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The Troubled Democratic Transitions of African Liberation Movements

Zimbabwe's recent political crisis has provided a lens into the challenges many African countries face in transitioning from their founding liberation movement political structures to genuine, participatory democracies.

Left to Right: Members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in South Sudan; an African National Congress rally in South Africa; a ZANU-PF poster in Zimbabwe. Photos: Tim McKulka, Mike Hutchings, Babak Fakhamzadeh.

Zimbabwe’s recent political crisis has provided a lens into the ongoing challenges many African countries face in transitioning from their founding liberation movement political structures to genuine, participatory democracies. While often a source of dynamism and reform in the early years, such movements may also foster stagnation and become an entrenched obstacle to power sharing and accountability. Legitimacy conferred by the struggle tends to foster a sense of entitlement to rule among liberation leaders and parties. As the euphoria of liberation subsides, mismanagement sets in, public confidence plummets, and opposition grows. Violence, in turn, becomes an increasingly frequent means for ensuring compliance.

Liberation, Legitimacy, and Entitlement

Liberation movements have an indelible imprint on a country’s national identity. The “struggle” becomes a founding narrative around which all citizens can rally—and a vital source of legitimacy for the new ruling party. In Tanzania, membership in the ruling Tanzania African National Union party (renamed Chama Cha Mapinduzi, or CCM) was a requirement for entry into the military and civil service from the party’s founding in 1961 until 1992, when multi-party politics was introduced. Similar policies were adopted by ruling liberation movements in Algeria, Angola, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Uganda, to name a few. All liberation movements established political schools to propagate their ideologies and train civilian and military cadres in the party’s ideology, leadership, and management ethos. The emphasis on ideological doctrine draws significantly on the Chinese liberation model and, in fact, Chinese support for political schools remains a mainstay of the country’s engagement in Africa.

The emphasis on ideological doctrine draws significantly on the Chinese liberation model and, in fact, Chinese support for political schools remains a mainstay of the country’s engagement in Africa.

The legitimacy conferred by the struggle extends beyond borders. Established in 2007, the Former Liberation Movements of Southern Africa, which includes the ruling parties of Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, is a powerful voice in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Its members, who hold regular summits, were pivotal in establishing the Frontline States Alliance, the forerunner of SADC that originally coordinated the armed struggle against apartheid and colonialism. Critics of SADC’s perceived failures in resolving the long-running crisis in Zimbabwe claim that solidarity with ZANU-PF trumped demands for government accountability. Similar criticisms have been levied against the African Union, where liberation movements continue to wield enormous clout.

Over time, the perception of legitimacy evolves into a feeling of entitlement. In the minds of its supporters, the liberation movement is a lifelong mission. Power is viewed as a means of fulfilling that mission. As a result, term limits and other checks and balances are treated as mere technical hurdles in the way of advancing the mission, rather than as the structures meant to prevent the monopolization of power. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whose National Resistance Movement (NRM) was the first to unseat an incumbent government in post-colonial Africa, explains, “Freedom fighters see leadership as a sacrifice, not a job.” The late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi adopted the name “Meles” to honor a founder of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front who died in the struggle. What appeared as a mere name was in fact a reminder of an unfinished mission.

In the minds of its supporters, the liberation movement is a lifelong mission.

This conviction confers in the minds of former fighters a “virtually permanent claim on state power,” according to liberation movement specialist Christopher Clapham. This has created a tendency to circumvent term limits, consolidate power, and foster reliance on coercion and patronage. The ideals of the struggle then degenerate, as exclusion, largesse, and regime survival take over.

Additionally, most movements are afflicted by “pathologies of militarism over politics, brute force to instill conformity, witch-hunting, abuse of women and vulnerable groups, and ethnic politics” that date back to the struggle, says Ibbo Mandaza, a leading historian of the Southern African liberation movements. These pathologies continue in government, he argues, breeding “impunity and disdain for national institutions, and accountability.” Predation and violence then become entrenched and in time, “the legacies of the struggle are seen as a curse,” says Clapham. With only weak checks and balances on leaders, liberation movements are also susceptible to being subverted to the interests of the few and can simply transform into a new form of authoritarianism.

A Mixed Record in Championing Reforms

The impulse by leaders to reverse reforms they once championed is strong. The collapse of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and subsequent civil war, came fairly quickly (two years after independence). South Sudan had all the hallmarks of the post-liberation challenge: highly militarized politics, pervasive entitlement, determination to hold on to office at all costs, and the use of force to settle political disputes.

ZANU and ZAPU military chiefs: Lookout Masuku of ZIPRA and Solomon Mujuru of ZANLA.

In Zimbabwe, these reversals took longer. The country inherited robust institutions and one of the highest literacy rates in Africa. The liberation movement fostered strong civic activism, a free press, a thriving economy, and better race relations. However, tensions dating back to the struggle shattered the post-liberation consensus. The partnership between ZANU-PF, which primarily drew its support from the Shona population in the south, and the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU), whose supporters were concentrated in the mostly Ndebele north and west, crumbled after independence. In 1983, violent conflict erupted between their respective armed wings, ZANLA and ZIPRA, within the new army and among guerillas awaiting integration. After an intensive three-year military crackdown by the Zimbabwe National Army in Matabeleland, the stronghold of ZAPU, opposition swelled, and the government responded by establishing a de-facto one-party state in the early 1990s. By 2000, national institutions had been coopted, ignored, or dismantled. Violence then moved to suppressing opponents, first outside ZANU, then increasingly within it.

In some cases, the esteemed legacy of the liberation movement inhibits the party’s ability to enforce accountability measures on its leaders. In South Africa, landmark judgments by the judiciary and groundbreaking investigations of the executive branch by the Office of the Public Protector speak to the resilience of the country’s institutions. Still, spiraling corruption, attacks on independent bodies, and efforts to expand executive privilege under the presidency of Jacob Zuma are proving to be difficult tests. Former South African President and party leader, Thabo Mbeki, has lamented that the ANC has not lived up to the values of its founders. Benefiting from the ANC’s supermajority, Zuma has survived six impeachment attempts. He has also resisted efforts by the ANC’s Integrity Commission—its once-powerful internal watchdog—to censure him (783 charges have been levied against him in the courts).

In 2005, Uganda’s Museveni similarly relied on a supermajority to remove presidential term limits. The NRM is now championing the removal of the presidential age-limit clause, a move that would pave the way for him to run for a sixth term. Uganda’s institutions have not always been so easily coopted. The 1995 Uganda Constitution was hailed as a model of participatory constitution-making. The Sixth Uganda Parliament (1996–2001) was vibrant despite operating under the “movement system” in which opposition political party activity was not permitted. It sacked several cabinet members for abuse of office and presided over several independent institutions, including the Human Rights, Equal Opportunities, Amnesty, and Law Reform Commissions. However, as democratic space narrows and anti-opposition violence becomes more pronounced, concern is growing that the NRM might trod the same path as many of its sister movements.

Politics Leading the Gun

The military, as “keeper of the liberation heritage,” is first and foremost an instrument of the party.

Armies of liberation see themselves as “militants in uniform,” said the late Amilcar Cabral, leader of the Guinean and Cape Verdean independence struggles. From this perspective, the military, as “keeper of the liberation heritage,” is first and foremost an instrument of the party and the roles between political cadres and soldiers are fused. “The political and ideological orientation of the army does not waver,” says Henry Matsiko, the Chief Political Commissar of the Uganda Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF). Matsiko, who once headed the NRM’s National Political School, oversees political education on the traditions of the struggle in the UPDF. In South Sudan, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Moral Orientation in the SPLA carried out this role. In Tanzania, this was the responsibility of CCM’s Subcommittee on Defense, which also exercised command and control. Similarly in Uganda, the High Command—a party/army structure formalized by Parliament in 2005—exercises command and control above the defense ministry. Its membership includes former fighters who sat on the NRM/NRA High Command during the bush war.

Proponents of the army/party interface say it instills effective civilian control. According to Museveni, “A revolutionary is first and foremost ideological; military comes second.” Others however, suggest that the blurring of lines is often abused to draw the military into partisan politics, especially during times of crisis. In South Sudan, power struggles within the SPLM/A quickly spilled into the army and took on ethnic undertones. Similarly, the November 2017 military intervention to oust Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe was a culmination of a long-running internal ZANU-PF power struggle. Military chiefs cited their obligation to take “corrective measures” because the “gains of the struggle were threatened” by the “purging of party members with a liberation background.”

Keen to avoid such dangers, Mozambique, Namibia, and Tanzania advanced professionalism, as opposed to party connections, as the basis for civil-military relations. This however took time to entrench. Abbillah Omari notes that in Tanzania, it is still at times difficult to distinguish between the party, government, and military. However, commitment to separating them exists, and citizens are increasingly confident that the army is insulated against factional fights in CCM.

Noteworthy Exceptions

Another noteworthy, though less recognized, exception is the self-declared Somaliland Republic. There, the armed liberation movement, the Somali National Movement (SNM), within a month of the defeat of Siad Barre in 1991 convened the first of many inclusive clan conferences. As one former SNM general noted, “SNM was a liberation movement, not a political party. We had not prepared to make up a new government.” These conferences led to the creation of an advisory council of wise men from every clan, called a Guurti, which soon evolved into an official decision-making body. The chairman of the SNM was appointed by consensus by the elders to be interim president for two years. A subsequent clan conference in 1993 established a governance structure and power-sharing arrangements, including the peaceful transfer of power from the SNM to a civilian administration. Somaliland elected its first president, Mohammed Ibrahim Egal, in multiparty elections later that year and has had multiple transitions of power between parties since.

Hifikepunye Pohamba

Hifikepunye Pohamba. (Photo: Commonwealth Secretariat.)

Ghana, the foremost icon of African struggle politics, is now an emerging democracy after a tumultuous experience with military and autocratic rule. Like Somaliland, power there alternates between ruling and opposition parties. Tanzania, another African icon of liberation, albeit through a non-violent liberation movement like Ghana’s, thrives on a culture of peaceful power transfers and competition. Unlike Ghana, power remains within CCM. However, the Tanzanian political process—problems notwithstanding—allows space for opposition to challenge CCM policies.

In Namibia, a stable constitutional democracy emerged after independence from apartheid South Africa in 1990. The ruling SWAPO prioritized reconciliation, accountability, and consultation. These appeared to be threatened in 1998 when the founding president, Sam Nujoma, ran for a third term in office. However, he foreswore a fourth term and stepped down in 2005. In March 2015, power transferred from Nujoma’s successor, Hifikepunye Pohamba to President Hage Geingob. Pohamba was awarded the Mo Ibrahim Prize for African leadership in 2015 for stepping down at the end of his second term, joining an exclusive league of earlier recipients that includes Nelson Mandela, Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano, Botswana’s Festus Mogae, and Cape Verde’s Pedro Pires.


Even when founded on noble principles and objectives, successful liberations are not a guarantee of successful democratic transitions. The culture of entitlement can become pervasive leading to a cult of personality where the movement is embodied by a single individual. On the other hand, when strong institutions were nurtured and given the space to gain experience and assert their independence, liberation movements turned nascent governments have avoided these traps. In these cases, leaders have championed inclusive participation as well as a shared national identity beyond the liberation movement. In the end, recognizing the limits of legitimacy deriving from armed struggle is key. As Christopher Clapham observes, the moment soon arrives when the government “is judged not by promises, but by performance, and if it has merely entrenched itself in positions of privilege reminiscent of its ousted predecessor, that judgment is likely to be a harsh one.”

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