Lessons from African liberation war movements


“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster…” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche (1886) in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’. What should have been independence and freedom has turned into oppression; the liberator has turned oppressor. Without adequate checks and balances in a government system citizens are left vulnerable to state abuse. Citizens must be protected from state excesses, and the security of citizens must not be subservient to state security.

We better learn from the mistakes of the previous generation of liberation movements. When in the mid-20th Century many African liberation movements had to resort to armed struggle to overthrow colonialism or white minority rule, racial polarisation characterised the struggle. A major weakness was ignored, this was the dangerous assumption that every black person shared the same aims and goals in the struggle hence there were no attempts to consider ideological difference.

The target of the ‘liberation’ war effectively turned into a confrontation of who was governing, and not how the state was governed. Liberation movements prioritised independence from colonial rule and self-governance over how government conducted its business of governing hence the failure to transition from resistance movement to democratic governments. Post-colonial rule, liberation movements’ elite leaders have sought to assert and protect their hold on power regardless of the negative impact on the economy and society.

As 41 years of post-colonial rule in Zimbabwe illustrate, we are not free, liberation movements only liberated geographical territory and the State but neither the politics nor the economy nor society were freed, instead the military wing of the movement captured the State.

On gaining power, liberation movements’ leaders thought that they merited whatever material benefits of the state were available simply because they had made many personal sacrifices by devoting their lives to protracted guerrilla warfare. They quite clearly chose to ignore the sacrifices made by unarmed communities in the same period. This imbalance in the distribution of resources has characterised our countries’ politics to this day.

What we witnessed in Zimbabwe was the black elite replacing a white minority leadership, no other changes. ZANU set about aggressively implementing its one-party state dream, and in the process committed genocide in Matabeleland trying to eradicate difference.

We once again reference the Gukurahundi atrocities of the early 1980s when the ZANU-led and ethnic Shona dominated government sought to impose a one-party state by murdering Matabeles who were perceived to be a threat in achieving that goal.

Restricting public participation in politics, protecting liberation movements from public scrutiny and attempting to reign over economic activity has been calamitous to most independent African states.

The Matabeleland social and political movement of today is an iatrogenic politics born of the intolerance of African liberation movements turned into governments. There are undertones of intolerance sweeping through the movement that make honest debate on democracy and policy matters difficult, if not impossible. The environment is persecutory, accusatory and toxic; one cannot critique policy, they cannot ask the question on potential or real benefits of blanket criticism of ethnic Shona citizens without being accused of yielding to ethnic Shona interests.

For real progress to take place, the movement of our generation must change focus and its modus operandi. In fact, we will need to step back to Mzilikazi and Lobengula’s generations for us to move forward. Those two 19th Century leaders understood diversity and reflected that in their leadership.

Power structure is everything in government; power distribution and sharing within the movement needs to be clear and be reflected to communities. African liberation movements, in the majority, failed to establish clear parameters between the unarmed wing and the military wing of the movement which has caused tensions in the state.

What we have in many movements is a political movement that is subordinate to the military wing. Most of these movements are intolerant of opposition, others dubious of the legitimacy of multiparty democracy.

Our generation will do well to advance the separation of powers that will see our government being divided into three separate but equal and complimentary organs – the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary.  

The army is important, but only in its vital role of protecting the country from external enemies and helping out when called upon during internal disasters whose scale is such that dedicated services cannot manage alone. We are clear of the importance of prioritising the professionalism of the military.

How previous liberation movements framed themselves, impacted political and socioeconomic policy as we experience it today. Many of these organisations were motivated by Marxism; liberation movements espouse notions of the “developmental state,” continuing to ascribe the state a primary role in economic development event though they may simultaneously embrace the market.

The inadvertent lack of public participation in political decisions creates a disjointed and polarised nation made up of the public on one side and the nationalist movement leadership and their allies on the other. The movements continue to espouse the notion of being gatekeepers of public freedoms. The reality though is that the so-called ‘national solutions’ are devoid of public input and characterised by the absence of public interest in them.

It is evident that apart from pursuing the interests of black elites, ZANU PF’s political choices remain tucked in the party’s irrational fears, rooted in tribal paranoia, and this goes against the rational politics of Matabeleland movements whose suggestions are rooted in the understanding of the benefits diversity and multiparty democracy will extend to our social and culturally diverse region.

Unless we redefine liberation to mean freedom for individuals and all communities have adequate autonomy to define their social and economic spaces, and not simply freedom to be oppressed by black elites, we cannot genuinely say we are free; we will continue to suffer political and economic stagnation. A failure to reform the inherited colonial systems of oppression embodied in the state continues to be at the root of our problems. It is a sad reality that many African black elites in government choose to pursue and maintain power at whatever cost to the nation.

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