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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June-July 2012, Pages 42-43

In Memoriam

The Legacy of Revolutionary Algerian Statesman Ahmed Ben Bella (1916-2012)

By Mani Singh Kang

Photo M.S. KangFormer Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella in his Algiers living room last year, standing in front of his official 1962 portrait. (Photo M.S. Kang)

News of the April 11 death of Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria's first president, marked the end of an era and the loss of a great revolutionary and elder statesman.

Born Dec. 25, 1916 into a modest family during French colonial rule, Ben Bella enlisted in the French army and fought in World War II, and was even awarded the Croix de Guerre by Gen. Charles de Gaulle. Yet, an incident on May 8, 1945—V-E Day—marked a turning point for Ben Bella and his people.

On that day of celebration for the Allied victory in Europe, the French regime massacred thousands of Algerians in the town of Setif in reprisal for isolated attacks on Frenchmen. Algeria's war veterans realized they would still be treated as second-class citizens. Ben Bella began to organize resistance and was arrested. He escaped, traveling to neighboring nations, from where he would ship arms to Algeria—and evade attempts on his life. The 1954 French defeat at Dien Bien Phu inspired him to form the National Liberation Front (FLN), which soon launched an eight-year guerrilla war, costing one million casualties.

In 1956, an airplane carrying Ben Bella and other FLN members was intercepted and all aboard arrested. Released just before Algeria gained its independence on July 5, 1962, the former rebels assumed power and began the daunting task of rebuilding their country. That September Ben Bella was elected prime minister, and the following September president.

In October 1962, Ben Bella arrived in the U.S. to represent Algeria at the U.N. While in New York he met for nearly two hours with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Two days later, having accepted President John F. Kennedy's invitation, Ben Bella arrived at the White House on Oct. 15, 1962—the eve of the Cuban missile crisis! President Kennedy welcomed Ben Bella warmly and initially said nothing about the pending showdown. But Kennedy knew Ben Bella planned to visit Cuba the next day, and counseled him not to go, revealing why. When Ben Bella said he nevertheless planned to honor his commitment to travel there, President Kennedy asked him to convey to Fidel Castro that Washington was fully aware of the presence of Russian missiles on the island. After President Kennedy's assassination the following year, Ben Bella dedicated a major square in Algiers as Kennedy Place, honoring the man who, as a U.S. senator, had called for Algerian independence.

As president, Ben Bella was committed to developing his country and instituting reforms, undertaking campaigns for national literacy, nationalizing several industries, and implementing land redistribution. While the results were mixed, they represented a step forward for a beleaguered nation.

On the international stage, Ben Bella received dignitaries visiting Algeria and traveled much of the world himself. Because a key priority was strengthening relations with other former colonies, Algeria joined the Non-Aligned Movement in support of its mission of forming alliances among emerging nations. He forged links with such African leaders as Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, Modibo Keita and Sekou Toure to aid rebel movements throughout colonial Africa. Assisting him was the legendary Che Guevara, whom he had befriended in Cuba, and who traveled often to Algeria to advance his vision of liberating Africa.

Ben Bella planned to host an international summit of Afro-Asian leaders in Algiers in 1965, to which he also invited noted activists like Malcolm X. His grand plans were dashed on June 19, 1965, however, when President Ben Bella was overthrown by Defense Minister Houari Boumedienne, who claimed the president was misgoverning the nation.

Although it was a bloodless coup, Ben Bella was placed under house arrest for the next 14 years, until Boumedienne's death. In 1980, Ben Bella was released, but exiled to Europe. In September 1990, amid great fanfare, he returned to Algeria. But his long isolation and advancing years—by then he was over 70 years of age—had taken their toll. While he still commanded respect and even advocated multi-party rule, it wasn't enough. The nation degenerated into civil war between Islamists who had been poised to win parliamentary elections and the military, claiming the lives of nearly 200,000 Algerians.

During these years Ben Bella advocated reforms and tried to prevent the West's impending wars with Iraq. He also was elected chairman of the African Union Panel of the Wise. In his final years, he focused on the economic divide between the affluent North and the struggling South and also championed the Palestinian cause. When he died at the age of 95, Algeria declared eight days of mourning and said farewell at an April 13 state funeral.

I was blessed to have had an opportunity to meet Ahmed Ben Bella in March 2011, in the midst of the Arab Spring. Accompanying me to the meeting at his home in Algiers was independent Algerian journalist Said Chitour, who was instrumental in arranging the visit and acting as my interpreter.

I found Ben Bella to be a sharp observer, still exuding his legendary charisma and wisdom. He possessed a commanding knowledge of global history and acutely perceived the injustices plaguing the world. He spoke candidly about how North Africans, though having long suffered under colonialism, did not suffer to the extent as the deeply exploited peoples of black Africa, and mentioned the checkered past of the United States, with its history of slavery and of the genocide against Native Americans. For one hour I listened raptly as this icon of anti-colonial struggle expounded on multiple topics while also acting as host and giving us several cups of mint tea. He was the epitome of hospitality.

After I mentioned my interest in writing a book on President Kennedy's final year in office, Ben Bella recalled his 1962 meeting with JFK. He felt that President Kennedy was polite and fair, but under pressure by his government. When I handed Ben Bella a photograph of his meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, his nephew (a former minister of tourism) who was sitting next to the former president, leaned in with surprise and said he was unaware his uncle had met the famed civil rights leader. When I mentioned Malcolm X's visit to Africa, Ben Bella rose up in his seat and, pointing emphatically, declared, "I invited him!"

Another vivid highlight of my visit was Ben Bella's recollection of Che Guevara. He disclosed how the Cuban revolutionary was the only foreign leader given free access to his office in Algiers, allowed to walk in anytime without an appointment. Remembering him, Ben Bella smiled, saying, "Che, el Che."

Commenting on his difficult years under house arrest, Ben Bella pointed out that he was not the only person to endure isolation, saying, "After all, the great prophets spent time in desert solitude." His final point concerned the current era of globalization: "How can a nation have true democracy if it is largely influenced by big corporations and banks?" he asked.

As I rose to leave, Ben Bella said sincerely, "I enjoyed your visit. For years I didn't talk of these things. You have evoked a lot of memories and events and I thank you for coming. It was a pleasure to meet you."

Ahmed Ben Bella was a true people's champion who advocated a better life not only for his fellow Algerians, but for all the formerly colonized and downtrodden people of the world. That nearly half his life was spent in confinement for the causes he believed in is a testament to his uncompromising principles and service to humanity. He was both a revolutionary firebrand full of fervor and zeal, and a modern day elder statesman who worked for a better world and dignity for all. May the lasting legacy of the founding father of an independent Algeria be his grand vision of socioeconomic equality and solidarity among all the world's peoples. God bless Ahmed Ben Bella forever. 

Mani Singh Kang lives in Orange County, CA, where he is a member and trustee of the World Affairs County of Orange County and was recently elected as a delegate to the upcoming Democratic National Convention. He is currently writing his first book, on President John F. Kennedy's final year in office.