PARIS — Algeria’s first post-independence president, Ahmed Ben Bella, who died Wednesday at the age of 95, was a charismatic revolutionary who fought alongside the French during World War II before becoming a hero of his own country’s liberation struggle.
Ben Bella was born in the town of Maghnia on the Algerian/Moroccan border in December 1916. Algeria was, at the time, a French colony.
He was called up for military service during World War II, serving first in Marseille, where he briefly played with Olympique Marseille soccer team, and later in Italy, where his bravery saw him decorated by Gen. Charles de Gaulle.
France’s liberation from Nazi Germany emboldened Algerians to make their own claim on independence. But any illusions they had that France would readily relinquish its last overseas prize were quickly shattered.
Pro-independence demonstrations in 1944 in the northern town of Setif — in which scores of Europeans were killed — met with fierce reprisals. French aircraft bombarded the region, killing about 1,000 Algerians, according to the colonial authorities of the day — or several times that, according to Algerian nationalists.
Shocked by the brutality of the French, Ben Bella threw himself into the struggle for independence.
In 1948 he took part in the holdup of a post office in the city of Oran, to raise funds for the nationalist Special Organization. He was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison but escaped and made his way to Egypt.
In 1954, he and eight others founded the National Liberation Front, which began a war for independence in November that year.
Two years later, French authorities caught up with four of the nine, including Ben Bella, as they were flying over Algeria. The French forced them to land in Algiers and hauled them off to prison on the mainland for the rest of the war.
They were released in March 1962, after de Gaulle — who was back in power after a hiatus — agreed to a peace deal with the FLN.
The tall, softly spoken Ben Bella returned to Algeria shortly afterward, where he was mobbed by ecstatic, flag-waving crowds.
With the support of Gen. Houari Boumediene, Ben Bella moved quickly to take control of the country, becoming president and prime minister of an impoverished desert state that he ran along socialist lines.
Wedded to his rural roots, he focused his efforts on uplifting peasant farmers. But his results were mixed, his authoritarian style caused discontent and corruption was rife.
Under cover of darkness on June 18, 1965, Boumediene took control of Algiers and arrested Ben Bella, who spent the next 15 years in detention.
After his release in 1980 he took to touring the world and championing a variety of causes.
In 1990, he returned to Algeria at the head of the Algerian Democratic Movement, or MDA, a party he founded in exile, but his dreams of a comeback came to naught.
The MDA failed to win a single seat in the country’s first multi-party elections in 1991. The elections led to a decade-long civil war after the second round was canceled to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front from coming to power.
Ben Bella spoke out repeatedly in favor of reconciliation. For his efforts, he was given a seat on a Panel of the Wise within the African Union, which is tasked with trying to resolve conflicts.