Students, state and society in a context of post-colonial (re)construction

Natalya Vince


How do you rebuild a country after 132 years of colonial rule and seven-and-a-half years of anti-colonial war?

In July 1962, Algeria became independent after 132 years of French colonial rule, and a seven-and-a-half-year War of Liberation (1954-62). Vast swathes of the Algerian countryside had been bombed by the French army and nearly half of the rural population forcibly displaced. Infrastructure had been destroyed, or was barely functioning. For the entire colonial period, the running of the administration, economy, hospitals and schools had been dominated by European settlers. In the course of 1962, most of them left Algeria. Replacing them was a huge challenge – in 1954, 86 per cent of the Algerian population was illiterate.


This project engages with the major preoccupation of newly independent African and Asian countries across the world in the mid-twentieth century: how do you (re)build a country after decades, and in some cases centuries, of colonial rule marked by political marginalisation, socio-economic impoverishment and cultural denigration? How do you become an international actor and (re)define what it means to belong to the nation? More mundanely but also most urgently, how do you provide access to healthcare? How do you begin to eradicate illiteracy? How do you get the trains, and perhaps even the planes, up and running?

“Problems of Independent Algeria”

Presented by François Perroux, published by Presses Universitaires de France in 1963.

Work available at: La Contemporaine

Part of the answer to these questions was international assistance (“coopération” in French) and international solidarity. In Algeria in the 1960s and 1970s, this came from France, but also the Soviet Union, Cuba, Yugoslavia and the Arab world. The transnational circulations of these economists, engineers, teachers and doctors have been of particular interest to historians in recent years, as demonstrated by the international project Socialism Goes Global [ ] and publications on Soviet-African relations,  and an ever-growing number of interviews with and studies of French “coopérants” in Africa. As in many countries across the capitalist and communist blocs and in the recently liberated former colonies in this period, Algeria opted for planned, state-led development, investing massively in education, healthcare, heavy industry, agriculture and oil and petrol.

Much less studied are the Algerians who contributed to (re)building post-independence Algeria, beyond a few major government figures who have written their memoirs. This is despite the fact that, in the 1960s and 1970s, it was widely held to be true that independence could only be fully achieved when the economy, education, healthcare and culture were in the hands of Algerians. This was termed “Algerianisation”. In many cases, positions of significant responsibility were taken up by a very small number men and women who had only recently finished their university studies. Some of these university graduates were also veterans of the War of Liberation, for others the war had been the background to their childhood or adolescence. In courts, hospitals, schools and factories, these graduates were supported by a slightly larger number of people who had a primary, or less likely, secondary, education and a much larger group again of Algerians who were illiterate but knew how to do an injection or repair a machine or without ever having set foot inside a classroom.

“War on Ignorance! I liberate! Teachers’ Guide”

Democratic and Popular Algerian Republic, National Commission for Literacy Programmes, c. 1963

Work available at: La Contemporaine

How many Algerian women and men were university-educated in the 1960s and 1970s?

Image: Visages de l’Algérie: l’enseignement supérieur, 1973, Work available at La Bibliothèque des Glycines

Very few Algerians had a university education in 1962. In 1962-63, there were 3,817 students at the University of Algiers, and a further 1,700 Algerian students studying abroad, for a population of around 12 million. In the course of the 1960s and 1970s, there were increasing numbers of graduates, but still relatively few of them. This had political and social consequences.


The careers of freshly-graduated students progressed rapidly. They often experienced significant social mobility – in many cases their own parents had been illiterate and belonged to rural or neo-urban populations. The demands of state building thus had a profound impact on shaping new relationships between parents and children, rural and urban communities and men and women. This did not necessarily mean a rupture with old hierarchies and forms of social organisation, but they took new forms.


The shortage of university-educated personnel also meant government ministries competing to recruit new graduates to be state-builders in their sector of the economy, be that health, policing or the petrol industry.

This made it relatively easy for students and graduates to move across university courses, sectors and jobs. Employers, including government ministers, often needed their employees more than employees needed them. This gave them margins of manoeuvre. Algeria after 1962 was an authoritarian political system with a single permitted party, that of the National Liberation Front (FLN). Decision-makers had to – more or less, or at least publicly – follow the same political line. But, for very practical reasons, the views and actions of those who played a key role in state-building without holding the levers of power were impossible to rigidly police all the time. As the pool of qualified personal grew in the course of the 1970s, the political system could afford to be more selective. In the immediate post-independence period, however, “the state” was something small, and not as centralised or top-down as the term “single-party state” implies. There were not large numbers of intermediaries between, on the one hand, the president and his ministers and, on the other hand, newspapers editors, university deans and even student activists. There was a proximity to the centre of power, which created a space for negotiation and compromise as well as scope for very personalised score settling.

L’Université (magazine)March/April 1975

source: La Bibliothèque des Glycines

The 1960s and 1970s are marginalised in the writing of the history of contemporary Algeria. In Algeria, the history taught in schools, celebrated on national days and the subject of the vast majority of historical publications is that of the anti-colonial struggle. History thus “ends” in 1962. As historian Malika Rahal has argued, after 1962, “the very texture of time appears transformed”. Internationally, the writing of Algerian history continues to be dominated by colonial history, the history of the war of independence and accounts of the civil violence of the 1990s.


In terms of general knowledge, 1960s and 1970s are often reduced to just a few key dates:

1962: Independence, implosion of the wartime National Liberation Front (FLN), Ahmed Ben Bella becomes president

1965: Ben Bella is overthrown in a coup on 19 June, replaced by Houari Boumediene

1969: Algeria hosts the pan-African festival

1971: The oil and petrol industries are nationalised

1978: Boumediene dies, replaced by Chadli Bendjedid in 1979


This is in striking comparison to the density of dates and events which are referred to when discussing the war of independence, or even the 1990s. And yet this same density of events can also be found in the 1960s and 1970s. In the Revue Algérienne des Sciences Juridiques, Politiques et Economiques (sept 1965, no. 2), published a “Chronologie politique algerienne” for 1964 and the first two months of 1965. It is 23 pages long for these 14 months, with almost daily events.

In the absence of published histories of the period “in between” 1962 and 1988, official or otherwise, the gap tends to be filled by generalisations and value judgements about whether this period was “good” or “bad”. The 1960s and 1970s tend to be talked about in two ways, which are contradictory, but nevertheless coexist. On the one hand, the anti-colonial struggle 1954-62 is described as having been “betrayed” by a repressive post-colonial monolithic and omnipresent regime which rejected political and cultural plurality. On the other hand, the 1960s and 1970s are presented as a golden age of education, economic development, culture and Algerian internationalism, when Algeria was considered “the Mecca of Revolution” for anti-colonial movements and leftists from around the world.


The stories which emerge here challenge these black-and-white judgments. They reveal a political system which was both authoritarian and disorganised, populated by politicians, civil servants and officials who could be both visionary and narrow-minded. They reveal the power of human will and hope in the face of material constraints, the importance of chance encounters and the desire to continually push the boundaries of the possible in a society undergoing a profound transformation. The stories travel from the local to the national to the international and back. This is Generation Independence.


 Source: Revue Algérienne des Sciences Juridiques, Politiques et Economiques, University of Algiers faculty of law library

 I- See the 2017 special issue of Cahiers d’Etudes africaines on “Elites de retour de l’Est” (226)

 II- Sabah Chaïb, “Les coopérants français en Algérie: récits croisés pour une ébauche de portrait” in Cahiers d’Etudes africaines (2016), 221-222, URL :, part of a special issue on “Mobilités et migrations européennes en (post) colonies”; Odile Goerg and Marie-Albane de Suremain (eds.) Coopérants et coopération en Afrique: circulation d’acteurs et recompositions culturelles (des années 1950 à nos jours) (Paris: Société française d’histoire des outre-mers, 2014); Aïssa Kadri (ed), Instituteurs et enseignants en Algérie, 1945-1975: histoire et mémoires (Paris: Karthala, 2014); Jean-Robert Henry et Jean-Claude Vatin (eds) Le temps de la coopération: sciences sociales et décolonisation au Maghreb (Paris and Aix-en-Provence: Karthala et IREMAM, 2012); Catherine Simon, Algérie: les années pieds-rouges: des rêves de l’indépendance au désenchanetment (1962-1969) (Paris: La Découverte, 2009)

 According to the Director of Higher Education, André Mandouze, Atlas Algérie (no. 13) 28 June-4 July 1963