The passing this month of one of the leading lights of the anti-colonial movement went largely unheralded and unmourned.
Like Zidane of France, Ben Bella was a talented soccer player. When France collapsed before the German blitzkrieg in 1940, Ben Bella took up arms and distinguished himself in combat against the German Wehrmacht in Italy. For this, he was decorated for bravery by General Charles De Gaulle himself.
During the 1950s, Ben Bella spearheaded the Algerian freedom struggle against the French. During it, he survived assassination attempts by French agents. His struggle for Algerian independence was supported by Pakistan and he, reportedly, was given a Pakistani diplomatic passport, which helped him evade French authorities. Eventually captured by France when his plane was diverted to Algiers, he was held for over five years in a French prison. The Algerian war of independence is well documented in a seminal book, A Savage War of Peace, by Sir Alistair Horne. It was also the subject of a gripping 1966 award-winning movie, The Battle of Algiers.
Eventually, General De Gaulle concluded that holding on to Algeria was untenable, thereby, paving the path for Algerian independence. Ben Bella was elected the first President of a free Algeria in 1963. After a visit to the UN, he aroused the displeasure of US President John F. Kennedy by making a trip to Cuba to meet Fidel Castro. Ben Bella made Algeria a hub of resistance movements, hosting and befriending Mandela and Che Guevara. Ben Bella cited a Christian maxim, “man does not live by bread alone.”
Ben Bella combined charismatic leadership abroad with economic misgovernance and autocratic conduct at home. His brief tenure in the Algerian presidency was cut short by a military coup headed by his Army Chief, Houari Boumediene, in June 1965, just as Ben Bella was on the verge of convening an Afro-Asian Summit in Algiers. Ben Bella’s fate may offer a stark parallel to what happened to King Faisal after the epic Lahore Islamic Summit of 1974.
Ben Bella spent 15 years in Algerian prison and under house arrest in the country for whose independence he had toiled so valiantly. During his last years, Ben Bella described his life “as a life of combat.” While confined, he got married and, during his twilight years, he rediscovered Islam and called himself as “Muslim first, Arab second and then Algerian.”
Ben Bella’s activism was a precursor to the accelerating decolonisation that marked the 1960s, along with the assertiveness of the Third World.
Ben Bella’s life story is a telling indictment of those media moguls, who incessantly broadcast the inane utterances of dummy “leaders” and who remain blissfully ignorant of the falling of mighty oaks.
Ben Bella, who left the world stage nearly 50 years ago, still stalks the imagination while temporary inhabitants of power go unnoticed.
n The writer is an attorney-at-law and policy analyst based in Washington DC. He is the first Pakistani American member admitted to the US Supreme Court Bar.