How Algeria Became a Home to Africa’s Guerrillas, Anti-Fascists and Liberators

After fighting for its independence, the country exported its ideology — and arms — across the continent

How Algeria Became a Home to Africa’s Guerrillas, Anti-Fascists and Liberators
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine

“The Algerian army made me a man,” declared Nelson Mandela as soon as he landed in Algiers on May 16, 1990, choosing the country that had introduced him to armed resistance as his first stop on his diplomatic tour after being released from prison in South Africa. Barely out of the plane and still inside Boumediene Airport, the revolutionary figure spoke of the influential time he spent in the training camps of the Algerian National Front of Liberation (FLN) in 1962, where, alongside fighters from the FLN’s armed wing, he learned about the ideology — and practicalities — of leading a war of liberation. Mandela would reflect fondly on his time with the FLN in his 1994 memoir, “Long Walk to Freedom,” despite it being the main reason he would be branded as a “terrorist” when arrested and sent to prison that summer.

Mandela’s recollection of Algeria’s support for the African National Congress (ANC) testified to the crucial but forgotten role the country played in Africa’s decolonization throughout the 1960s. At the start of the decade, the newly born North African state was signing its independence after winning what The New York Times called “the cruelest colonial war of the modern epoch.” As many as 1.5 million Algerians died in the eight-year conflict, instigated by the FLN with independence as its central aim. The war itself was riddled with guerrilla warfare and war crimes; the political turmoil it caused in France forced the undoing of the Fourth Republic.

But the successful armed struggle for independence enabled Algeria to position itself as the spearhead of African liberation and the champion of pan-African unification. A foreign policy focused on providing material and political support to every African liberation movement propelled Algeria to the forefront of a nascent postcolonial order overflowing with optimism and idealism for a new Africa — free, anticolonial and revolutionary.

“Well before we won independence, our country was conscious of its responsibility toward the peoples engaged in struggles against colonialism like we were,” Ahmed Ben Bella declared in his first public address as prime minister of the independent state of Algeria during the Nov. 1, 1962, celebrations held to mark the anniversary of the FLN’s insurrection. His speech was punctuated by thunderous troops marching, the sheer number of which garnered a telling comment from Tunisia’s foreign minister: “There are arms enough in this country to supply all of Africa.”

Within a year, Ben Bella had successfully supplied such cross-continental material support. His first action was to transform Algiers into a host city welcoming any liberation movement, guerrilla group, anti-fascist organization, opposition party or exiled revolutionary seeking refuge, training or help. By the end of 1963, more than 80 organizations found safe haven in the capital city, including representatives from colonized countries across the continent: Namibia seeking independence from Germany; South Africa from Dutch settlers; and Angola, Mozambique and Cape Verde from Portugal. All were given villas and official buildings — vacated by the French a year prior — to live in and work from, a monthly stipend and passports to travel to international conferences for diplomatic work, as well as weapons and supplies to train their militants. Seven hundred South African freedom fighters were training in Algerian camps to learn the FLN’s guerrilla-style warfare, 60 Congolese cadres were interning in the FLN’s government to learn about revolutionary politics, and all officers from the Canary Islands’ independence movement were training in Algerian military schools.

The capital city that had been destroyed by French troops during the 1957 Battle of Algiers was now sheltering every aspiring revolutionist and exiled militant. In its streets brewed radical, subversive theories and hope for a new order led by a free, united Africa. Stephane Hessel, a French diplomat stationed in Algiers, would explain this utopia in his memoir: “Dissidents from every authoritarian regime in the Southern Hemisphere flocked to Algiers to devise the ideology that came to be known as ‘Third Worldism.’ It rejected the inertia of Western civilization and counted on the new youth of the world, who sought to liberate themselves once and for all.”

Home to some of the most famous revolutionary fronts in the world, from the ANC to the Black Panthers, Algiers was baptized the “Mecca of Revolution” in 1967 by Guinean nationalist militant Amilcar Cabral who, speaking with a journalist, declared: “Take your pens and write: Muslims go on pilgrimage to Mecca, Christians to the Vatican, revolutionaries to Algiers.”

Algeria’s bloody efforts to wrench itself from French control became a clarion call to so many movements, which saw their own struggle reflected in its fight for independence. “The situation in Algeria was the closest model to our own,” wrote Mandela in his memoir, “in that the rebels faced a large white settler community that ruled the indigenous majority.”

Algeria’s unwavering dedication to African liberation followed its 132-year struggle against French occupation and colonization. In 1830, France invaded Algiers to distract public opinion from the failing Bourbon monarchy and a divided, roiling country. After 41 years of war, France declared Algeria a metropolitan department, reducing natives to second-class subjects devoid of any citizenship status while French settlers moved en masse to what they deemed their new territory. The resulting order was upended when the FLN launched a series of violent attacks across Algeria on Nov. 1, 1954, after decades of thwarted legal resistance.

The seed of Algeria’s radical solidarity with other colonized states was planted during the next seven years of war by the FLN’s prime theorist, Frantz Fanon, an Afro-Caribbean former psychiatrist living in Algiers. Fanon, who was born in the French overseas department of Martinique, had been responsible for the psychiatric care of patients distressed by the French army’s routine use of torture and the consequences of a century of subjugation. He used the Algerian experience to theorize liberation: To him, Algeria was demonstrating to the world that independence could be seized only by force, never gifted.

To publicize the Algerian cause across Africa, Fanon led the FLN’s delegation to join heads of African nations at the All-African Peoples’ Conference, hosted by Ghana, in 1958. There, he included Algeria in a long list of African countries choked by the hand of Euro-American imperialism. Fanon upheld Algeria as a “guide territory” where “the rot of the [colonial] system … the defeat of racism and the exploitation of man” was at stake. In his 1964 book, “Toward the African Liberation,” he eloquently described the FLN’s pan-African mission: “Having carried Algeria to the four corners of Africa, we shall return with all of Africa towards African Algeria, towards the north, towards Algiers, continental city, and launch a continent upon the assault of the last rampart of colonial power.”

By the time independence was declared, the FLN’s liberating action against a colonial state, which had reportedly displaced 2 million Algerians into surveillance camps and killed 1 million people, had won the country admiration, moral authority and a long list of supporters among African heads of state. Because Algeria had gained recognition as the first African country to win its independence by means of force, it became natural for the FLN to advocate for the country’s responsibility to help other African nations win back their freedom.

In every speech, Ben Bella would highlight Algeria’s “duty toward our African brothers,” defining brotherhood not by blood or ethnicity but by degree of revolutionary zeal and the commonality of a history of suffering under colonialism. “The Africans expect a great deal from us. We cannot let them down,” Ben Bella stated in a public address, explaining that “Africanism [is] deeply embedded in the [Algerian] popular consciousness.”

To achieve Africa’s unity, mending the ideological divide that split the continent was a first necessity. While radical states like Algeria, Sudan, Congo-Brazzaville and Guinea believed in a pan-African project achieved through revolutionary means, more conservative states still had ties to Western governments and were distrustful of revolutionary rhetoric. To rally them, Algeria promoted the use of force as a tool of liberation. As ardent defenders of armed resistance, the FLN argued for the necessity of violence as underlined by Fanon in his final study of the Algerian war, “The Wretched of the Earth”: Occupation being a violent phenomenon imposed through violent means, the colonized had no choice but to take back the initial violence and force it upon the occupying powers in order to break it.

Through Fanon’s philosophy, the FLN successfully rallied supporters of nonviolent resistance to its cause, like Ghanaian Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah, whose commitment to nonviolence dwindled after the FLN’s visit in 1958. Similarly, following his initial time in Algeria, Mandela concluded that “South Africa ruled by the gun could only be liberated with use of force,” despite years of having believed that peaceful liberation was possible. Colonialism “understands only the language of force and violence,” Ben Bella would explain. “We tell our South African brothers that hunger strikes and demonstrations will get you nowhere.”

With the African political limelight increasingly occupied by radical states, the continental city of Algiers established as the mecca of revolutionaries, and the FLN military camps full of African resistance figures, the pan-African unity and revolutionary solidarity Algeria had dreamed of leading was taking shape. One event in April 1963 would propel it to greater heights — the creation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The new intergovernmental institution was the first of its kind, designed as a continental equivalent to the United Nations, free from Western influence and oversight.

A month later, the largest African Union festival was organized to celebrate the founding of the OAU, which opened its doors in Addis Ababa. The choice of Ethiopia as a host was immensely symbolic: It was the only country in attendance that was never under the yoke of colonialism. The festival welcomed 32 African countries and upheld culture and art from every corner of the continent to give concrete expression to African unity and identity.

There, Algeria took the stage, front and center, and for Ben Bella, it was time to talk of blood. “We have spoken of a development bank. Why haven’t we spoken of a bank of blood to come to the aid of those who are fighting in Angola and elsewhere in Africa?” the Algerian president declared in one of his many flamboyant speeches. “We have no right to think of eating better when people fall in Angola, Mozambique, in South Africa. But we have a ransom to pay. We must accept to die together so that African unity does not become a vain word.” He continued, “Let us all agree to die a little … so that the people still under colonial rule may be free.”

Impassioned and charismatic, Ben Bella never missed an opportunity to take the mic and call for collective responsibility. Yet his enthusiasm was not without a patronizing tone and risked giving rise to a cult of personality. Struck by the talk of martyrdom and the belligerent imagery conjured, one attending journalist recorded, “I do not think that I have ever had such a profound sense of African unity as when I listened to Ben Bella, tears in his eyes, visibly moved, urging his listeners to rush to the assistance of the men dying south of the equator.”

Melodramatic as they were, the speeches from the Algerian contingent did produce tangible measures — the OAU festival concluded with the creation of a Liberation Committee and an African Battalion tasked to come to the aid of revolutionary and liberation movements in need of weapons, money or militants. The committee’s role was to coordinate support among states and consolidate newly won independence by fostering cooperation across the continent.

Through the committee, Algeria started to advocate for African solutions to African problems. In 1963, Ben Bella blocked British military aid meant to be sent to Tanganyika (now Tanzania) to resist armed mutiny and provided arms to Prime Minister Julius Nyerere instead. The goal was to maintain sufficiency within the continent and avoid being indebted to the West.

While Ben Bella rebuked Western states for their interventions in Africa, he did not hesitate to come to the aid of Latin American and Middle Eastern movements. He defied the embargo to meet with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, welcomed a delegation of the Venezuelan National Liberation Front, inaugurated an embassy and an African-American center for the Black Panthers in central Algiers, and opened the first office abroad for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah.

These actions quickly attracted the ire of the American press. To The New York Times, Ben Bella was bordering on hubris — the paper painted Algeria as being “proud to the point of arrogance,” criticizing the government’s constant need to “meddle in the affairs of others.” The criticism did not stop Algeria from continuing to export its support for radical movements internationally, choosing to let its diplomatic ties with America and Britain fray and leaning toward non-Western countries instead. It was a decisive choice in the context of a Cold War that drew lines between pro-Soviet and pro-Western blocs.

But transnational revolutionary solidarity and unity was a heavy demand to ask of a continent the size of Africa. Although the first half of the 1960s brimmed with limitless possibility and galvanizing talks, application of the policies set in place by the OAU was lukewarm at best. Conservative African states continued trading with Portugal and South Africa despite the embargo enforced by Algeria, and too many did not meet their mandatory financial contribution to the Liberation Committee. Meanwhile, liberation movements began to grow frustrated by conservative states’ efforts to constrain their activities and the Liberation Committee’s constant oversight. To some, the committee had become a stifling authority rather than the intended facilitating institution.

During a decade when a new international order was rapidly taking shape, African states’ had to prioritize consolidating their own statehood. Ghana’s idea of African federalism was shut down soon after being promoted — a weakening of the nation-state was not a price African countries were ready to pay to establish pan-African unity.

Simultaneously, African solidarity was used as a tool to serve national sovereignty. The FLN’s own colorful speeches about Algeria’s duty and responsibility toward colonized peoples conveniently fed into the country’s heroic myth of resistance, one forged in this period to heighten nationalism and delineate national identity. In 1963, Ben Bella summoned and used revolutionary pan-African fervor to cement its borders and discredit Morocco’s territorial claims after the monarchy launched a military offensive to gain control over a portion of Algeria’s Sahara region. To garner the African community’s overwhelming sympathy and support, the Algerian government made a case highlighting Morocco’s alliances with the United States and France. “This aggression is a battle between progressive republic and conservative monarchy, between revolution and imperialism,” proclaimed Ben Bella. Morocco’s King Hassan II was thus isolated and was one of the only African heads of state who did not attend the OAU’s festival in Addis Ababa.

Domestically, Ben Bella’s international appeal and Algeria’s leadership role in Africa came with dire consequences. Kabyle separatist movements paid the price of a policy that upheld a unified national identity at all costs and that refused to accept ethnic diversity and the culture of the Amazigh people indigenous to Algeria. Many Algerians criticized Ben Bella as a hubristic president who preferred fixing the world’s problems instead of focusing on Algeria’s grim socioeconomic realities.

Ben Bella’s dream of Algeria as the social leader of the “Third World” was brought to an abrupt end in June 1965 after his right-hand man, Houari Boumediene, orchestrated a military coup against him. The event triggered outrage across Africa. The heads of many states had woven threads of affinity with the outspoken and charismatic Ben Bella, and his ouster was regarded as an unforgivable betrayal. Following the coup, the ties that held radical African countries together unraveled and the diplomatic relations with revolutionary leaders soured.

Boumediene, in his first address to the nation, did attempt to reaffirm Algeria’s principle of unconditional support to revolutionaries: “The riches of the third world have served the interests of the rich nations. It is time for those nations to understand that economic colonialism — like political colonialism before it — must vanish.” Yet the personal relationships that Ben Bella had forged never fully transferred to Boumediene.

Throughout the 1960s, the “country of a million martyrs” proved its dedication to anticolonial solidarity by giving substance to African unity and support to liberation movements. But unifying the continent and holding it together proved to be an ambitious project that failed to take into account the inner divisions and contentions of Africa’s nascent independent states. By the beginning of the 1970s, domestic upheavals and the demands of a growing capitalist order got the better of Algeria’s revolutionary idealism and its left-leaning, radical foreign policy.

The last gasp of utopia in Algiers came with the 1969 Pan-African Cultural Festival, which brought together singers, artists and intellectuals from every African country and diaspora to perform in the name of African unity and revolutionary consciousness. There, dissidents and revolutionaries from the continent mingled with the likes of poet and author Maya Angelou and the Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael in between sets by famous Tuareg musicians and Nina Simone.

On a hot July night, the South African singer Miriam Makeba took to the stage at the main stadium to perform some of her greatest anthems to freedom. Makeba, who had become stateless after South Africa revoked her citizenship for criticizing the regime and calling for an arms embargo at the U.N., had been granted Algerian citizenship several years earlier. “I am honored to have the nationality of a country that did so much for the liberation of Africa,” she said at the time.

As the heat settled and the crowd buzzed, Makeba raised the microphone to her lips; her strong, pure voice rang out as she sang, in the Algerian dialect, “Ana hourra fi al-Jazair, watani, umm al-shaheed” — “I am free in Algeria, my homeland, the mother of martyrs.”

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