President Ahmed Ben Bella: A Rare Hero and an Unique Inspiration
On Wednesday, April 11, 2012, President Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first president and the hero of its independence passed away at age 95. This iconic figure passed away in Algiers, the capital of the country he immensely loved and whose freedom he cherished at great personal sacrifice.
Ahmed Ben Bella was one of the leaders of the unyielding resistance against the injustice of foreign occupation and invasion. His charismatic defense of the right to self-determination of the Algerian people earned him recognition throughout Africa and the world, especially among developing countries. He was the President of the oppressed who refused to bow to power and force, but persisted until his commitment to justice prevailed and conquered the enemies of freedom and liberation.
President 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 the German attempts to occupy Northern Africa. Unlike many politicians who were unhappy with the French occupation of Algerian, 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.
When the French were finally driven out of Algeria 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 ensuring the end to injustice wherever he saw it. He described his foreign policy as action “aimed at the liquidation of colonialism in both its classical and disguised forms.” President Ben Bella’s commitment to combating injustice everywhere made him an symbol of the global movement against colonialism, racism, and discrimination throughout his long life.
In the late 1980s he formed Nord-Sud XXI or (North-South XXI) together with several other heads of State and leading human rights defenders to continue what he saw as the battle against injustice and to encourage intercultural communication. Nord-Sud XXI continues to function today as a non-governmental organization active in the United Nations, the African Union, and several other international forums. Until his death Ahmed Ben Bella continued to serve as the 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 which 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.
His integrity was recognized in 2007 by African Heads of State and Government when they asked him to chair the African Union’s “Panel of the Wise” to help contribute to a peaceful African future. For Ben Bella Africa was the continent of the future 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, a international order based on community, sharing, justice, equality, equity, and understanding. One could feel that he realized he would not be alive to see this new international order realized, 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.