Ahmed Ben Bella – Life and Achievements of Algeria’s First President

Ahmed Ben Bella

Born in the Tlemcen Province of northwestern Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella fought courageously to gain independence for Algeria from France. By so doing, he became Algeria’s first prime minister and later the country’s first elected president. His term at the helm of affairs was characterized by socialist/Marxist ideologies and economic policies. He is, however, credited with the reforming Algeria’s education system.

Quick Facts about Ahmed Ben Bella

Birth Day and PlaceDecember 25, c. 1918; Maghnia, Algeria

Death Day and PlaceApril 11, 2012, Algiers, Algeria

BornAhmed Ben Bella

Number of Siblings6 (4 brothers and 2 sisters)

Education – French school in Maghnia

Military French military (1936 to 1945)

SpouseZhora Sellami (married in 1971)

Children – Mehdia and Nouria (both adopted)

Political Party – Algerian National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale – FLN)

Most famous for – First President of Algeria (1963 – 1965)

Notable achievements – Led Algeria’s fight for independence; first prime minister of Algeria (1962 – 1963); first elected president of Algeria (1963 – 1965)

Ahmed Ben Bella

After a couple of years in office, Ben Bella’s government was overthrown in the bloodless coup of June 1965 by his defense minister, Houari Boumédiène. The deposed president was then placed under house arrest for close to a decade and a half. Up until his death in February 2012, he wielded very minimal impact on the political landscape of Algeria.

Here is everything that you need to know about the life and career of Ahmed Ben Bella, the first president of an independent Algeria.

Early Childhood

Born in Maghnia (along the Algerian-Moroccan border) on December 25, 1918, Ben Bella grew up at a time when France’s grip on Algeria was at its peak. His father was a farmer and a businessman. Three out of his six siblings died at a very young age. For example his oldest brother, fighting for France, succumbed to injuries sustained in the First World War.

After completing a French school in Maghnia, Bella proceeded to study in the city of Tlemcen. Owing to the discrimination that he felt directed towards Muslims, Bella became enamored with socialist and nationalist ideologies while in Tlemcen.

Ben Bella’s time in the French Army

For many Algerians living in pre-colonial Algeria joining the French Army was seen as the best route to climb the social class. Therefore, in 1936, Ben Bella enlisted in the French Army. He found himself stationed at Marseilles, France.

Bella was in action for France during World War II. He fought bravely against the Nazis and even earned enormous praises from his superiors, receiving the “Croix de guerre”.  

Shortly after France went down in 1940 under the might of Nazi Germany, Ben Bella enlisted in the Free French forces. His heroic efforts during the war again earned him a number of medals and promotions in the army.

Anti-colonial sentiments

Europe may have been rejoicing in the summer of 1945 over the fall of Nazism and fascism; however, in Algeria, the atmosphere was very different.

In the eastern Algerian province of Sétif, violent protests had erupted due to what the locals felt were the ills of French colonialism. Soon, the protests spread wide and far into other Algerian cities and provinces. Scores of both Europeans (about 100) and Algerians (about 1,500) died during the protests.

Ben Bella was enraged by the bloodshed and decided to do something about the situation. He joined anti-French colonial movements and radical political groups.

Due to his group’s activities, the French colonial government even tried assassinating him on several occasions. His farmlands and properties in Algeria were confiscated. However, none of that halted him. He went on to form a paramilitary organization called the Organisation Spéciale (OS).

Did you know that the Organisation Spéciale (OS) was a predecessor to the Algerian National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale – FLN)?

Some of the methods used by Ben Bella were very questionable. For example, he and his associates in the Organisation Spéciale (OS) once robbed a bank in Orán under the pretext of raising funds for the Algerian independence struggle. He was apprehended by the authorities and slapped with an eight-year prison sentence in 1951. After spending a brief amount of time in prison, Ben Bella broke himself free from prison and fled to Cairo, Egypt, in 1952.

The Algerian War of Independence

In late autumn of 1954, the Algerian War of Independence (also known as the Algerian War) broke out. The war was mainly inspired by the actions of the National Liberation Front on “All Saints’ Day” (November 1, 1954), which saw several clashes and scores die.

Although Ben Bella was exiled in Cairo at the time, he still played a huge role in the activities of the FLN. He was part to the nine-member Revolutionary Committee of Unity and Action. In that role, he facilitated the shipment of arms into Algeria for the FLN.

It was around this time that Ben Bella developed a big admiration of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Personally describing himself as a “Nasserist”, Ben Bella’s developed close relationship with Egypt. Abdel Nasser was himself a huge financier and supporter of Algeria’s fight for independence.

After about seven years of intense fighting, guerrilla warfare, torture and abuse (on both sides), the Évian Accords of March 1962 was signed. As part of the accords, a referendum was held on July 1, 1962. The vote was close to unanimous as 99.72% of the electorates voted to gain independence from France.

Shortly after the election, an Algerian government was formed under the leadership of Benyoucef Benkhedda. Ben Bella was selected to serve as the vice president of Algeria.

Ben Bella’s Premiership

By early summer of 1962, Bella’s popularity had skyrocketed, allowing him to put up a fierce challenge to Benyoucef Benkhedda’s position as prime minister of Algeria. Bella also had a large following across Algeria and the armed forces.

In September 1962, he won an election and was elected prime minister of Algeria. That same year, he helped secure Algeria’s admission into the United Nations.

During his premiership, he used his office to encourage the seizures of properties and lands that belonged to supporters of France. He even went to the extent of nationalizing all assets and businesses owned by Europeans. His actions were received positively by the Algerian public. Buoyed on by his supporters, Bella pushed for a national constitution that effectively made Algeria a one-party state.

Ahmed Ben Bella’s Presidency and Achievements

Ahmed Ben Bella

Shortly after the approval of the national constitution in September 1963, Ahmed Ben Bella was elected president of Algeria. The election was merely a formality, as he went unopposed in the ballots.

With foreigners and expatriates largely gone, Ben Bella had to contend with the reality of the country’s weak social and economic infrastructure. He worked extremely hard to build a thriving national government that was based on an egalitarian and collectivized agrarian systems. As president, he often lived a very modest life and even declined staying in the official residence of the colonial governor.

Many of the lands that he seized were given to landless Algerian farmers. Buoyed on by Marxist ideologies, Ben Bella tried to model the economy on the likes of Yugoslavia and other socialist countries. He was particularly a big admirer of Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito.

Bella’s presidency also saw massive progresses in Algeria’s education system. Underneath all of that was his desire to turn Algeria in the direction of other Arab states in the region.

Ben Bella pictured with U.S. President John F. Kennedy

On the foreign front, Bella had a good relationship with both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Like many newly independent countries in Africa at the time (i.e. Ghana, Mali, and Guinea), Ben Bella chose not to align Algeria to neither the U.S. nor the USSR. Hoping to forge a distinct path for Algeria, Bella joined other Pan Africanists, such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure. He was vocal advocate in the Non-Aligned Movement.

As president, Bella maintained a very close relationship with revolutionaries such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. He even visited the northern Caribbean nation of Cuba in 1962.

Due to his slight bias towards socialist reforms, the USSR awarded him the Hero of the Soviet Union in April 1964.

Opposition to Ben Bella

Although he seemed to tow a fine balance between the West and the East, Ben Bella had his fair share of opposition back home. Former FLN members such as Hocine Aít Ahmed and Ferhat Abbas fought against Ben Bella’s regime. Many of them openly called for Algerians to revolt against Bella’s regime. Bella marshaled the strength of the nation and quickly crushed the revolt before it could pose a threat to him.

His leadership quickly became somewhat authoritarian and Algerians grew frustrated of him and the FLN. He banned a host of opposition parties including, the Algerian Communist Party and the Party of Socialist Revolution. He even executed the alleged leader of a failed coup plot, Mohamed Chabani.

The June 1965 Coup that removed Ben Bella from power

Algeria’s head of the military and defense minister, Houari Boumédiène, deposed Bella in 1965

After about two years in office, Ahmed Ben Bella’s government was overthrown in the bloodless coup of June 1965. The mastermind of the coup was his defense minister, Houari Boumédiène.

Boumédiène then placed Ben Bella in an underground prison for over eight months. After that, the deposed president was put under house arrest at a villa in Birouta. The villa became his home for the next 14 years.

Later years

It was only after Boumédiène’s death in 1978 that Bella got some respite. The house arrest was lifted in October 1980. After brief stays in France and Switzerland, Ben Bella returned to Algeria in 1990. He would go on to have very minimal impact in the political arena of Algeria. His party, Mouvement pour la Démocratie en Algérie (established in 1991), was banned in the latter part of the 20th century.

Death

In February 2012, Ahmed Ben Bella passed away at his Algiers home. He was 95. Prior to his death, he had served as the chairperson of the African Union Panel of the Wise. The panel was an advisory body that included the likes of Miguel Trovoada (former President of São Tomé and Príncipe), Dr. Brigalia Bam (Head of South Africa’s Electoral Commission); and Elisabeth Pognon (former Chairperson of the Constitutional Court of Benin).

Personal life

Ahmed Ben Bella

While under house arrest, Ben Bella married Zhora Sellami, an Algerian journalist, in 1971. The couple, who met through Bella’s mother, adopted two children – Mehdia and Nouria.

Other Interesting Facts about Ahmed Ben Bella

  • While in Marseille, Ben Bella had a brief football spell (from 1939 to 1940) as a midfielder for Olympique de Marseille. He was even on the score sheet in a game against FC Antibes during the French Cup on April 29, 1940.
  • During WWII, at the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, he took command of his battalion after the commanding officer (CO) got injured. He personally dragged the injured CO to safety.
  • Towards the end of WWII, he wanted to remain in the French Army; however, due to anti-Muslim sentiments among some French generals, he left the army.
  • His 1952 daring prison escape was made by sawing his way through the prison bars. The saw was smuggled into the prison in a food brought to him by his friend.
  • During the Algerian War of Independence, there was an assassination attempt on his life in 1956. The assassins used a delivery package. Bella escaped unscathed as the package exploded in the back seat of the courier’s car.
  • All the years that he spent evading the French authorities, Ben Bella held a Pakistani diplomatic passport. This facilitated his anti-France colonial activities while in exile.
  • Between mid-autumn of 1956 and 1962, when the Evian Accords was signed, Ben Bella was put behind bars by the French military. His release only came after Algerians voted, in a general referendum in 1962, to be an independent nation.
  • In 1963, the year that Algeria’s first constitution was passed, Ben Bella helped establish Sonatrach, Algeria’s national oil and gas company.
  • To this day, he is considered as one of the greatest historical figures in Algeria and  Arab nationalism in general.

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