Biography of the Week: Ahmed Ben Bella

Ahmed Ben Bella is a Pan-Africanist and nationalist leader of Algeria. He was one of the first to take up the armed struggle against French colonial rule. He became the first president of Algeria in 1963 and was deposed by military coup in 1965.

Date of Birth: 25 December 1918, Marnia (now Maghnia), Algeria
Date of death: 11 April 2012, Algiers, Algeria

Early Life

Ahmed Ben Bella was born in Marnia, in the French department of Oran, Algeria, next to the border with Morocco. At the time Algeria was a French colony with over 1 million French settlers and a government which discriminated against the country's indigenous Mulsim population.

Ben Bella was one of seven children born to an Algerian farmer and small trader. The family were Sufi Muslims. He initially attended a local French school, then continued his secondary level education in Tlemcen, where he first became aware of racial discrimination (teaching was excessively Eurocentric). He also became aware of the burgeoning nationalist movement in Algeria -- as typified by the Parti du Peuple Algérien (PPA, Algerian People's Party) which was heavily persecuted by the settler authorities.

Military Service

Ben Bella left school without a qualification in 1937 and was swiftly conscripted into the French army. He was posted to Marseille and placed in an Alpine infantry regiment which had both French and Algerian conscripts. He excelled and was soon made a sergeant. He also played mid-field for the local football club, Olympique de Marseille. When Germany invaded France (WWII) he with the army, was mentioned several times in dispatches, and in 1940 was awarded the Criox de Guerre (War Cross).

Demobilized after the fall of France, Ben Bella was invited to stay in Marseille to play professional football, but he decided instead to return to Algeria and run the family farm.

Ben Bella was recalled into military service in 1943 and assigned to an Algerian regiment, but his outspoken opposition to the discrimination against Algerian soldiers by French officers got him transferred to a regiment of Moroccan tirailleurs. He saw action in the Italian campaign with the Free French forces and took part in the liberation of Rome. By 1944 he had risen to sergeant-major and been awarded the Médaille Militaire (Military Medal) by Charles de Gaulle.

The Struggle for Algerian Independence

In 1945, Ben Bella heard of the uprisings in Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata and the subsequent reprisals by French settler authorities which resulted in the deaths of several thousand Algerian Muslims. He determined to return to Algeria and work for the nationalist cause. Returning to Marnia he took up the position of town councilor and resumed his nationalistic activities. He also joined the main Algerian nationalist party, Messali Hadj's Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques (MTLD, Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties) which had replaced the now outlawed PPA. When the French authorities confiscated his farm he relocated to Algiers, went underground as one of Messali Hadj's 'Young Turks'.

When Marcel-Edmond Naegelen was elected as Governor-General of Algeria in 1948, all pretense of achieving a democratically elected independent government disappeared. With the backing of Messali Hadj's party, Ben Bella founded the Organisation Spéciale (OS, Special Organization) -- paramilitary organization with the aim of starting an armed struggle against French rule.

In 1950 Ben Bella was part of group which robbed the main post office in Oran - ostensibly to obtain funds for the nationalist movement. Ben Bella was caught and sentenced to eight years imprisonment, but he escaped from Blida prison after serving only two years. He fled first to France and then to Egypt, where he re-established the OS with Egyptian help (including that of Gamel Abdel Nassser).

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