Lakhdar Bentobbal: An insider’s view of Algeria’s FLN

By Renaud de Rochebrune
Posted on Wednesday, 10 August 2022 13:22

Lakhdar Bentobbal in 1962, Algiers ©Jeune Afrique Archives

The historian Daho Djerbal has published the second volume of the memoirs of Lakhdar Bentobbal, subtitled "The Conquest of Sovereignty". A remarkable work based on accounts that the Algerian independence activist gave to the author between 1980 and 1986.

There are already hundreds and hundreds of books on the Algerian war, including on the Algerian side, of all kinds: more or less exhaustive accounts of the whole conflict or of such and such an episode of the fight for independence, memoirs by mujahideen or politicians – mainly from the National Liberation Front (French acronym FLN) but occasionally from the Messalist movement or the communist sphere – essays on the close or distant origins of the war, on its course and the way it was prolonged after independence…

But there are still some “holes” for those who want to know what happened since the beginning of colonisation in 1830, but also and especially within the FLN during the war of liberation, from 1954 to 1962. The main one, certainly, concerns the memories of the main actors of the armed struggle, those who were ‘in charge’ and could therefore describe in detail what they did and what they saw.

An unpublished document

If among others, the former presidents of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (French acronym GRPA), Ferhat Abbas and Benyoucef Ben Khedda, the former GPRA minister of foreign affairs Saad Dahlab or the former ‘boss’ of Wilaya II, Ali Kafi, have certainly written books, they are more like essays than narratives or texts – undoubtedly very interesting but very subjective. Of course, one will never be able to read or hear oral histories of Larbi Ben M’hidi, Abane Ramdane, Zighout Youssef, Mostefa Ben Boulaïd or Amirouche, all leaders who disappeared during the hostilities.

Nor can they hear from Krim Belkacem, Abdelhafid Boussouf, Ahmed Ben Bella or Houari Boumédiène, to name but four of the major actors of the war up until 1962, who died well after independence without having left anything to feed historians or those who would like to know how the struggle was thought out, organised and led by the FLN leaders. This is why the recent publication of two copious volumes (published by Chihab) of the Memoirs of Lakhdar Bentobbal, a nationalist and independence activist since his youth at the very end of the 1930s, is a real event. The Algerian politician was a front-line witness to the struggles of the FLN, which he led on the ground in Constantine in the mid-1950s, and then to the action of the GPRA, of which he was continuously one of the main leaders from 1958 to 1962.

Boumédiène, Ferhat Abbas, Ben Bella…

If the document is exceptional because of its mere existence, having no real equivalent that tells the story of the FLN’s leadership from 1954 to 1962 from the inside, it is also exceptional because of its content, which is unusual from one end to the other. The account that Bentobbal gave to the historian Daho Djerbal over a period of six years between 1980 and 1986 bears the mark of the author, a ‘pure and hard’ man who was an uncompromising follower of the revolutionary line among the independence fighters, close to the people and especially to the people of the countryside. A man who never hesitated to make his point of view – generally very radical – known to other nationalist leaders and, towards the end of the war, during the negotiations in which he participated, to the representatives of the French state. And who, far removed from those in power after independence, was probably all the more inclined to speak without a filter and without taking into account the ‘official’ version of history imposed by the regime.

This certainly explains why we had to wait nearly forty years for a transcript of these words, which the author’s family – against his wishes – did not want to authorise. Hence this publication was finally made without their accord.

The portraits that Bentobbal offers us here and there of his companions in the struggle for power are unkind and sometimes ferocious. Among others, Boumédiène is described as power-hungry from the time of the famous National Liberation Army (ALN) “meeting of the ten colonels” in late 1959, and as capable of “treachery” for ordering the execution of Captain Zoubir in early 1960, in violation of a solemn promise to spare him.

Ferhat Abbas does not escape criticism either. He is described as an “abdicator” for having been ready to compromise during the peace negotiations over the Sahara (“One cannot sacrifice oneself for sand”, he is said to have told a horrified Bentobbal). Dahlab is considered “very superficial”. Concerning Aït Ahmed, his study proposing to give a Maghrebian dimension to the Algerian revolution is judged “aberrant”. Ben Bella is described as ready to do anything to head up the country, Belkacem Krim is obsessed by his desire to lead the GPRA. Mohammed Khider is “versed in agitation” and “lacks the stature of a statesman”. And Amirouche is unable to understand how he was manipulated during the terrible purge he ordered against all the “intellectuals” in his wilaya in 1958 and 1959, which led to the death of thousands of mujahideen…

Revelations about the war

Bentobbal, as we can see, does not spare the heroes of the war of independence, who were his comrades in combat. He also distances himself from the conventional discourse to tell the story of the war, from its beginnings to independence. This is what makes his accounts from the inside so interesting, full of unpublished information on most of the crucial moments of this war, such as the “meeting of the 22” (the one where the main “activists” of Messali Hadj’s nationalist party, then in the middle of a crisis, and future leaders of the FLN, decided definitively in the summer of 1954 to launch the armed struggle against the coloniser), the outbreak of hostilities on 1 November 1954, which had a disappointing outcome in the Constantine region, the conception and implementation of the August 1955 offensive in the same region – which spectacularly relaunched the war of independence less than a year after its beginning – the preparation and holding of the FLN Congress of Soummam in secret inside Algeria in the summer of 1956, which saw the temporary triumph, to Bentobbal’s great regret, of the partisans of the pre-eminence of “civilians” or “politicians” over the “military” at the initiative of Abane Ramdane and his allies.

Press conference of Ferhat Abbas, President of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA), in Tunis, 29 September 1959. Standing with glasses, M’Hamed Yazid, information minister. Seated, Krim Belkacem (3rd left) and Lakhdar Bentobbal (2nd right). ©AFP

But it was also the revenge of the “military” (with Bentobbal in particular, who was an ally of Krim and Boussouf), who took de facto power that they would never give up, just over a year after the Soummam, whose decisions they overturned (in particular by giving the “military” pre-eminence over the “civilians”, a decision with serious consequences for the future of Algeria), the creation of the GPRA and the incessant struggles for power within it or between this government and a number of leaders of the ALN, the terrible period for the independence fighters of the French military revival after General de Gaulle’s return to power in France in 1958 and the devastating offensives of the Challe Plan from 1959 onwards, the “meeting of the ten colonels” in late 1959, the diplomatic initiatives to obtain better support from the Soviets and the Chinese (who wanted to see some sort of “international brigades” sent to the operating theatre).

And finally, all the episodes of secret or public negotiations between the French government and the independence fighters, in which Bentobbal participated and which finally saw the FLN achieve all its war aims in 1962, starting with independence without the slightest loss of territory.

The mystery surrounding the death of Abane Ramdane

Among all the revelations and details contained in these accounts, it is undoubtedly necessary to set aside those concerning the seizure of power within the FLN by the “military” and above all its consequence, namely the elimination of Abane Ramdane in late 1957. We know that the assassination of the latter – for a time known as FLN’s strong man by his fellow fighters – the circumstances of which were not known, apart from insiders, until long after the end of the war, remains largely a controversial affair.

Why was it necessary to get rid of this man at all costs, a man whose stature, probity and revolutionary convictions no one denied? Who, among the FLN leaders, decided to kill the organiser of the Soummam Congress? Were there any other hypotheses envisaged to remove him from power permanently? How was he executed? Although he does not completely answer all these questions, Bentobbal, while reaffirming, as he had already done, that he was certainly in favour of the forced removal of Ramdane, but personally against the assassination, gives many convincing details on the collective responsibility of the main members of the FLN leadership in this “affair”. This undermines once more the denials of Krim Belkacem, Mahmoud Chérif and Amar Ouamrane, who often tried to exonerate themselves from the crime.

Determined and disappointed militants

What general impression does one get from reading Bentobbal’s memoirs? First of all, one is impressed by what they reveal about the incredible determination of all the nationalist militants and independence fighters before and during the Algerian war. It need not be underlined to what extent the war was murderous and often at the limit – or even beyond the limits – of barbarism. One is equally impressed, even if it is not revelation but a confirmation, often with unpublished details, by the bitterness of the permanent internal struggles within the FLN, where the settling of scores between leaders was merciless and where – to use an expression of Mao Zedong’s – the revolution was not to be thought of as “a gala dinner”.

Finally, as far as revolution is concerned, one can understand to what extent “pure” people like Bentobbal were disappointed by post-independence Algeria, where the leaders hardly gave him satisfaction in terms of what seemed to him to be essential, namely a policy solely at the service of the people, far removed from personal rivalries.

Lakhdar Bentobbal – Mémoires de l’intérieur (Memoirs From Within) – 400 p, €15.99

Lakhdar Bentobbal – La conquête de la souveraineté (The Conquest of Sovereignty) – 304 p.

Collected, edited and annotated by Daho Djerbal

Chihab Editions (October 2021, March 2022)

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