MANDELA, LEARNING FROM OTHERS’ MISTAKES: 8 – (Angolan Angers, Zimbabwean Tragedy, and a host of others)

(Lessons from the first (mis)steps following modern Africa’s independence)

Next to South Africa and Rhodesia, the Portuguese colonies remained for many years a rallying magnet for panafrican liberation passions and efforts. In the seventies, as a result of sustained armed resistance, coupled with a sharp socio-political mood swing in Portugal, they eventually got their independence. But even they did not fare much better in the management of the riddles of independence. In oil-rich Angola, for instance, three groups had engaged in the colonial war against Portugal. As independence approached, they each laid claim to the leadership of the country and proved unable to recognise the gravity of the situation. They failed to bring up the serious will to negotiate a difficult but necessary compromise on power sharing, of anchoring the principles of democracy as well as building the institutions that support it. Instead they turned their guns on each other and, with the same fervour with which they had fought a patriotic colonial war, plunged the country into a selfish and unpatriotic civil war. Shamelessly, each side called upon both sides of the Iron Curtain for arms and help, to help them kill their fellow Angolans. The U.S. sent arms and European mercenaries, the U.S.S.R sent arms and heavy artillery, China sent arms and logistics support, Cuba sent training instructors and special forces, apartheid South Africa – launching from its South West Africa base – sent whole columns of fighting troops, Zaire and Zambia sent advice and moral support. And the Angolans made war on each other. Angola, who had just obtained liberation from Portugal, made herself into a proxy battle theatre for the Cold War, with a mix of apartheid strategic interests. Angola thereafter became the reaping fields of decades of internal unrest, bereft of the will towards the essence of democracy – i.e. compromise and power-sharing.

These are just a few examples. The list goes on, of historical examples of what happens when independence or liberation are not followed by the constitutional upbuilding of a political system, rooted in conciliation, unification and equitable sharing of power, the democratic spirit, to which the leadership – terminal and law-abiding – submits itself; leadership by example. Guinea, Libya, Togo, Benin, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Burundi – … fill in the blanks – all also went a similar way. Or be it even capitalist Kenyatta in Kenya who ruled for fifteen years until he died in Office; or socialist Nyerere in Tanzania who ruled for twenty-four years before handing over to a hand-picked successor; or Senghor in Senegal who bowed out only after twenty years and five terms in office; or Kaunda in Zambia who relinquished power after twenty-seven long years as President – all strong personalities during whose tenures, like with Houphouët-Boigny, their countries avoided the violent descent into some of the extreme forms of chaos that manifested in some other countries – their reigns nevertheless all exhibit one common feature, homogeneous with the rest of the continent. The long, autocratic nature of these foundational presidential tenures or regimes in Africa undermined the nurturing of a democratic political tradition of broad parliamentary participation, separation of powers, the repeated cycles of free elections, change of governments and regimes, rotation and sharing of responsibilities.

For more than two decades after independence, the military held Algeria in the iron grip of a one-party dictatorship that controlled political, cultural, social, religious and intellectual life, but offered no solution to the pertinent Algerian riddles. The french-algerian question, the Algerian-Berber question, the military-democracy question, the religion-state question. All these conflicts tormented the soul of the nation. Every side is convinced of its own superiority, even to this day. The concept of a solution that contains – voluntarily – a bit of everything, remains, for many, a challenge in contradiction.

“You have inherited a jewel. Keep it that way.” These were the words of advice that Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere is reported to have given to Robert Mugabe as he became the first democratically elected leader of the new free state of Zimbabwe. And yet… even Zimbabwe, which, dropping the oppression-name Rhodesia, became free and independent a full twenty years after the African year of independence, did not learn anything from the events of those two previous decades. As though Africa had no recent history from which she could learn, Zimbabwe promptly repeated the mistakes of other African nations before her. Robert Mugabe had been in power for ten long years by the time Mandela was released from prison in 1990; for fourteen years by the time Mandela became president of South Africa; for nineteen years by the time Mandela stepped down; and is still the leader of Zimbabwe even today, after Mandela’s death. In this year of 2016 Robert Mugabe celebrated his ninety-second birthday, and yet, despite internal and external pressures on him to let go of power, in the face of decades-long manifold accusations of bigotry, nepotism, oppression and bias, he continues to insist on the perpetuation of himself in office. In quiet moments what must he think when he reflects upon how his friend and mate – Mandela – handled his own country’s transition? Mugabe himself was also once a freedom fighter who endured eleven years of imprisonment at the hands of his people’s oppressors before independence. Yet, when he became president of a liberated Zimbabwe, he also ended up squandering the momentum of independence, doing everything other than create a broad-based conciliatory democratic upbuilding that could have harnessed all the strengths and potential of this great country’s diverse peoples. Today he presides over an impoverished, divided, isolated, tense Nation.

UPDATE: In Nov 2017, One year after this article was written, the Zimbabwean Army unceremoniously ousted old man Mugabe from Office as he continued trying to clutch onto power. He was deposed, and died two years later in the well-equipped hospitals of a foreign land.

Che Chidi Chukwumerije.

… continued in Part 9 of 11:
MANDELA, LEARNING FROM OTHERS’ MISTAKES: 9 – (Sharing Power and Passing It On)

Preceding chapters:
MANDELA, LEARNING FROM OTHERS’ MISTAKES: 3 (Tunisian Troubles, Libyan Losses, Ethiopian Woes)
MANDELA, LEARNING FROM OTHERS’ MISTAKES: 5 – (Ghanaian Black Holes & Ivorian Time Bombs)
MANDELA, LEARNING FROM OTHERS’ MISTAKES: 6 – (Nigerian Nightmare & Congolese Chaos)

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