He is the man who has challenged the established order and broken taboos. He is the first to question the sacredness of Algeria’s territorial integrity. For some, he is a hero. For others, he is a plague.
Is Ferhat Mehenni a terrorist? Singer, musician, author-composer-performer, he is also a formidable politician. More like a political activist. He neither knows nor likes to make political calculations marked by opportunism, lies and deceit. He is a militant who never deviates from his principles, whatever the price to be paid. And he has paid dearly, so far.
A graduate in political science from the University of Algiers, this former secondary school Arabic teacher experienced the pains of poverty at a very young age in a village in Kabylia that had given all its men for Algeria’s independence. When his father fell on the field of honour, arms in hand, there were no more men to bury him. The women took over. Ferhat Mehenni was still a child. Despite his young age, he saw himself, as tradition dictated, taking on the heavy burden of head of the family as soon as he turned 18.
To make him feel this heavy mission, his mother married him off, and he was quick to respond to his family’s needs by interrupting his secondary school studies to train as a secondary school teacher. At the age of 21, he sat the baccalaureate examination as an independent candidate and passed. He enrolled at the Institute of Political Studies in Algiers. From there, he began a new life. That of fighting for the rehabilitation of Amazigh (Berber) culture. To lead his struggle, he has a guitar, texts he writes himself and music he composes thanks to a divine gift that many others envy him for. His army: a troupe of young musicians from Kabylia, that rebellious and resistant region. But it is also a region that has given birth to many renowned artists, such as El-Hadj M’hammed El Anka, Mohamed Iguerbouchen, Idir, Djamel Allem and Lounis Aït menguellat in music, Mohamed Issiakhem in painting, Mohamed Fellag in theatre, Azzedine Meddour in cinema and Ferhat Mehnni in committed song, to name but a few.
Ferhat Mehenni gave his musical group the name “Imazighen Imoula”. The Berbers of Imoula. Hence his stage name “Ferhat Imazighen Imoula” to mark his belonging to the village where he was born on 5 March 1951, Iloula Oumalou.
His entry into the arena of militant struggle was marked by a song dedicated to the Berber cause, “aqcic d uattar” (the child and the beggar) in 1976. Thus began the long road that Ferhat Mehenni would travel, with all the alliances, sympathies, support and also betrayals that it entailed. Many betrayals. Many comrades abandoned him along the way. Others even tried to assassinate him, as he recounts in his book “Noël en otage” published in 2015. Many others avoided him since he was classified as a terrorist by the Algerian regime. Terrorist by decree published in the Official Gazette along with other MAK activists, other activists of the Rachad movement and other bloggers or journalists including the author of these lines.
Ferhat Mehenni, one of the architects of the Berber Spring of April 1980, was also a founding member of the first league for the defence of human rights in Algeria, under the leadership of the late teacher Ali Yahia Abdenour, before participating in the creation of the Meeting for Culture and Democracy, a secular opposition party, which he left in May 1997 for “reasons of betrayal of the Berbers”, he says, and adds: “Said Saadi (editor’s note: president of the RCD) betrayed Berberism and democracy. He trains people against democrats in general and against the FFS in particular”.
In 2001, in reaction to the violent riots in Kabylia, he founded the MAK (Movement for Kabylia Autonomy). A movement that would become more radical, moving from the demand for autonomy for Kabylia to self-determination. A bold demand in a country where the current government makes territorial integrity and national unity a juicy business to maintain itself, even if it is the first to attack these two sacrosanct principles by marginalising entire regions and populations.
We asked Ferhat Mehenni to tell us about this movement, so feared by the political-military powers in Algiers, to enlighten our readers about its present and its prospects. With his usual bonhomie, he was very amenable to our game of questions and answers.
Could you give us a brief presentation of your movement, the MAK?
The Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylia (MAK) is a new type of political organisation. It is a non-violent national liberation movement. It defends the right to self-determination of the people on the basis of the fundamental texts of the UN and the right of peoples to self-determination. It questions the principle of the intangibility of borders inherited from colonisation, which has become a dogma of the African Union, thus unwittingly prolonging the colonialism that it was supposed to put an end to in the 1960s.
What percentage of the Kabyle population supports the cause of Kabylie independence?
In an Algeria where polls in general, and statistics on Kabylia in particular, are forbidden, we have to resort to the ballot box and the street to assess the rate of support of the Kabyle population for their independence. To the MAK’s call to boycott the Algerian elections, Kabylia has responded massively by achieving the null vote in the presidential elections of 12/12/2019, the constitutional revision of 01/11/2020 and the legislative elections of 12/06/2021. Add to this, the huge marches of the Kabylie people organised in Kabylia and abroad, and make your own assessment of the rate of Kabylia’s adherence to the legitimate demands of the MAK.
I am sure that if the authorities were convinced of the outcome of the ballot box in your favour, they would be the first to call for a democratic solution by referendum.
You were a leading figure in the Berberist movement in Algeria. Today you give the impression that you have abandoned the struggle for Berber identity in Algeria and North Africa in general.
Since the creation of the World Amazigh Congress (September 1997), the cultural struggle for Amazighness (Berberness) has been taken up by structures on a global scale. A lot of progress has been made, especially in Morocco and Libya. This has freed me to narrow the scope of my commitment to the Kabyle people’s sole right to self-determination. I have given so much for the Amazighs that they understand perfectly well the priority of my militant investment in favour of Kabylia.
Your opponents, and in particular the Algerian regime, accuse you of having betrayed the memory of your father, who died for Algeria, while you are fighting to separate Kabylia from Algeria. Do you think your accusers have remained faithful to this same paternal memory?
My father fell on the field of honour, arms in hand, for the ideal of freedom that continues to inspire me. It is the same ideal that animates Kabylia, all the generations together, since Fadma N Summer (1857) who refused the annexation of Kabylia to French Algeria, in the same way as those who had organised the Kabyle insurrection of 1871, namely Chikh Aheddad and King Mokrani.
The last part of your question is pertinent. It is very likely that if the military who have taken power in Algeria by force since 1963 had remained faithful to the memory of those who had made the supreme sacrifice for the freedom of Algerians, we would have a different story, but I am sure that I would have arrived, in any case, at the same approach that I am taking today, that of claiming the right to self-determination for Kabylia. For a people worthy of the name cannot dilute itself into any political entity other than its own. The only proof of this is the construction of the European Union and Brexit.
The MAK, despite its totally peaceful character, is classified as a terrorist organisation by the Algerian authorities and international arrest warrants have been sent to Interpol for your arrest. Aren’t you afraid of being arrested and extradited?
My fate matters little to me. I am 72 years old and my whole life has been dedicated to the peaceful struggle for human rights and the rights of peoples. I have been in prison many times and it is as familiar to me as the threat of death. I know that death, torture and prison are the price of freedom. I accept the consequences.
My greatest sorrow today is the fate reserved for all the activists arrested, raped and unjustly convicted during sham trials, at the end of which 54 death sentences are pronounced against innocent people, as well as hundreds of sentences of years in prison, just for the love of the freedom they want to obtain by peaceful means for the Kabylie people.
I am also thinking of the whole of Kabylia, which is terrorised by the supporters of Algerian colonialism and which, through prison and blackmail, is trying to impose its silence. I am thinking of the hundreds of thousands of candidates for emigration. I am thinking of the 70 000 Kabyles who are banned from leaving the country and for whom Algeria has become an open-air prison.
You are preparing to install a new team of the interim government you preside over, at the same time as organising a march on 16 April in Paris, as well as rallies all over the world. Can you tell us a little more about it?
The 5th Congress of the MAK has just taken place on 15/01/2023. Mr Zidane Lafdal, who had been prime minister since 2017, has just become vice-president of Anavad and a new head of government has just been appointed in the person of the young Hanafi Ferhouh, already sentenced to death by the Algerian colonial regime.
As for the 16 April march in Paris, from the Bastille to the Republic, it will be grandiose and amplified by the actions of the Kabyle diaspora in Montreal, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago.
In Paris, this year, we will have many foreign delegations who will offer us the fraternity and friendship of their solidarity presence.
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