Algerian founding father Ben Bella dead at 95

North African nation declares eight days of mourning for iconic leader of struggle for independence from France.

Ben Bella
Ahmed Ben Bella was known for his pan-Arabist, anti-colonial idealogy after World War II [AFP]

Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first president and one of the leading figures in its independence struggle against France, has died at the age of 95.

Ben Bella, whose death comes just weeks after the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence, passed away at his family home in Algiers on Wednesday, Algerian state media reported.

No cause of death was reported, but Ben Bella had twice been treated for respiratory problems at the military hospital of Ain Naadja.

“Today we lost one of modern Algeria’s bravest leaders,” said Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in a message of condolence read on state television as he announced eight days of national mourning.

Ben Bella will lie in state at Algiers’ People’s Palace from noon on Thursday, with his funeral due to take place on Friday, state media said. 

A former soldier in the French army, Ben Bella was a key figure in Algeria’s years-long revolt against French rule, serving time in prison until his release as the north African nation gained independence in 1962, and becoming president in 1963.

But he was overthrown in a military coup in 1965 and kept under house arrest until 1980. After a subsequent decade in exile in Switzerland, he was pardoned in 1990 and returned to Algeria.

Soldier and footballer

Ben Bella was born in 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, and playing top-flight football for Olympique de Marseille.

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 Ben Bella turned against French rule after the war and was elected municipal councillor for the anti-colonialist “Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties”.

When the movement was declared illegal, Ben Bella went underground. Arrested in May 1951, he was interned but staged a dramatic escape two years later.

He fled to Cairo where he was among the architects of the 1954 uprising which began Algeria’s war of independence.

Despite being imprisoned by the French, he was the acknowledged head of the independence movement throughout the revolution and became an icon for the global anti-colonial movement.

Elected president of the newly-independent nation, he ruled extravagantly and erratically for less than three years before being toppled by Colonel Houari Boumedienne, the head of the army.

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

Boumedienne’s successor Chadli Bendje 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.

He headed the opposition Movement for the Democracy in Algeria Party, which competed in the aborted 1991 elections, winning just two per cent of the vote.

His party was banned in 1997, but he continued to live in Algeria, often condemning government policies.

Source: News Agencies