Ahmed Ben Bella was born in Maghnia, in the former department of Oran, western Algeria, on 25 December 1916, during the height of the French colonial period.
He was son of a farmer and small businessman, who supported his family through this economic activities. He had five brothers and two sisters. Of them, the oldest one died because of the wounds of the First World War which he fought for France, other two died because of illness and one disappeared in France at 1940, in the Mayhem of the Nazi victory.
Ben Bella started his studies in Maghnia, where he went to the French school, and continued them in the city of Tlemcen, where he became aware of racial discrimination, disturbed by the discrimination towards Arabs by his European teacher. As it, he started complaining and chafed imperialism and colonialism and criticized French cultural influence, starting also his participation on nationalist movement.
Ben Bella volunteered for service in the French Army in 1936. The Army was one of the few avenues of advancement for Algerians under colonial rule and voluntary enlistment was common. Posted to Marseille he played center midfield for Olympique de Marseille in 1939–1940. His only appearance for the club was in a game against FC Antibes in the Coupe de France on 29 April 1940 in Cannes. He also scored a goal during the game. The club officials offered him a professional spot on the team, but he rejected the offer. He also played for IRB Maghnia.
Ben Bella conscripted to the army again in 1940, believing that this would give Algerians an equal treatment. Thereby, he fought for the French during World War II, and he was even awarded twice. He received the ″Croix de guerre″ after manning an anti-aircraft post during the Nazi invasion in 1940. He was demobilised after the fall of France but joined a regiment of Moroccan tirailleurs (infantry) with whom he saw service throughout the Italian campaign. There, he was again awarded because of his bravery demonstrated at Monte Cassino, where he dragged one wounded CO to safety, assuming control of his battalion. For this,he was promoted to the rank of warrant officer, and he received the ″Médaille militaire″, the highest condecoration of the free French forces, directly from Charles de Gaulle.
On May 8, 1945, while France was celebrating Germany’s capitulation, big protests started to occur in the Algerian town of Setif. Cruelties of colonialism became worse during the wartime period, so Algerian people stood up against it. Thus, the protests turned to five days of rape and killing, and according to the official report deaths were more than 100 Europeans and around 1,500 Algerians. The anti-colonialist however, put Algerian number of deaths around ten thousands. This shocked Ben Bella and his Algerian companions, as they realized that they wouldn’t start receiving an equal treatment even after their services in war.
After the events of Setif, Ben Bella returned to Algeria, reincorporating into its political life and to the opposition movement against French regime. French authorities sent assailants with the intentions of assassinating him on his farm. The attempt to his life failed, but Ben Bella’s farm was confiscated and he had to hide. After the Government election of Marcel-Edmond Naegelen, he became part of a group that thought democratic independence was something illusory. Together with Messali Hadj's and his party, he founded the Organisation Spéciale (OS), a paramilitary organization whose aim was to take up arms as quickly as possible. This was the immediate predecessor of the National Liberation Front. In 1949, he robbed a bank in Orán to gain funds for the organization, but he was eventually caught and sent to jail in Blida prison in 1951,sentenced to eight years imprisonment. He escaped soon afterwards, making his way to Tunisia and then Egypt, reaching Cairo by 1952. At the outbreak of the Algerian War in 1954, Ben Bella was based in Cairo where he had become one of the nine members of the Revolutionary Committee of Unity and Action which headed the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), founded on November that year, during a secret meeting of Algerian leaders in Switzerland, in which they also ordered armed insurrection to the French colonists, that would start the war between Algeria and France.
He played an important role on the war leading the FLN, organizing the shipment of foreign weapons and coordinating political strategy. Although he wasn’t in Algeria, attempts against his life persisted. On 1956, he refused to receive a package delivered by taxi to his hotel at Cairo, and as the taxi drove away, a bomb exploded on it, killing the driver. Later the same year, while in his hotel at Tripoli, a French gunman entered to his room and fired, wounding but not killing him. The shooter was killed by guards while fleeing, on the Libyan border. On October, he was arrested in Algiers by French military authorities, whom intercepted the plane where Ben Bella was, arresting him. He was kept prisoner until Evian accords on 1962, and released on July 5. His arrest led to the resignation of Alain Savary, opposed to Guy Mollet's policies. Being captive dissociated his image of the errors that FLN had committed, so when he gained his freedom back, after the Evian agreement, on 1962, he had an intact reputation.
When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser brought Ben Bella to speak for the first time to an Egyptian audience, he broke into tears because he could not speak standard Arabic. Like many Arab revolutionaries of the time, he would come to describe himself as a "Nasserist" and developed close ties to Egypt even before independence was achieved. Nasser's material, moral and political support of the Algerian movement would come to cause Nasser troubles, as it played a major role in France's choice to wage war on him during the 1956 Suez Crisis.
Due to Pakistan's support for the FLN, Ben Bella was given a Pakistani diplomatic passport to make his foreign travels possible in the face of the international manhunt for him undertaken by the French and their allies. Ben Bella also traveled on a Pakistani diplomatic passport during the years of his exile from Algeria in 1980s.
After Algeria's independence, Ben Bella quickly became more popular. In June 1962, he challenged the leadership of Premier Benyoucef Benkhedda; this led to several disputes among his rivals in the FLN, which were quickly suppressed by Ben Bella's rapidly growing number of supporters, most notably within the armed forces, whose chief was Houari Boumédiènne. By September, Bella was in control of Algeria in all but name. He was elected premier in a one-sided election on 20 September, which was recognized by the United States on 29 September. Algeria was admitted as the 109th member of the United Nations on 8 October 1962.
As prime minister, Ben Bella turned on legalizing the seizures of autogestion which workers had spontaneously started. In March 1963 he drew up (with his circle of advisers) a set of decrees to nationalize all previously European-owned land. In his words, the “Tripoli program remained a dead letter, and independence and revolution made no sense, as long as Algerian soil was in hands of the big landowners”. He used his position to push for the approval of the constitution made by the FLN, and alienated allies: Mohammed Khider and Ferhat Abbas resigned their political charges in 1963, dismayed by Ben Bella's dictatorial tendencies which could be seen in the proposed constitution, as it enshrined a one-party state and rejected political pluralism. Nevertheless, this action presented no problem to the Algerian people: the constitution was approved and on 15 September 1963 Ben Bella was elected president of the country, unopposed and with an immense majority.
In his presidency, he had to deal with a country with no state tradition, with the hard duty of building a state out of nothing. Because of that, despite of his egalitarian way of governing, living with modesty, without using the previous governor's palace, and with an always open door, his actions in the government were not as beneficial as his generous intentions. After stabilizing the country, Ben Bella embarked on a series of popular but somewhat anarchic land reforms to the benefit of landless farmers, and increasingly turned to socialist rhetoric. His policy of autogestion, or self-management, was adopted after the peasants seized former French lands, and inspired Marxist Yugoslavia that Josip Broz Tito commanded. He also worked on the development of his country, instituting reforms, undertaking campaigns for national literacy, nationalizing several industries and calling for socialization of the economy and Arabization. However, many times he improvised on government, as with the National Solidarity Fund, when asking the Algerian people to hand up jewellery and banknotes.
In international relations, he had to maintain connections with France, and also accepted economic aid from U.S. and the Soviet Union. Moreover, he wanted Algeria to be a leader country of the third world liberation movements and of the third world itself. For strengthening relations with other colonies, Algeria joined the Non-Aligned Movement under Ben Bella’s regime, and he forged links with such African leaders as Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, Modibo Keita and Sekou Toure to aid rebel movements throughout Africa. He also established good relations with Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Cuba; after his 1962 visit Cuba sent a health mission to Algeria, with doctors and medical help, and later sent weapons and soldiers as aid during the Sand War against Morocco. He was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union on 30 April 1964.
During his regime, he had political problems with former leaders of the FLN, such as Mohammed Khider, Ferhat Abbas, Mohammed Boudiaf and Hocine Aït Ahmed. Ahmed founded the Front des Forces socialistes (Socialist Forces Front) (FFS) to confront Ben Bella and the others joined after being alienated by Ben Bella's dictatorial leadership. In 1963, the FFS called for an armed revolt against the regime. However, it had force only in the Kabylia region, and by the summer of 1964 the revolt was controlled and FFS leaders were arrested.
In addition to political opposition, Ben Bella faced religious opposition. The Association of the Algerian Ulema claimed that the “state Islam” that Ben Bella wanted to achieve was not an application of true Muslim values, but rather an attempt to please the population.
Added to this opposition, Algeria was defeated in the Sand War, humiliating the Algerian people, and Ben Bella found himself in a complicated place. At the end, his government finished surprisingly when in June 1965, while he was planning to host an Afro-Asian international meeting, he was deposed in a bloodless coup led by Houari Boumédiène, his defense minister. He was held for eight months in an underground prison, then for the next 14 years lived under house arrest.
After being deposed in 1965, Ben Bella was sent to an underground prison where he was detained for eight months. After that, he was transferred to an isolated villa in Birouta, where he was placed under house arrest for 14 years. However, he was permitted a private life there, and on 1971 he could marry Zhora Sellami, an Algerian Journalist. Their meeting, was arranged by Ben Bella’s mother. They became religiously observant Muslims, and adopted two girls, Mehdia and Nouria. After Boumedienne's death on 1978, restrictions on him were eased on July 1979, and he was freed on 30 October 1980. Ben Bella briefly resided in France, but was expelled in 1983. He then moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, and launched the Mouvement pour la Démocratie en Algérie (MDA), a moderate Islamic opppostion party, in 1984. In September 1990, he returned to Algeria, and in 1991 led the MDA in the first round of the country's abortive parliamentary elections. The MDA was banned in 1997.
Ben Bella was elected president of the International Campaign Against Aggression on Iraq at its Cairo Conference. He described himself numerous times in interviews as an Islamist of a "mild and peace loving flavour." Despite his former one-party state he later vocally advocated democracy in Algeria. He described the militant voice rising in the Islamic world as having developed from an incorrect and faulty interpretation of Islam. Despite the controversies, he was respected for his role in the anti-colonial struggle and was seen by many Arab intellectuals as one of the last original Arab nationalists.
He was also the chairperson of the African Union Panel of the Wise, which is mandated to advise the AU Commission on issues relevant to conflict prevention, management and resolution. The other members of the panel at the time were: President Miguel Trovoada (former President of São Tomé and Príncipe); Dr. Salim A. Salim (former Secretary-General of the OAU); Dr. Brigalia Bam (Chair of South Africa's Electoral Commission); and Elisabeth Pognon (former President of the Constitutional Court of Benin).
In February 2012, Ben Bella was admitted to a hospital for medical checks. At the same time, a report circulated that he had died, but this was denied by his family.
Ben Bella died on 11 April at his family home in Algiers. Though the reasons of his death were unknown he had been treated for respiratory illnesses twice at Ain Naadja. His body lay in state on 12 April before the funeral at El Alia Cemetery on 13 April. Algeria declared eight days of national mourning.