Few people play such an important role in building their countries as did Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first president and a leader of its independence struggle.
On Wednesday, aged 95, this iconic figure passed away in Algiers, in the capital of the country whose freedom he demanded and took from French colonial occupiers.
While many African countries became independent in the mid-part of the 20th century, Algeria was one of the few that did not accept independence as a gift of colonialist occupiers, but instead demanded its independence on it own terms.
Ahmed Ben Bella was one of the leaders of this unyielding resistance against the injustice of foreign occupation. His charismatic defence of the right to self-determination of the Algerian people made him an example throughout Africa and the world, especially among developing countries. He was a champion of the oppressed who refused to bow to power and force, but persisted until his commitment to justice had conquered his enemies.
When the French were finally driven out of Algeria, a vast North African country, in 1962 after an eight-year civil war, Ahmed Ben Bella became the first president of Algeria. This did not deter him from his commitment to ensure the end to injustice wherever he saw it. He described his Algerian foreign policy as action “aimed at the liquidation of colonialism in both its classical and disguised forms.”
Ben Bella’s commitment to combating injustice everywhere made him a symbol of the global movement against colonialism, racism and discrimination. Although his presidency was ended by military coup that eventually forced him into exile, his commitment to combating injustice continued unyieldingly.
In the late 1980s he formed a movement with several other heads of states and leading human rights defenders to continue what he saw as the battle against injustice and to encourage intercultural communication. This civil society actor, Nord-Sud XXI, continues to function today as a non-governmental organisation active in the United Nations, the African Union, and several other international forums.
Until his death Ahmed Ben Bella continued to serve as president of Nord-Sud XXI and to contribute to its efforts to achieve a just and equitable international order. He understood that even as he was getting too old to carry on the struggle on a daily basis his inspiration and the respect that he had earned could help others to continue to fight for justice.
The respect that so many had for Ben Bella was sometimes shown in subtle but striking ways. In 2001, for example, when Ben Bella attended the World Conference against Racial Discrimination that was held in Durban, South Africa, when he entered the conference hall the Algerian delegation, led by the president, stood up and invited Ben Bella to sit in the chair representing Algeria.
While he was respected for his intense commitment to combating injustice throughout the world, he was also loved by his own people. Everywhere he would go in Algeria, from the capital of Algiers to the smallest village, crowds would gather for the chance to see the “Father of Algerian Independence.”
Once a young Algerian student proudly confided that, “Algerians have been made proud by Ben Bella. We love him because he demanded our rights. He upheld our dignity; he defeated our enemy.”
Ben Bella was born in the small village of Marnia on Algeria’s border with Morocco on 25 December 1916. His parents were of humble origins and he took one of the only ways out of poverty, which was to join the French Army. In World War II when France was occupied, Ben Bella went to Morocco to fight with a French resistance force against German attempts to occupy Northern Africa.
Although he was awarded several medals of honour for his bravery and at one point offered a professional football contract because of his athletic skills, when he learned how French soldiers had abused people in a small Algerian village, he quit the army and entered local politics.
Unlike many politicians who were unhappy with the French occupation of Algeria but felt that they could not oppose such a powerful colonial power, Ben Bella made it his priority to restore the independence of Algeria. As he would often say in later years, “It was the right of the Algerian people, not the decision of France.” To Ben Bella, the strength of the purveyor of injustice was irrelevant, except as a strategic consideration. Ben Bella’s focus on achieving justice committed him to fighting against injustice no matter what the odds.
Even in his later years, Ben Bella, together with notable statesmen such as South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, stood up against some of the most powerful governments in world, condemning, for example, the US invasion of Iraq both in 1992 and in 2003.
More recently, while supporting indigenous struggles for greater participation in their government, Ben Bella adamantly opposed the NATO intervention in Libya, which contributed to killing an estimated 100,000 Libyans and has left the country in tatters.
Having studied law while in exile, Ben Bella was able to recognise action that was not consistent with international law and once he saw injustice, he would not bend to political pressure to ignore it.
His integrity was recognised in 2007 by the other contemporary heads of African states who asked him to be the chair of the African Union’s “Panel of the Wise” to help contribute to a peaceful African future.
For Ben Bella, Africa was the future. He saw the African people and the values shared by Islam and the whole diverse African continent as holding more promise for the world than the Western propensity to project military force around the world to achieve the world order the West wants, often with little concern for the indigenous communities on which they impose their aggression.
Ben Bella was no stranger to Africa having travelled to virtually every African country and having lived in Cairo and Tunis while in exile. Even while in exile and later, after having been kidnapped by the French and imprisoned in France, Ben Bella led the Algerian peoples’ struggle to gain independence.
In his last few years, Ben Bella sometimes spoke about how Africa would be the cradle of a new international order. This would be, Ben Bella said, an international order based on community, sharing, justice, equality, equity and understanding. One could feel that he realised he would not be alive to see this new international order realised, but that didn’t seem to make a difference to him. It was apparent that he was satisfied to work for a future that was more just and to inspire others to do the same.
The writer is a prominent international human rights lawyer who worked with Ahmed Ben Bella in Nord-Sud XXI.