Ahmed Ben Bella ― anti-imperialist fighter

April 23, 2012
Ahmed Ben Bella.

Ahmed Ben Bella, a leader of Algeria's fight against French colonial rule, died on April 11 aged 95. Ben Bella was the north African nation's first president after it won independence in 1962, until a 1965 coup.

Ben Bella was active in fighting French rule from the 1940s. After the French were forced to grant Algeria independence in 1962, Ben Bella sought to promote a socialist path for the Algerian revolution ― promoting policies such as agrarian reform and workers' self-management.

The right-wing coup in 1965 that overthrew his rule ended Algeria's socialist trajectory.

Ben Bella never lost his anti-imperialist stance. Below, British Stop the War Coalition national coordinator Lindsay Germaine describes her experience of working with Ben Bella in the campaign against the Iraq War. It is reprinted from the Stop the War Coalition website.

* * *

Ahmed Ben Bella, who has died aged 95, was one of the last living embodiments of the fight against colonialism in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s.

Born into a peasant family in French-ruled Algeria, he became political as a teenager and went on the fight for national liberation against the French.

Algeria was then directly ruled from France, its dominance assured by repression and racism, and its rule enhanced by large numbers of white settlers who helped maintain the status quo.

Ben Bella first took up arms against French rule in the late 1940s. He and others formed the National Liberation Front (FLN) in 1954 which was determined to fight a war of independence against the colonialists.

The war was one of the most devastating since World War II. Ben Bella was imprisoned for much of it.

The story of the war and the many struggles of the Algerian people is best told in Gillo Pontecorro's marvellous film The Battle of Algiers. The FLN carried out bombing campaigns in Algeria and France.

A notorious event occurred during a peaceful pro-FLN demonstration in Paris in October 1961. Police, under the direction of police chief Maurice Papon, previously a collaborator under Nazi occupation, threw hundreds of demonstrators into the river Seine and killed more at the police station.

Many drowned and it is estimated hundreds died.

The strength of the movement forced France to grant Algeria independence in 1962 and Ben Bella became president, although was forced out two years later. He was held under house arrest by his successor, Boumedienne, and released only in 1979, when he moved to France and then Switzerland.

Ben Bella spent his last years as a campaigner for Palestinian rights and against war.

I first met him at a conference in Beirut in 2002, where he spoke eloquently. He invited me and other political activists to a lunch by the Mediterranean where we talked about war and imperialism.

He was intelligent, well informed and highly committed. When we had our huge demonstration on February 15, 2003, in London against the Iraq War, Ben Bella came and spoke.

Referring to his long hatred of French rule and his battle for independence, he nonetheless recognised French government opposition to the coming war. “That is why I am pleased to say, Vive la France,” he said. The crowd roared its approval.

Our condolences to his wife, Zahra, and to his family. The issues he campaigned around and opposed ― war, the plight of the Palestinians, racism in France against its Arab population ― are all still with us.

And while countries like Algeria are nominally independent, the unfinished business of imperialism continues.

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