No Power to the People Yet! Failed Liberation and Democratization Projects in Sub-Saharan Africa By Voice of Micah

Concepts of liberation and democracy especially in African politics, have over the last half a century now, conveniently mutated, crystallized and embraced political under and overtones, depending on circumstances. It is not uncommon in regular political rhetoric to hear about democrats and liberation fighters, democratization struggles and wars of liberation.

In southern Africa, in particular, the language of liberation is almost synonymous to political formations such as the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO), the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) in Namibia, the Movimento Popular de Libertaҫᾶo de Angola (MPLA), and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).

There is something unique and subtle in the way these terms are used especially in official circles and in relation to the citizenry. Somehow, memories of sacrifice are invoked with indelible references to the people’s pursuit of freedom from the alien minority settlers’ rule. These are bitter and painful memories of protracted political and armed struggles, suffering and torture; and in many instances, terrible loss of life. Fallen men and women, old and young alike, fighting fearlessly for freedom and independence remain unaccounted for in unmarked graves, deep in the jungles and trenches in many parts of southern Africa and even beyond.

Again, this typical application of the terms carries nuances of overarching political legitimization, especially for the military and political forces that previously spearheaded either struggles for independence or liberal democracy, and are now firmly in power as new rulers and masters in place of the colonizers whether British, the Boers or Portuguese. Not long ago, perhaps more revealing was the Zimbabwe Defense Forces’ unwavering pledge never to salute anybody who did not share a place with them in battle frontlines and trenches during the struggle.

On 9 January 2002, two months before the presidential elections, Zimbabwe’s military and security chiefs issued a statement announcing that they would not tolerate any president who did not observe the objectives of the liberation struggle. Their argument was that the highest office in the land was a straightjacket whose occupant was expected to observe the objectives of the liberation struggle. Regardless of whatever that statement meant, it is clear that sentiments like these carry suggestions of citizens’ indebtedness to the military and political establishments for their particular role and contribution in the struggle for independence. This dispels any practical suggestion, at least for now, that political legitimacy is something deriving from popular trust.

Instead the defeat of the colonial forces by the military and political compatriots on behalf of the people, this is considered to be the real and singular source and foundation of legitimacy, notwithstanding whatever liberal constitutions may say or allude to. It’s this historic struggle, often held as sacrosanct, and nothing else, that is supreme. It’s this struggle that conceived and gave birth to liberal constitutions in the first place, and not the other way round.

In return, it is expected of the people, almost as a matter of obligation, or as a token of gratitude, to render unwavering loyalty to the political and military establishments that claim such irreplaceable space in the history of liberation or democracy. Undoubtedly, circumstances like these make remote any thought of typical civil leadership democratically replacing parties with liberation credentials at least for now and possibly in the foreseeable future.

However, there is quandary in the sense that, somehow, this phenomenon is not restricted to political parties or regimes that have historical roots in the jungles and trenches, as it were. The feeling of legitimacy as deriving from the conquering of either the colonial state, or the one man, one party dictatorship, other than something rooted and springing forth from the popular will of citizens is, surprisingly, equally evident in political parties with civilian foundations like Malawi.

In this part of the world, it is not unusual, for instance, to hear claims, “we brought you independence”, “we brought you democracy, or “we have given you development.” Thus whether it’s about the quasi military or typical civilian political formations; both share a single premise where the majority of citizens are pushed aside, conveniently left out of the margins of power, and never seriously considered as the basis of political power and legitimacy.

Despite its popularity and entrenchment in liberal constitutions, the principle of power to the people remains just a slogan on the lips of the civil and political elite, and nothing beyond that for the ordinary women and men. Any attempt by citizens to claim their space in the name of power to the people, political establishments quickly move in often with assistance of either the police or military to intimidate and even to shoot and kill. Thus, a pervasive feeling exists of a citizenry beaten flat out and defeated by their own governments leading to the state of powerlessness. We consider this phenomenon to be the most serious problem in African politics today.
In these series we would like to investigate the experience of this state of defeat of the citizenry, a defeat that culminates into disconnection and dispossession by citizens despite independence and the reintroduction of liberal democracy in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Further, we would like to interrogate the common political miscalculation and subsequent projection of either race or autocracy, as the basis of the struggle for independence or liberal democracy, in contrast to the nature of the colonial state itself, as a problem and therefore, the real basis of the struggle for independence and liberal democracy. Stated differently, the question of race or autocracy has often been posited as the locus of the struggle against colonization or for liberal democracy, and not the modern state itself.

We argue, in this article, that the colonial state, or what could preferably be called the state problem, other than race or autocracy, is fundamental to the failure of the liberation and democratization projects in sub-Saharan Africa including Malawi. We consider Ernest Wamba-Dia-Wamba right when he concludes his critique by attributing this state of affairs to the wide spread failure of what he calls, emancipatory politics.
For Dia-Wamba, the analysis of African politics in terms of historical modes of politics remains to be done. This is necessary, he argues, in order to make it possible to differentiate the African creative political modernity, among other things, from the mere adoption or adaptation whether by African politicians, scholars and even civil society actors, of alien political modes or formulas in the name of modernization.
To be continued!

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