When Liberation Movements don’t Liberate – and What Africans Can do About it

The problem, fundamentally, was that the African liberation movements seldom had a plan for growing the economy and building the society beyond liberation. Instead, they replaced one set of elites with another.

6 April 2023 ·   7 min read

When Liberation Movements don’t Liberate – and What Africans Can do About it

By Kizza Besigye, Tendai Biti, Abel Chivukuvuku and Greg Mills

In 1960, 18 African countries acquired their independence from the colonial powers, an unstoppable surge of political self-determination that was to lead quickly to the formation of the Organisation of African Unity in May 1963 with 32 members and carried on until the liberation of South Africa more than three decades later.

But this was only one version of liberation, from the rule of white colonial powers. Other liberations were necessary, including from the liberators themselves.

For those heady days in which the political kingdom, to paraphrase Kwame Nkrumah, was sought, were quickly brought down to earth. While African economies initially boomed at independence — at least if measured in terms of wealth per capita — rising from $1,135 in 1960 to peak at $1,529 in 1974, soon began a long period of decline, bottoming out at $1,174 in 1994. This has since slowly risen again to reach $1,600 per capita across Sub-Saharan Africa today. The average wealth across East Asian and Pacific countries, by comparison, rose tenfold over the same period from $1,112 (poorer thus than Africans at the time) to $11,741 now.

The initial African boom was largely brought about by redistribution to a new elite. When that once-off dividend had been made, together with a combination of lower commodity prices, poor economic choices and management, systemic political instability followed. In a vicious downward economic and governance spiral the number of military coups d’état averaged four per year in the 1960s and 1970s.

The problem, fundamentally, was that the African liberation movements seldom had a plan for growing the economy and building the society beyond liberation. Instead, they replaced one set of elites with another, while lacking the managerial controls and external links of their predecessors. Monopolies, subsidies and price controls continued and in some cases were strengthened in the interests of post-independence elites and their power.

Whereas the first liberation was aimed at shifting sovereign power from the colonial authorities to Africans, this was achieved only in the context of the structures laid down by the colonialists, from land to laws. The African elites that took charge at independence quickly realised that the populations did not possess the knowledge or organisational structures to hold them accountable, whereas the departed colonial powers continued to exercise influence over the young states while deriving benefits and pursuing privileges.

There are of course differences between liberation regime types, relating to their political history, cultures, traditions, geographic and climatic situations and constraints. The processes undertaken by different countries to achieve independence have had an important bearing on the post-independence trajectory. Where this was achieved following military resistance and revolution (for instance, Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe in southern Africa), these regimes have a different trajectory compared to those where sovereignty followed non-violent resistance (such as Botswana, Zambia and Tanzania).

War delivers liberation less the compromises and subtleties of negotiation leading to a more vicious approach to rule. Similarly, in those countries where there has been direct military rule post-independence through coups or civil wars, there are different power dynamics to those continuously under civilian governments.

But there are also similarities. For all of the different manners and façades, Tanzania under Julius Nyerere and the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) was brutal, detaining opponents, and running a totalitarian, police state. And post-Nyerere, opposition leader Tundu Lissu was arrested at least six times in 2017, accused of sedition, insulting the president and disturbing public order by the regime of John Pombe Magufuli. In September 2017, Lissu was shot 16 times by AK-wielding “unknown assailants”.

Whatever the regime type, however, the vast majority of the African population remained excluded and marginalised in the post-colonial order. And as their numbers have expanded, the means and services available to them have continued to dwindle.

‘Second liberation’

Hence, the widespread “second liberation” from the original liberators across most African regions, a trend which has only, however, touched southern Africa.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Uganda’s second liberation followed in 1971, for example, in the form of a brutal military dictatorship led by Idi Amin which staged a coup against Milton Obote’s government. Obote’s return after 1979 ended with his removal by the National Resistance Movement led by Yoweri Museveni in 1986.

This pattern of political instability has been replicated in many African situations; and yet this second liberation has, in Uganda and elsewhere, mostly failed to bring about the type of economic change and growth necessary. It turned out that the second liberators were little different from the first, again substituting one rent-seeking elite for another and failing to fulfil promises of better governance and democratic rights.

Some of the military coups were engineered under the influence of the erstwhile colonial regime in taking advantage of the intimate knowledge and relationship with the military leaders of the nascent post-colonial regimes, and taking advantage of weak administration and poor economic conditions. They were less, in this way, a second liberation, than a return to the patterns of pre-independence elite rule.

The perpetuation of first and second-generation liberation movements has been made possible by a combination of factors beyond the simple resort to fear and brutality along with the politics of identity.

Increasing political apathy (such as in South Africa) has played a role along with the failure of opposition movements to mobilise and get properly organised, a cynicism on the part of the international community which prefers short-term stability over accountability and financial returns over social and political values, a preference on the part of donors to view the problems of development as technical rather than political, and widespread migration of those elites who might have been agents of political change.

A pattern of economic extraction

As a consequence, a pattern of economic extraction has continued, enabled by regimes which in most instances are highly authoritarian and favour, as in Uganda, dynastic rather than democratic succession. The liberation movements have displayed a surprising capacity to reproduce themselves among younger generations, with the same degree of entitlement and ownership. The regime can reproduce in part by harvesting the fear planted decades ago.

The political economy has in the process continued to favour policies and decisions in the interests of a small minority, usually described as “rentier” — relying on extracting income from rents, usually from foreign entities, rather than developing through improving productive capacity and competitiveness. Essentially, the elite shapes policy choices and practices in a manner that enriches them before all others.

This can take multiple forms. The case of South Africa’s vast network of contracts related to its fleet of coal-fired power stations illustrates how procurement contracts can be abused. From tenders to build new power stations to maintenance contracts, coal-mining agreements and contracts to haul massive amounts of coal by road, these contracts have gone to those connected to the ruling party. The consequences for power generation have been disastrous, with sub-standard coal being delivered and costs spiralling out of control.

Another is in terms of import substitution — where high tariffs on foreign goods penalise the poor while ensuring a local elite gains an uncompetitive market share. The same applies to local or racial ownership stipulations, ensuring a politically protected class. Fixed exchange rates are another method where the difference between the government and the market rate creates the conditions for local arbitrage, essentially enabling elites to buy at one (fixed) rate and sell at another (market) price, while at the same time reducing the competitiveness of exports.

Not only does the existence of these systems hinder development progress and the improvement of productive capacity, but it has a negative impact on the creation of open political systems. While elites are reluctant to give up their preferences, in an unhealthy development pact, the relative absence of taxation as a means of state income correspondingly can make citizens less demanding and politically engaged.

Patronage and power

This system lasts as long as there is enough patronage and power to pay insiders — relatives, trusted friends, influential families — off with contracts, cash and appointments. But as the state hollows out, and the population inexorably increases, there is less to go around. Outsiders get angry, people flock to the cities in search of income, and the state invariably gets both more brutal and interfering as it searches for means of income and control in a tautology of destabilisation and violence.

Elections are still held, but in an environment where fair political competition has been disabled by repression, domination of the media space, internet shutdowns and the manipulation of vote counting.

World map


Browse our content by country

Explore now

To a great extent, this situation perpetuates because African electorates have been unable or unwilling to see liberation movements for what they are, and these movements have exploited every division in remaining in power.

If we seek to end the corrupt, ineffective autocracies that have put many African countries in deep crisis, we need clarity on what should change. This is because there have been very many changes in leadership; using varied means; only to end up in the same or worse spot.

The means of change has a bearing invariably on the outcome. A conspiracy of some political and military elites can bring an end to an unpopular autocratic regime. However, there is little chance of such a change in engendering a more democratic, effective and accountable government.

The desirable and sustainable change we should seek, therefore, is one whose outcome is a more democratic, effective and accountable dispensation.

To do so, it is vital to instil a critical level of active, informed and organised citizenry. Achieving this in the face of repression, fear, and control of the economy and media, among other tools, is the defining role of pro-democracy activists.

Not only do these activists have to prepare a narrative that is popular without being populist, and attractive to the masses while remaining constructive, but there is a need to avoid giving the regime what it wants — violence, for instance.

Africa’s activists have to support democratic struggles elsewhere — in Ukraine, for example — just as they would expect support from outside. While the overall lesson here for Africa is that outsiders cannot be expected to protect its interests, outsiders too have to realise that their longer-term interests lie invariably in great accountability and openness rather than the pursuit of narrow versions of stability over democracy.

African oppositions also must seek to create a gravitational effect, by operating under fronts formed less around ideology, but focused instead on agreement about governance, including welfare provisions, service delivery, the rule of law and the establishment of a meritocracy.

And for their part, Africa’s citizens have to apply the same judgment to African oppositions as they do to their ruling parties in assessing their prospects. Continuing to place faith in those incumbents with a poor record of reform on the grounds that the opposition does not perfectly ascribe to the voters’ preferences is to apply a double standard and undermine the power of choice and deny the possibilities of change.

Thus, the burden of responsibility for past failures and the prospects for a better future has to rest on Africans themselves.

This article originally appeared on the Daily Maverick