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African liberation: Complete but unfinished – a big fragile travesty



This is an extract from a paper presented to “Africans after Mwalimu J. K. Nyerere’s Century 1922-2022: Reflections on the Present and Future”, Mwalimu J. K. Nyerere Centennial Intellectual Festival 8-10 June 2022 by Professor Ibbo Mandaza.

As Zimbabwe remembers the late liberation movement founding nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo’s death on this day – 1 July – in 1999, The NewsHawks publishes this summary of Mandaza’s presentation to capture the former vice-president’s observation that “a nation can win freedom without its people becoming free”.

Zimbabwe, like many other African countries, is now independent, but not free.

Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with total liberation of the African continent.

Kwame Nkrumah, Independence Speech, Accra, Ghana, 6 March 1957.

It so happens that the unpreparedness of his educated classes, lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps. National consciousness, instead of being the all-embracing crystallization of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilisation of the people, will be in any case only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been.
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.

The hardest lesson of my life has come to me late. It is that a nation can with freedom without its people becoming free.

Joshua Nkomo, The Story of My Life, 1985.

We are both ‘others’ abroad and still ‘others’ in Africa. Do we not deserve a place to call ‘ours’ where we can enter or leave without hindrance? We may never quite be Nigerians, South Africans or Kenyans, Chadians or any of the possible colonially-induced artificial creations, but at least we can be who we are: Africans. An African citizenship will restore to all of us what is naturally ours.

Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, For an Africa of free, equal and dignified citizens.

IT remains historic – and the virtual fulfillment of Kwame Nkrumah’s statement on 6 March, 1957 – that white settler colonialism and apartheid were finally overcome in Southern Africa.

Besides, the armed struggle, as both a necessary enterprise and an ideological movement, raised the hope and expectations that it would therefore yield a better economic and political dispensation than had hitherto visited those of Africa who had attained independence formally in the 1960s.

This is quite apart from those expectations which, in retrospect, were either naive or self-serving on the part of the respective subscribers, that such an intense and protracted armed struggle would inevitably and almost simultaneously yield a socialist dispensation, resolve the National Question, and trigger the levers of progressive economic and social development.

Rightly or wrongly, the narratives and debates attendant to the liberation struggle in Southern Africa pervaded scholars and activists alike across the continent, not least in Dar es Salaam itself, the headquarters and rearguard.

They fed into, and overlapped with, notions of a “second independence struggle” in neo-colonial Africa, projecting the Pan-Africanist dream of a truly free and united Africa.

The ideology of the armed struggle was contagious in those days in a Dar es Salaam that had also become a home for exiles from Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo, in addition to those from Southern Africa. For example, it was out of the University of Dar es Salaam that Yoweri Museveni, then a student under Nathan Shamuyarira, produced a short dissertation on Frelimo’s armed struggle in Mozambique.

However, it was not long after the attainment of independence in Zimbabwe in 1980, that such lofty hopes of a new era began to dissipate, often in the cynical conclusion that post-liberation Southern Africa was a case of history repeating itself.

Yes, the 1970s were years of hope and expectations that Africa as a whole would recover from the mess into which it had descended during the period since independence in the 1960s. The Lagos Plan of Action of 1980 was largely a representation of such an agenda for action, including the launch of the regional organisations – the Economic Commission of West African States (Ecowas) and the Preferential Trade Area for Eastern and Southern Africa – as the building blocks for an African Union to be launched subsequently in Abuja in 1993.

But with the turn of the 1980’s, such expectations receded into a mixture of diffidence, indifference and even despair about the African condition. In the prevalence and deepening economic crisis that militated against the expectations attendant to the attainment of political independence.

The reality that, notwithstanding the formal end of colonialism, African liberation is as complete as it is unfinished. Including the apparent irony that it is precisely in those countries (of Southern Africa, especially Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa) who waged an armed struggle, in which liberation is most incomplete.

In the glaring disparity between, on the one hand, the ‘ceremonial trappings’ of national independence that include a Black majority-led state, a flag and anthem; and, on the other, an economy characterised by the continuities and inequalities of white settler colonialism.

Including the unresolved Land Question and, in the case of South Africa and Namibia, the prevalence of white racism, as much in attitude as in conduct.

In this regard, even Zimbabwe is not yet out of the woods, not to mention the lingering undertones of the Land Question.

For the reasons mainly attendant to what I have described as the political economy of the post-white settler colonial situation, it is the Southern African context, including the subscription to (historical and economic) exceptionalism in South Africa in particular, that the unfinished business of African liberation would appear to be most pronounced in comparison with the rest of the African continent.

This is an observation that should prompt the need to interrogate the concept of “African liberation” in general and substitute it with one more appropriate to the current discourse, namely post-colonial or post-independent Africa.

Both are no less problematic conceptually, but they assist in highlighting the key factors that render African liberation incomplete so far.

First, the history of post-colonial Africa is really about the state which the petty bourgeoisie inherits at independence. The bourgeois state without the national bourgeoisie nor the requisite paraphernalia that gird it in terms of its European or antecedent.

Yet, it is on the basis of that model that the post-colonial state has to be assessed in the first instance, particularly the democracy deficit – the vision of a democratic society in which the violations and denials of the colonial era would be a thing of the past and a new meritocracy established.

As Claude Ake explained:

The language of the nationalist movement was the language of democracy, as is clear from: I Speak of Freedom (Nyerere), Without Bitterness (Orizu), Facing Mount Kenya (Kenyatta), Not Yet Uhuru (Odinga), Freedom and Development (Nyerere), African Socialism (Senghor), and The Wretched of the Earth (Fanon). It denounced the violation of dignity of the colonized, racial discrimination, lack of equal opportunity and equal access, and economic exploitation of the colonized. The people were mobilized according to these grievances and expectations of a more democratic dispensation.[1]

More than half a century to post-independence, Africa as a whole has demonstrated a glaring (economic and political) incapacity to fulfill this vision. Unlike the bourgeois state after which model it is in pursuit, the African nation-state-in-the-making lacks the economic foundations – and the anchor (or national bourgeoisie) in particular through which two inhere a commendable level of national confidence, project national interest, and create a national economy. Hence the continued hegemony of parasitic and comprador classes, most of whose members have grown pari passu this post-colonial economic pathology, and are largely dependent upon the State, international capital or an institutionalized aid regime.

This is in the import of the quotation from Frantz Fanon at the head of this article; a point highlighted by Amilcar Cabral:

Our problem is to see who is capable of taking control of the state apparatus when the colonial power is destroyed… The peasants cannot read or write… The working class hardly exists as a defined class… There is no economically viable bourgeoisie because imperialism prevented it being created. What there is a stratum of people in the service of imperialism who have already learned how to manipulate the apparatus of the state – the African petty bourgeoisie: this is the only stratum capable of controlling or even utilizing the instruments which the colonial state used against our people. So we come to the conclusion that in colonial conditions it is the petty bourgeoisie which is the inheritor of state power (though I wish we could be wrong). The moment national liberation comes and the petty bourgeoisie takes power we enter, or rather return to history, and thus the internal contradictions break out again.

The story about this (petty bourgeois) class is to be elaborated shortly, as an integral part of the neo-colonial order in Africa and, as such, how elements of it have morphed into the comprador bourgeoisie that is currently at the centre of the state in many African countries. But here is to highlight some of the excesses attendant to the political economy of the state, as an illustration of both the incompleteness of political independence itself and, in many cases across the continent, abject failure in terms of promoting an “Africa of free, equal and dignified citizens”, to quote Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem.

As Willie Mutunga’s brilliant piece of satire illustrates, one of the symptoms of the democracy deficit in post-colonial Africa is the “Big Man” syndrome, and the commensurate subversion of the national institutions, including a captured judiciary, a lame legislature and an unaccountable executive.

His face is on money, his photograph hangs in every office in his realm, his ministers wear gold pins with tiny photographs of him on the lapels of their pinstriped tailored suits. He names streets, football stadiums, hospitals, and universities after himself. He carries a silver inlaid ivory rungu or an ornately carved walking stick or a flywhisk or chiefly stool. He insists on being called doctor or being the big elephant or the number one peasant or nice old man or the national miracle or the most popular leader in the world, his every pronouncement is reported on the first page.

He shuffles ministers without warning, paralysing policy decisions as he undercuts pretenders to his throne. He scapegoats minorities to show up popular support. He bans all political parties except the one he controls. He rigs elections. He emasculates the courts, and he cows the press, he stifles academia. He gives the church. The Big Man’s off-the-cut remarks have the power of the law. He demands thunderous applause from the legislature when ordering far-reaching changes in the constitution.

He blesses his home region with highways, schools, hospitals, housing projects, irrigation schemes and a presidential mansion. He packs the civil service with his tribesmen… His enemies are harassed by youth wingers from the ruling party. His enemies are detained or exiled, humiliated, tortured, or killed.

As in the case of countries like Zimbabwe, the “Big Man” syndrome has degenerated into the securocrat state, with securocracy as the very antithesis of democracy. Ruling without or despite the popular will.

As I have elaborated elsewhere,[2] the securocrat state is one in which “national security” takes primacy, with the military-security complex as a dominant factor in the power complex that is the state. Zimbabwe’s securocracy has its origins in the liberation struggle – in both Zapu and in particular Zanu – in which one of the enduring pathologies therein was a blatant militarism at the expense of ideology and politics.

As such, the military-security factor reigned supreme over civil and political relations. Of special significance in contemporary Zimbabwe is the extent to which, under the direction of the head of state himself, the military-security factor has, since 2000 in particular, sought to pervade social and political relations, compromise or contradict public policy issues, subvert the electoral system and purge political rivals to the incumbent “Big Man”.

Not surprising, therefore, that these are the same people who took Mugabe out through a coup in November 2017. It had been through them that Robert Mugabe emerged as head of government in 1980; perpetrated the Gukurahundi genocide (1983-87) as part of the one-party state agenda; saved him from the poll defeat in 2008 through nothing less than a coup; and have been central to an electoral system the main hallmark of which is rigging and violence.

Therefore, both the reality of the securocrat state itself and the November 2017 coup in Zimbabwe stand as an indictment of the African Union which has been at best indifferent or at worst in quiet support of such a blatant abrogation of constitutional democracy and the related requirement that the military belongs in the barracks.

It is hardly a comforting observation that the Zimbabwean situation is far from an exception in a post-independent Africa in which constitutionalism, the rule of law, independent national institutions, and a non-partisan military-security sector, remain a remote goal as part of the African liberation agenda.

The second factor that is a consequence of the foregoing and renders African liberation incomplete, is the unresolved national question or the extent to which the nation-state-in-the-making remains work in progress.

Apart from Tanzania in particular, which can be said to have achieved a commendable degree of success in this regard, Zambia, and to some extent Ghana and Malawi, most of the nation-states-in-the-making have either failed in the latter enterprise, are running a high risk of the disintegration of whatever had been achieved in previous decades, or remain purely as the territorial landmass that was defined and bordered by such bankrupt colonial masters as the Portuguese following the Congress of Berlin in 1884.

As I have observed elsewhere:

It is true that conflict in Africa increasingly takes on the form of ethnic conflict. But this is mainly because of the abject failure of the post-colonial state in those countries in which such conflict is rampant. An examination of each of the conflict situations would no doubt reveal strong historical and political bases for the failure.

But invariably, the failure has to do with the following: the nature of the colonial impact on a given country, what George Balandier calls the colonial situation or the complexity of political, economic and social conditions that were thrown up in the process; the structure and class composition of the given society; the manner and conduct of the transition from colonial rule to political independence and its aftermath; and the nature and content of the post-colonial state, including its capacity to reconcile and mediate competing and contending forces within the society.

Indeed, no single post-colonial state has succeeded entirely in the establishment and maintenance of the nationalist coalition that was supposed to be the basis of nationhood. This is why the term nation-state-in-the-making is used herein, indicating the unfinished agenda of the resolution of the National Question.

For many of these nation-states-in-the-making, the ideology of national unity can no longer conceal the demise of the Social Contract concluded on the eve of national independence. Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that, with the economic and political malaise that characterises most African countries, there is likely to be a declining capacity to hold things together, such failure expressing itself through social strife and civil war.

However, there are important variances and differences between one African country and another, with respect to the nature of the state and its capacity for nation-building.

Professor Mandaza is a Zimbabwean academic, author and publisher. He is also the director of Southern African Political Economy Series, a regional think- thank, and convenor of its policy dialogue series.



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