Algeria’s first president dies at 95

Apr 11, 2012, 8:15 PM

Associated Press

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) – Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first president and a historic leader of its bloody independence struggle from France, died at his family home in Algiers on Wednesday. He was 95.

Family members and the state news agency did not give the cause of death, but twice in the last month Ben Bella had been treated at the military hospital of Ain Naadja for discomfort.

The charismatic Ben Bella, a symbol of pan-Arabist ideology as well as the global anti-colonial movement, was president of Algeria from 1963 until he was overthrown in a military coup in 1965 by the army chief of staff, Col. Houari Boumedienne.

Ben Bella was under house arrest until 1980, and he went into self exile in Switzerland until returning to the country in 1990 as part of the opposition to the ruling political party he helped found.

A giant of Algeria’s independence struggle and the country’s first few years, he played only a symbolic role in the latter years of his life, heading the opposition Movement for the Democracy in Algeria Party, which competed in the aborted 1991 elections, winning just 2 percent of the vote.

His party was banned in 1997, but he continued to live in Algeria, often condemning government policies. He was present when the current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was sworn in for his third term in April 2009.

Two years earlier, Ben Bella became head of the African Union’s “Group of Elders.”

Aside from Bouteflika, Ben Bella was the country’s sole civilian leader and was followed by a string of generals.

One of the six “historic leaders” of Algeria’s revolt against French colonial rule, Ben Bella spent 23 years of his life in French and Algerian prisons.

Through most of the eight-year war of independence, Ben Bella was held in a French fortress. His liberation was one of the main Algerian demands in the drawn-out peace talks that led to the 1962 Evian agreements for Algeria’s independence.

Elected president of the newly-independent nation virtually without opposition, he enjoyed less than three years of an extravagant and erratic leadership before being overthrown in an army coup and imprisoned by Boumedienne, then army chief of staff.

Until Boumedienne’s death 13 years later, Ben Bella became a “non person” in Algeria. No public mention of his name was allowed in Algerian media _ all state-controlled.

Even the official attacks on Ben Bella’s allegedly “arbitrary and wasteful” regime avoided mentioning his name.

Boumedienne died in 1978. His pragmatic and moderate successor, Chadli Bendjedid, freed Ben Bella from more than a decade of detention without trial, ultimately allowing him to go abroad with his wife Zora and their two adopted daughters.

It was Ben Bella’s misfortune that he was very much a product of the colonial regime that France imposed on Algeria for 130 years. He spoke better French than Arabic, and the Arabic he spoke was colloquial rather than literary.

As a result, he had difficulty conversing with the leaders of other Arab nations. His often rousing and emotion-charged speeches as president were delivered in Algerian Arabic _ which few citizens of other Arab nations fully understand _ and when he wanted to stress a particular argument, he broke into French.

During his 1990 triumphal return to Algeria, he gave a rambling speech in his trademark mixture of French and Arabic, hailing radical Arab leaders and their causes, including Iraq, Palestine, Libya and its leader Moammar Gadhfi.

Ben Bella was born on Christmas Day, 1916, to a peasant family in Marnia, on Algeria’s border with Morocco. He joined the French army in his late teens, rising to the rank of senior warrant officer.

He fought with distinction with the Free French Forces in Italy during World War II and won five French decorations including the prestigious Military Medal. But returning home following the allied victory in Europe, he quickly found that a war hero of Muslim origin had little future in an Algeria ruled by French settlers.

His application for enrollment as rural policeman was rejected, while his widowed mother was denied a license to open a tobacco store in Marnia. Disillusioned, Ben Bella turned against France and was elected municipal councilor for the anti-colonialist “Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties.”

When the movement was declared illegal, Ben Bella went underground. In April, 1949, he organized a raid on the Oran central post officer to finance his revolutionary activities. The raid brought him nationwide attention and Robin-Hood-like popularity among the Moslem masses.

Arrested in May 1951, he was interned near Blida but staged a dramatic escape two years later.

He fled to Cairo and began planning the Nov. 1, 1954 uprising that spelled the end for colonial rule in Algeria following a bitter, eight-year war of liberation.

On Oct. 22, 1956, while on a flight from Rabat to Tunis with four companions, Ben Bella’s Moroccan plane was hijacked by its own French crew and landed at Algiers’ Maison Blanche airport. Immediately arrested, Ben Bella was held prisoner in France until the Evian treaty ended the war nearly seven years later.

Throughout his imprisonment, he remained the titular head of the Algerian revolutionary movement. Algerian representatives signed the Evian treaty only after he had approved it.

Throughout the first two years of independence, Algeria was disrupted by internal conflict between the guerrilla forces who had fought the French and the “exterior forces” based in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco under Boumedienne’s command. The exterior forces were well-armed and highly trained, but had hardly fired a shot in anger throughout the war.

Although Algeria’s economy and internal political situation deteriorated rapidly, Ben Bella devoted most of his rabble-rousing speeches to external issues, attacking Israel, “American imperialism” and South Africa’s apartheid system.

He staked much of his prestige on a summit conference of Asian and African countries at which he was to be host and chairman. On June 19, 1965, three days before the summit was to open, the army seized power in an almost bloodless coup. Boumedienne was proclaimed president but the summit never took place.


Schemm reported from Rabat.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

World News

Moroccan boys, Rayan and Ali walk amidst the rubble of their home which was damaged by the earthqua...

Associated Press

Powerful quake in Morocco kills more than 2,000 people and damages historic buildings in Marrakech

A powerful earthquake has struck Morocco, toppling buildings in villages and cities not built to withstand such force.

21 days ago

State Farm Stadium Gold Cup soccer arrests 2023...

Serena O'Sullivan

Police arrest five people after State Farm Stadium brawl on Thursday

Two people were arrested for a State Farm Stadium brawl after Thursday's soccer matches between Qatar and Honduras plus Mexico and Haiti.

3 months ago

Members of the Wagner Group military company load their tank onto a truck on a street. (AP Photo)...

Associated Press

Russia says Wagner Group’s leader will move to Belarus after his rebellious march challenged Putin

Russian leaders say the Wagner Group leader who staged a short-lived rebellion will move to Belarus and not face prosecution.

3 months ago

Associated Press

How (and when) to watch King Charles’ coronation in the US

There are plenty of options to watch the regalia-heavy event that serves as a formal confirmation of King Charles' dual role as head of state and titular leader of the Church of England.

5 months ago

Firefighters carry a body recovered from the rubble of a residential building that was hit during a...

Associated Press

Russian missile and drone attack in Ukraine kills 21 people

Russia fired more than 20 cruise missiles and two drones at Ukraine early Friday, killing at least 19 people.

5 months ago

Associated Press

China health officials lash out at WHO, defend virus search

Chinese health officials defended their search for the source of the COVID-19 virus and lashed out Saturday at the World Health Organization after its leader said Beijing should have shared genetic information earlier.

6 months ago

Sponsored Articles



Key dates for Arizona sports fans to look forward to this fall

Fall brings new beginnings in different ways for Arizona’s professional sports teams like the Cardinals and Coyotes.

Home moving relocation in Arizona 2023...

BMS Moving

Tips for making your move in Arizona easier

If you're moving to a new home in Arizona, use this to-do list to alleviate some stress and ensure a smoother transition to your new home.


OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center

5 mental health myths you didn’t know were made up

Helping individuals understand mental health diagnoses like obsessive compulsive spectrum disorder or generalized anxiety disorder isn’t always an easy undertaking. After all, our society tends to spread misconceptions about mental health like wildfire. This is why being mindful about how we talk about mental health is so important. We can either perpetuate misinformation about already […]

Algeria’s first president dies at 95