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Ahmed Ben Bella

Ahmed Ben Bella, a key figure in the Algerian independence movement, was born in 1916 in Maghnia near the Moroccan border. He served in the French Army during the Second World War as a Master Sergeant and was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the M.daille Militaire. Upon his return to Algeria in 1945, Ben Bella refused a commission in the French Army when he heard of the harsh French reprisals to the uprisings at Setif. Instead, he joined the Parti Populaire Algerein and went on to lead the party's military wing, the Organization de l'Armee Secrete.

Ben Bella was imprisoned in 1950 following an attack on a post office near his hometown, but escaped two years later to live underground in North Africa and Europe. As an organiser of the Comite Revolutionair d'Unite et d' Action, later the Part du Front de Lib.ration Nationale, Ben Bella was a founder-member of the Organisation of African Unity and instrumental in the subsequent armed revolt which eventually led to independence from French rule.

Following six years of French imprisonment, Ben Bella was elected the first President of independent Algeria in 1962 and applied a Socialist agenda focused on agricultural reform and education.

The months immediately following independence had witnessed the pell-mell rush of Algerians, their government, and its officials to claim the lands, houses, businesses, automobiles, bank accounts, and jobs left behind by the Europeans. By the 1963 March Decrees, Ben Bella declared that all agricultural, industrial, and commercial properties previously operated and occupied by Europeans were vacant, thereby legalizing their confiscation by the state. The term nationalization was not used in the decrees, presumably to avoid indemnity claims.

The FLN called its policy of widespread state involvement in the economy "Algerian socialism." Public-sector enterprises were gradually organized into state corporations that participated in virtually every aspect of the country's economic life. Although their activities were coordinated by central authorities, each state corporation was supposed to retain a measure of autonomy within its own sphere.

The departure of European owners and managers from factories and agricultural estates gave rise to a spontaneous, grass-roots phenomenon, later termed autogestion, which saw workers take control of the enterprises to keep them operating. Seeking to capitalize on the popularity of the self-management movement, Ben Bella formalized autogestion in the March Decrees. As the process evolved, workers in state-owned farms and enterprises and in agricultural cooperatives elected boards of managers that directed production activities, financing, and marketing in conjunction with state-appointed directors. The system proved to be a failure, however. The crucial agricultural sector suffered particularly under self-management, partly as result of bureaucratic incompetence, graft, and theft.

Whereas Ben Bella could count on the support of an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly, an opposition group led by Ait Ahmed soon emerged. Opponents outside the government included the supporters of Messali Hadj, the PCA, and the left-wing Socialist Revolution Party (Parti de la Révolution Socialiste--PRS) led by Boudiaf. The communists, who were excluded from the FLN and therefore from any direct political rule, were particularly influential in the postindependence press. The activities of all these groups were subsequently banned, and Boudiaf was arrested. When opposition from the General Union of Algerian Workers (Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens--UGTA) was perceived, the trade union organization was subsumed under FLN control.

Contrary to the intent of the Tripoli Program, Ben Bella saw the FLN as an elite vanguard party that would mobilize popular support for government policies and reinforce his increasingly personal leadership of the country. Because Khider envisioned the FLN as playing a more encompassing, advisory role, Ben Bella forced him from office in April 1963 and replaced him as party secretary general. Khider later absconded with the equivalent of US$12 million in party funds into exile in Switzerland. In August 1963, Abbas resigned as assembly president to protest what he termed the FLN's usurpation of the legislature's authority. He was subsequently put under house arrest. A new constitution drawn up under close FLN supervision was approved by nationwide referendum in September, and Ben Bella was confirmed as the party's choice to lead the country for a five-year term. Under the new constitution, Ben Bella as president combined the functions of chief of state and head of government with that of supreme commander of the armed forces. He formed his government without needing legislative approval and was responsible for the definition and direction of its policies. There was no effective institutional check on its powers.

Ait Ahmed quit the National Assembly to protest the increasingly dictatorial tendencies of the regime, which had reduced the functions of the legislature to rubber-stamping presidential directives. The Kabyle leaders also condemned the government for its failure to carry through on reconstruction projects in war-ravaged Kabylie, but Ait Ahmed's aims went beyond rectifying regional complaints. He formed a clandestine resistance movement, the Front of Socialist Forces (Front des Forces Socialistes--FFS), based in the Kabylie and dedicated to overthrowing the Ben Bella regime by force. Late summer 1963 saw sporadic incidents attributed to the FFS and required the movement of regular troops into the Kabylie.

More serious fighting broke out a year later in the Kabylie as well as in the southern Sahara. The insurgent movement was organized by the National Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (Comité National pour la Défense de la Révolution-- CNDR), which joined the remnants of Ait Ahmed's FFS and Boudiaf's PRS with the surviving regional military leaders. Khider was believed to have helped finance the operation. The army moved quickly and in force to crush the rebellion. Ait Ahmed and Colonel Mohamed Chabaani, a wilaya commander leading insurgents in the Sahara, were captured and sentenced to death in 1965, after a trial in which Khider and Boudiaf were similarly condemned in absentia. Chabaani was executed, but Ait Ahmed's sentence was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment. In 1966 he escaped from prison and fled to Europe where he joined the two other chefs historiques in exile.

As minister of defense, Boumediene had no qualms about sending the army to crush regional uprisings because he felt they posed a threat to the state. However, when Ben Bella attempted to co-opt allies from among some of the same regionalists whom the army had been called out to suppress, tensions increased between Boumediene and Ben Bella. In April 1965, Ben Bella issued orders to local police prefects to report directly to him rather than through normal channels in the Ministry of Interior. The minister, Ahmed Medeghri, one of Boumediene's closest associates in the Oujda Group, resigned his portfolio in protest and was replaced by a Political Bureau loyalist. Ben Bella next sought to remove Abdelaziz Bouteflika, another Boumediene confidant, as minister of foreign affairs and was believed to be planning a direct confrontation with Boumediene to force his ouster. On June 19, however, Boumediene deposed Ben Bella in a military coup d'état that was both swift and bloodless. The ousted president was taken into custody and held incommunicado.

After Ben Bella was deposed in a coup, he was placed under house arrest for 15 years. Following his release, Ben Bella went into exile in Switzerland, from where he founded the Mouvement pour la Democratie en Algerie. Ben Bella was finally able to return to Algeria in 1990. Ben Bella's revolutionary politics and his unwavering belief in the equality of humankind have made him a liberation icon in the Third World.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2011 20:01:19 ZULU