibo Keita, an ally of Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana.
According to Fanon, “He made contact with the Mali authorities and communicated his suggestions to the Algerian leaders who decided to set up a third base south of the Sahara for the shipment of arms to Wilayas I and V.” By 1961 the French imperialists were exhausted and Algeria would become an independent state in 1962.
Algerian Independence and the Fall of Ben Bella
After Algerian independence that grew out of the settlement at Evian, factionalism would arise inside the new state commandeered by the FLN. Ben Bella’s stature would reach mythic proportions throughout Africa and the world.
In 1962, Ben Bella visited Washington and Havana for meetings with President John F. Kennedy at the White House and later in Cuba with Prime Minister Fidel Castro and Minister of Economic Planning Che Guevara. He pointed out later in an interview with Le Monde Diplomatique that Kennedy attempted to dissuade him from visiting Cuba.
Upon his arrival in Havana, Ben Bella spoke of the organic solidarity between Cuba and Algeria. This would prove crucial to the crisis that developed in October 1963 when Moroccan armed forces attacked Algeria.
Ben Bella notes in this interview that “Our young army, fresh from a war of liberation, had no air cover or armored transport…. The Egyptian president, Abdel Nasser, quickly provided us with air cover we lacked, and Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Raul Castro and the other Cuban leaders sent us a battalion of 22 tanks and several hundred troops.”
The interview continued asserting that “The United States was clearly behind the Tindouf campaign (Morocco invasion). We knew that the helicopters transporting the Moroccan troops were piloted by Americans. The same considerations of international solidarity subsequently led the Cubans to intervene on the other side of the Atlantic, in Angola, and elsewhere.”
This was a tremendous act of international solidarity and Pan-Africanism in defense of the Algerian Revolution in 1963. The previous year in 1962, it was the Algerian government that hosted African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela who visited to consult over the question of armed struggle in South Africa. Mandela was imprisoned after returning to South Africa to intensify the revolutionary underground and would remain a political prisoner until a movement of millions inside the country and throughout world brought about his release in February 1990.
Nonetheless, the factional struggles inside the FLN would bring about a coup against Ben Bella in June 1965. Conflicts between the political and military wings of the FLN erupted when Col. Houari Boumediene overthrew Ben Bella and held him in detention until 1980.
Between 1980 and 1990 Ben Bella was exile in Switzerland and France. He returned to the country in 1990.
In 1992, the national elections were held in which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was thought to have been the winners. The nullification of the results led to a civil war over the following eight years.
Ben Bella continued his activism in politics leading the Algerian Democratic Movement that participated in talks to end the civil war in 1994-95. He continued to be an outspoken critic of the Algerian government.
In 1991 Ben Bella opposed the United States led war against Iraq. He maintained a critical view towards Washington and became a respected elder within the former presidents of African states.
Algeria and Pan-Africanism
The internal struggles within the FLN derived from differences in personality, style of work and political orientation. Despite the demise of Ben Bella’s presidency in June 1965, Algeria continued to play a progressive role in Africa.
In 1967, a plane carrying the hated Moise Tshombe of Congo, who was implicated in the overthrow and murder of Patrice Lumumba in 1960-61, was hijacked to Algeria. Tshombe was imprisoned in Algeria and died there in 1969.
During that same year, two significant developments took place at the aegis of the Algerian government. A Pan-African Cultural Festival was held in Algiers for the entire month of August.
The Pan-African Cultural Festival attracted thousands from throughout Africa and the African Diaspora. Figures from the United States such as Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Hoyt Fuller and others attended.
As an act of profound solidarity, the Algerian government offered the Black Panther Party, then under extreme repression by the Nixon administration in the U.S., to establish an international headquarters in Algiers. The office was set up under the leadership of exiled Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver who remained in Algeria until 1972 when differences between his faction of the-then fractured Panther organization left the country as a result of a dispute with the Algerian authorities.
Algeria opposed the U.S. war against Iraq in 1990-91. It also criticized the invasion by the U.S. of Iraq in 2003.
In 2011, Algeria would not go along with the U.S.-NATO war against Libya. The country has accepted members of the former government and family of the late Col. Muammar Gaddafi.
With the current conflict in Mali, Algeria has maintained that the territorial integrity of its neighbor must be respected by the Tuareg secessionists and all outside forces.
The upcoming May 10 elections are significant for the country. Its wealth in oil and natural gas makes it one of the most significant states on the continent of Africa as well as throughout the entire Middle East region.
Ben Bella In History
The life of Ahmed Ben Bella will be studied even more thoroughly in the aftermath of his death. Lessons of the armed struggle against colonialism, the need for national unity and Pan-Africanism on the continent are important issues that remain relevant to the contemporary struggle against increasing U.S. and NATO aggression in Africa.
Inheriting a colonial state after 130 years of colonialism and attempting to foster development is a formidable task and provides lessons to other African states and developing regions throughout the world. Ongoing class antagonisms and the requirements of building a socialist society to ensure national development poses serious challenges to the peoples of Africa during the early decades of the 21st century.
Nevertheless, the mounting world capitalist crisis illustrates clearly that imperialism provides no solutions to the problems of unemployment, poverty, permanent war, debt slavery and environmental destruction. Only the development of a society devoid of exploitation and oppression can create the conditions for genuine equality and self-determination in Africa and throughout the world.