Friday, April 13, 2012

Algerian Independence Leader Ben Bella Dies at 95

Ben Bella — Algeria’s voice of conscience

April 13, 2012

THE first president of independent Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella, who died on Wednesday aged 95, did not remain long in office once he had achieved success in his fight against colonialism. However, after the long period of imprisonment and exile that followed his overthrow, he re-emerged in the 1990s as his country’s voice of conscience.

Absorbed as a colony in 1847, Algeria was long regarded as part of metropolitan France. Ben Bella had been decorated for bravery by General Charles de Gaulle during the Second World War. Yet Algerians were excluded from French politics, and any nationalist protest was stamped upon.

Born into a family of mountain peasants in Maghnia, on the Algeria-Morocco border, on Dec 25, 1916, Ben Bella joined the nationalist Parti du Peuple Algerian when he was 15. His political life began in earnest against the background of the French massacre of Algerian protesters at Setif on VE Day 1945.

In 1947 he and Hocine Ait Ahmed launched the secret paramilitary Organisation Speciale (OS) with the aim of overthrowing the French. They raided a post office in Oran for funds in 1949, but Ben Bella was jailed and the OS crushed. He escaped in 1952 after sawing through his cell bars, and eventually found refuge in Cairo.

There, in March 1954, Ben Bella and eight other Algerian revolutionary leaders created the National Liberation Front (FLN). They
maintained that “the only negotiation is war”, and seven years of conflict ensued.

For two years Ben Bella shuttled between Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, acquiring weapons and sending orders to fighters in the field. In October 1956 French agents captured him and four colleagues on board an airliner flying to Tunis, and detained them in France. The resultant schism between these external leaders and the local resistance was to blight Ben Bella’s short presidency.

Released from prison in France in March 1962, after the Evian agreement between France and the provisional government of Algeria had ended the war, Ben Bella was elected president in September 1963. That year he passed Algeria’s first constitution, encouraged the creation of Sonatrach, Algeria’s national oil and gas conglomerate, and built schools for thousands of former shoeshine boys.

Yet public disillusion set in when Ben Bella began mismanaging the country. He spurned the FLN tradition of collective leadership by interfering in the jurisdiction of ministers and redistributing land through a corrupt bureaucracy, forcing out former allies one by one.

Backed by Houari Boumediene’s force of 70,000 ‘external’ FLN troops, he ousted Algeria’s provisional prime minister, Ben Youssef Ben Khedda.

In April 1963, Vice President Rabah Bitat resigned after accusing Ben Bella of betraying socialist principles, but soon went into exile.

Another ex-comrade, Ait Ahmed, launched a rebellion in September 1963.

Boumediene unseated Ben Bella in June 1965, as the president tried to open negotiations with the rebels. European sympathisers detected the CIA’s hand at work. Ben Bella was initially held incommunicado, but later put under house arrest. He married Zahra Sellami, a journalist who had come to interview him. The couple drew closer to Islam. While condemning the violent excesses of the Islamists, Ben Bella saw Muslim values as the surest guarantee of rights in Algeria.Ben Bella was freed in July 1979, soon after Boumediene died.

He moved to France in 1980, but in 1983 was expelled and went to Lausanne, Switzerland. There he launched Le Mouvement pour la Democratie en Algerie (MDA) in May 1984, returning to Algeria in September 1990 to contest the nation’s first multi-party elections.

The MDA portrayed itself as an alternative to the Islamist FIS and ruling FLN, but did poorly at the polls. A military council cancelled the electoral process after dramatic FIS successes and assumed power in January 1992. Ben Bella spearheaded the Rome Platform for restoring Algerian democracy in January 1995.

His party boycotted the November 1996 constitutional referendum and was banned in 1997. Ben Bella led campaigns in support of the Palestinian cause and against the US foreign policy. However, his support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 sat uncomfortably with his belief in the inviolable rights of sovereign states.

And Berbers in Algeria were unhappy about his pan-Arabism. With Zahra he had adopted two daughters, Mahdiya and Nourriya.

By arrangement with the Guardian

Recollections of an Algerian coup Gloria Meltzer

April 13, 2012 - 4:04PM
Gloria Meltzer

(As a young Australian woman living and working in Algiers in 1965, I was privy to a country that had recently fought its war of independence from France and was only just emerging from years of colonial rule. And then a coup d'etat occurred. Overnight I and my work colleagues became persona non grata. I remember the day I met the president, Ahmed Ben Bella, who died last week, aged 93.)

ODD sounds in the night. Like bullets stinging the dark humid air. Machine gun fire?

Strange bursts, then silence. An occasional human cry. A flare of lights flashing over the waters. A night that seemed noisier than usual.

Curled in a tight feotal ball on my bed I actually got up once and peeked between the wooden lattices of the French doors, peering out across my tiny balcony at the sleeping town of Algiers nestling in a valley of steep steps and shrubs. All seemed still. Peaceful. As usual. I returned to bed and slept blissfully.

Dawn brought a confusion of young voices, footsteps running up and down corridors, chattering in French, Italian, Spanish, Swahili. And English. Strangely, no Arabic though. Where were our Algerian friends who inhabited the lower levels of our apartment block? We looked through windows at rooms that had been deserted. Hastily it would seem. As though they had gone into hiding, which apparently they had. Only we didn't know it then.

Rumours were flying. Phrases like civil war, coup, coup d'etat, counter-revolution, filled the air, frothed from mouths. Spilling into the silence of the morn. Hanging heavy with pained surprise. Fear. Turmoil. Confusion reigned.

We ate and dressed and set off on our usual bus route to the city center. The city of Algiers, squatting in ancient reverie upon the waters of time. Alert now with khaki-clad soldiers sporting machine guns. Young boys jauntily swinging their rifle butts upon youthful shoulders. Considering themselves men. To be manly. Rows of militia lining the footpath with guns poised at us, the passers-by.

Fleeing briefly with the crowds that spilled into 'la grande poste', the central post office, where a demonstration of women and children was being quelled by stained water spraying from huge hoses. Doused in the pink tainted waters we too hid in the post office.

The women bravely chanted, 'Ahmed, Ben Bella, Ahmed, Ben Bella.' Where was Ben Bella we wondered! President of post-colonial Algeria. Hero of the revolution. The man who had gone to prison, suffered hunger strikes, fought for 'liberation, independence.' Ousted the French colonialists. Now he had been overthrown in the fickle manner of all who revere demi-gods then smash them from their pedestals. The army had replaced him with another leader. A soldier. Colonel Boumedienne.

We reached our offices to discover that there too our Arab friends of yesterday had disappeared, gone underground. A temporary precautionary measure, we were told. Biding their time until the coup revealed its intentions. Was it a 'rightest' or a 'leftist' overthrow? Time revealed minimal changes. Ben Bella and his particular path to socialism now considered the enemy. Or the victim! Now a straighter centrist path was to be forged.

And what of us? We, the youth of the world who had worked here for several months, in preparation for an international youth festival to promote world peace. We had come from Africa, South America, East and West Europe, Australia. In the current confusion of the coup we became persona non grata. In the ensuing days we would have to pack our bags and depart from the land of Mecca and mosques.

For months we had roamed the towns, cities, deserts. Tours to Oman, Constantine. To the Roman ruins of Djemilia and Cherchell. Picking dates, ripe and raw, sucking at their stones, licking the vines with our tongues. We'd scoured the markets, the casbahs, the curio shops. Eaten cous cous. Drunk French wines. Danced in the shadow of the Chrea mountain. Swum at the beaches of Zarelda.

We had been the guests of the Minister of Youth and Sport, and stayed at the home of the Mayor of Miliana during this hill town's annual cherry festival. Miliana, a mountain village. The entire town bedecked in festive regalia. Every shop, every street lined with baskets of enormous rosy red cherries, bright flowers and huge cherry floats. A carnival atmosphere. A cherry fete. Ben Bella had refused money to the Minister when he wished to develop Miliana as a tourist resort, believing such development would destroy the town's natural beauty.

Along with our Algerian comrades we had donned work clothes and become 'Sunday Socialists', each Sunday taking spades, hammers, wheelbarrows, assisting with the construction of a sports stadium. Giving vent to our collective idealism, a union of intellect and manual labour. Working alongside Czechs, Finns, Cubans, Russians, Angolans, Sudanese and Algerians. Giving tangible spirit to beliefs still naïve and raw. Still aglow with the fervour of youth. Of innocence.

We lined the city streets, dancing and prancing to the gaiety of 'le premier mai', the May Day parade, an enchanting pageant splashed with the colours of the dance and the dress of each folkloric region of the country.

And we had stood midst the crowds in those same streets to hail a welcome to Valentina Tereshkova, Russia's and the world's first woman cosmanaut. And part of the parade that welcomed China's Premier Chou-en-lai. In those days Algeria was wooing both sides of the Sino-Soviet split.

This was the purported reason for the coup, so some believed. You can't court two enemies. You must choose. The Chinese or the Russian path to socialism! Ben Bella was supposedly ousted for attempting to court both. He spent the ensuing decade under house arrest somewhere in the Sahara. Ahmed Ben Bella. He cut an impressive figure – tall, good-looking, boyish, gentle. He had come once to our offices to meet us, to shake our hand, to wish us well.

The day after the coup we visited the headquarters of the Algerian youth movement. The huge noticeboard in the foyer that had depicted photos of their leader on his 'Sunday Socialist' jaunts among the people, were now suddenly, quietly erased. The board empty. Cleared of the memorabilia of three years of independence from their former French masters.

Under escort we were taken to the airport and put on planes to Paris. We had no time to farewell the deserts, the casbahs, the land of the Koran. Nor say goodbye to Boudjema, Jemahl, or any of our other Algerian friends and acquaintances. Coup de'etats abruptly replace one leader with another.

Read more:

No comments: