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Reminiscing about Ben Bella after Africa Day

David Mungoshi Shelling the Nuts
Tragically, only nine African countries officially recognise and celebrate Africa Day. This is, regrettably, indicative of a foreign-induced lulling of our collective memory as Africans as well as a lack of appreciation of the continent’s true heroes such as Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria.

Officially born in 1916, Ahmed Ben Bella died in Algiers at the age of 93 in 2012.
Ben Bella was a decorated soldier of World War 2, having fought on the French side against Nazi Germany. His experiences on the war front removed the scales from his eyes and he began to dream about and to see that national freedom and independence were both possible because, after all the French were only human after all, and they bled and died like everyone else.

Africa needs to remember the Algerian experience as the continent works towards attaining its objectives in regard to Agenda 2063.

The simple, urgent, unavoidable and compelling truth is that due to the obese and loudly unapologetic French adventures in 21st century Africa, Africa’s decolonisation is far from complete.

The Polisario Front of the Arab Saharawi Republic cannot and should not be allowed to be the only liberation movement still engaged in a mortal struggle against its oppressors and traducers.

Africa must wage another war of liberation against France, one of two unrepentant colonial powers in present-day Africa, together with Morocco.

That France continues to live off the fat of Africa is a shameful reality that must be put to a stop sooner rather than later.
The peace talks of 1962 led to Ben Bella’s return home to Algeria where he became prime minister and later first president of the Republic of Algeria, following an amendment to that country’s constitution in 1963.

Ben Bella’s abiding motivation was socialist. He habitually wore a simple blue Mao-style jacket and pronounced, “Castro is my brother, Nasser is my teacher, Tito is my example.

At a time when the cold war was at its hottest, Ben Bella became a target of French neo-colonial interests and in a strategy that became all too common in subsequent years, Ben Bella was overthrown by his former comrade-in-arms, Colonel Boumedienne on June19, 1965 and put under house arrest for 14 years.

After Boumedienne’s death in 1978, Ben Bella was allowed to go into exile in Switzerland, only to return in the 1990s. He was present when the demonstrations that were labelled the “Arab spring” began.

Ben Bella was the subject and target of many political intrigues, including direct assassination attempts, but he survived them all and did not flinch in his resolution.

Perhaps the most spectacular incident around his life was the movie-like incident of October 1956 when Ben Bella and other liberation war leaders boarded a Moroccan airline’s DC-3 flight from Rabat, Morocco to Tunis to take part in a Northern Africa summit conference.

The French Army, acting without approval from Paris, radioed the pilot, who was French, with instructions to land in Algiers. There the passengers were seized by French troops.

Gen Paul Aussaresses was to write in his memoirs, “The Battle for the Casbah” (2002), that the army had originally ordered fighter planes to shoot the plane down, but called them off at the last minute when it was discovered that the DC-3’s pilot and crew were French. General Aussaresses recalled a senior officer saying that Ben Bella’s arrest had been a mistake and that they had in fact “ . . . intended to kill him.”

Regardless of the way things later panned out for him, Ben Bella – a tall, athletic, handsome and charismatic leader – captured the imagination of Africa and much of the progressive world.

An adept soccer player, Ben Bella could have carved a himself a life on the football pitch. Even at 90, in 2010, Ben Bella was a striking figure with a remarkably vivid face.

Not surprisingly, he continued to be vocal about the many issues in the world, including the imperialist war against Iraq.
Although Ben Bella’s joining of the Algerian resistance movement against France was largely incidental, once he was in, he stayed the course. But his military credentials were never in doubt, nor was his political acumen and pedigree.

Ben Bella became allergic to colonialism quite early on in his life. In an incident that can be said to have foreshadowed the pronouncements of Nigeria’s iconic Afro-pop star, Fela Kuti in his militant “Teacher Don’t Teach me Nonsense” song, Ben Bella was to critique his education.

Famously, he recalled clashing with a racist secondary school teacher and was later to decry the extent of France’s cultural influence.

“We think in Arabic, but we talk in French,” he said.
Ben Bella’s education was cut short. His father officially changed the year of his birth to 1916 to make it possible for him to return to work on the family farm.

As a result of what was intended to be an action to circumvent French bureaucracy, Ben Bella became officially older than he really was by two years and was conscripted into the army in 1937.

Once in the army, Ben Bella applied himself to his task with the same gusto with which he had taken to soccer back home.
Predictably, he was promoted to sergeant at the same time as he attained celebrity status playing soccer in the city of in Marseille, France, the home of his regiment.

While in command of an anti-aircraft section during the German invasion of France in 1940, Ben Bella kept to his post, firing away as others fled in the face of wave after wave of attacks from Stuka dive bombers. For this singular act of heroism, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

There was an offer for him to play professional soccer in France, but he chose to return to Algeria where he joined a Moroccan regiment fighting French resistance volunteers.

In the battles that followed, Ben Bella, throughout 1944, won a number of battlefield citations.
In one instance, he was credited with recovering three abandoned machine guns in the face of German tanks. He was personally awarded the Médal Militaire, the highest decoration of the Free French forces, by Gen Charles de Gaulle.
France, on May 8 in 1945 was celebrating the capitulation of the Nazis when a protest march in the Algerian town of Sétif, against the cruelties of colonialism and subsequent wartime shortages, exploded into a five-day rape and killing orgy.

It is estimated that more than 100 Europeans were killed in this disturbance. French retaliation was swift, disproportionate and merciless.

An official report cited the number of dead Algerian anti-colonialists as being just under 1 500, but nationalist sources put the figure at tens of thousands.

Predictably, Ben Bella was shocked beyond words by the unprecedented brutality. Refusing an officer’s commission, he returned to Marnia where he promptly entered local politics.

On learning that Ben Bella had joined an opposition movement, the authorities dispatched armed assailants to his farm to assassinate him.

In the shoot-out that ensued, Ben Bella wounded one of his would-be assassins with a semi-automatic pistol.
The attackers fled, but this meant that Ben Bella was forced into hiding.

This was how he ended up joining the ranks of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), an Algerian resistance army.
In 1949, a post office in Oran, Algeria, was robbed and Ben Bella was held culpable. He was tracked down, apprehended and sentenced to a long spell of imprisonment at Blida.

Aided by a file hidden in a loaf of bread, he broke out in 1952 and went to Cairo where he became one of the liberation movement’s nine top leaders.

The first military action against the French in Algeria took place on November 1 in the year 1954, while the French were celebrating All Saints’ Day.

That was the start of a war of attrition characterised by massacre, mutilation, summary executions and rape.
Algerian freedom fighters set off bombs in busy nightclubs and shot down passers-by on crowded streets.
The cost of the Algerian war in terms of human life is still a matter of conjecture, more so on the Algerian side.

Some estimates put French military losses at 27 000 killed, while civilian casualties are pegged at 5 000 to 6 000.
French sources suggest that Algerian casualties were between 300 000 and 500 000. Algerian sources cite 1 500 000 dead.

Scores of villages were destroyed and forests widely-damaged. Two million villagers were relocated. Despite the fact that the Europeans who left Algeria at independence were the great majority of senior administrators, managerial and technical experts, many public services remained functional, nevertheless.

Algeria has come a long way since the convulsions of its early nationhood and despite the suppression by Bretton Woods institutions of information about Algeria’s economic exploits and development, some schools of thought regard Algeria as currently being the largest economy in Africa.

More significantly, however, Algeria has avoided being demeaned and enslaved like most of French-speaking West Africa.

Source :

The Herald

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