The twisted African democratic revolutions
Either in Libya, Nigeria, Chad, Egypt or Tunisia, the African nation-state, from its birth, has been in some sort of undeviating inanimate democratic revolution. The reason is that the African state, as a political entity, is yet to have everlasting grip with the African nation, as a community, hence the almost constant schisms and revolutions. African revolutions occur not because of the African community, which is intact, but the African state, which is unbalanced and unreflective of Africans’ innate democratic feelings.
Upheavals against colonialism for independence aside, post-colonial Africa’s bad leadership, endemic corruption, poor governance, horrific tyrants and dictatorships, and generally unstable domestic authority structures have put African states in almost permanent revolutions for democratic order. Hard questions abound as to when the revolutions will end and democratic institutions set up.
As I witnessed during the 1979 Rawlings revolution, revolution can bring momentary joy to a people who are depressed from bad political leadership and economic shortages. Ghana witnessed this under the Kutu Acheampong military junta, which also described itself as revolutionary. Doug Saunders, of the Toronto-based The Globe And Mail, writing about world revolutions following the Egyptian, Libyan and the Tunisian revolutions, explains that, “The joy of revolutions is that they make ordinary life interesting. Suddenly, the streets glow with importance; anything seems possible.” Under such atmosphere, the state, of which the revolution is about, fades into the background momentarily.
In either Jerry Rawlings’ Ghana or Idi Amin’s Uganda or Samuel Doe’s Liberia, almost all the African revolutions share the basic belief that life will be better for the average African. Against these beliefs is the fact that not all the African revolutions are the same, coming in diverse contours.
While the Idi Amin revolution saw him turn Uganda into a primitive enclave with roughly constant chaos and Uganda later saved by the amalgam of Julius Nyerere’s Tanzanian army and Ugandan freedom fighters, Mobutu Sese Seko effectively destroyed the traditional institutions (by deeper meaning, the soul of the country) of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and left the DRC virtually soulless with almost continuous cataclysms, especially in the eastern and northeastern parts.
Experts explain that what rings constantly in revolutions are the human possibility, that what was previously thought of as unimaginable becomes imaginable, that what was thought of as rotten could be overthrown and something fresh could be sown. Doug Saunders inferred of revolutionary traditions globally that, “Even when” revolutions are “sidetracked or seized, the seeds planted by a democratic revolution remain in the ground.”
The African who has gone through revolutions will tell you that their revolutions have turned out to be mostly disappointments than contentment. However, as Ghanaians and Nigerians will tell you today, out of this disenchantments are emerging democratic order from the democratic seeds planted by the various democratic revolutions. Jeff Goodwin, a sociologist at New York University, discussing the nature of revolutions following the Libyan, Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, is quoted by Joe O’Connor, of the Toronto-based National Post, as saying revolutions “ … are a complex genus with different species.”
The insurgent-ridden African Great Lakes Region aside, Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) is a typical African case of revolution that went mad. But out of its ashes democracy and good governance are flowering in Sierra Leone. The RUF revolution against the rots of the long-running Siaka Stevens’ autocratic one-party system, later carried on by Joseph Saidu Momoh, turned out to be exceptionally fatal. The RUF amputated Sierra Leoneans’ limbs, turned girls into prostitutes, looted diamonds, fire-bombed properties, practiced cannibalism, and frequently carved the initials “RUF” on their child soldiers’ chest. RUF officers rubbed cocaine into the open cuts on their troops to make them maniacal and fearless, and for entertainment, some RUF soldiers bet on the sex of an unborn baby and then sliced open a woman’s womb to determine the winner.
Still, and as Samuel Doe’s Liberia revealed, some African revolutions have turned out to be unimaginable, sending the likes of the Liberian or the Ivorian state into flames. Some African revolutions’ endings are worse than the previous conditions the revolutionaries sought to correct. Jerry Rawlings’ revolution, initially seen by some Africans as “enlightened,” saw the execution of some Ghanaian military junta leaders, mainly for their alleged corruption and moral ineptitude (The Rawlings coup d’etat had more to do with the rot within the military establishment than the Ghanaian society).
But Rawlings’ almost 20 years in power became perverse and saw Rawlings and his associates amass more wealth than all those they had killed. At present, most of Rawlings and his associates’ children and families live high lives (sometimes bordering on ostentation), attended pricey schools abroad (and still do) and had medical treatment abroad (and still do). In Rawlings’ revolution, perhaps Africa’s most high profile because of the high profile killings, the new reality is that the revolution didn’t live up to its hype. Like most African revolutions, corruption was the Rawlings revolution’s first mission, but his regimes grew up to lack accountability and transparency. The regime also suppressed freedoms that resulted in the famed “culture of silence,” where Ghanaians were afraid to talk freely for fear of either being killed, imprisoned or disappearing.
Nigeria also went through numerous military juntas that hypothetically had sought to revolutionarize the Nigerian society and make life better for Nigerians. Though this did not happen, out of this cycles came enviably anti-corruption institutions such as the amazing Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) set up in 2003 to tackle endemic graft. Despite top flight killings, the Rawlings regimes were sadly short of this.
In the Rawlings’ revolution, Africa witnessed that high-tension sloganeering didn’t translate into reality. Jeff Goodwin, is cited by Joe O’Connor, as explaining that, “Countries generally have revolutions because they are in bad situation, and revolutions don’t always get you out of that hole … Revolutions happening in poor authoritarian countries, well, those countries usually end up remaining poor and authoritarian.”
In Equatorial Guinea, Francisco Macías Nguema’s revolution of some sorts turned out more lethal than thought of and nobody knew what kind of regime was going to come out of the terrible mess. Tapping into traditional African irrational supernatural believes, Macias forced Equatorial Guineans to believe that he has supernatural powers. That he can change into a cat, a dog, a mouse or any other animal or object, or vanish into thin air. Macias used the knowledge of witchcraft he inherited from his sorcerer father and built a huge collection of human skulls (from most of the people he has killed) at his homestead to hypnotize Equatorial Guineans into supernatural submission. Macias believed he was some sort of god.
In December, 1975, in a bizarre episode Macias killed 150 alleged coup plotters to the sound of a band playing Mary Hopkin’s tune Those Were the Days in the national stadium in Malabo, the capital. The estimations are that over 100,000 people, approximate one-third of Equatorial Guineans then, were either killed or fled into exile during Macias’ reign. In 1979, Macias was overthrown violently by his nephew Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the current President. Macias was later executed in a firing squad. The situation today in Equatorial Guinea isn’t more or less better than Macias’ time.
Despite the fact that most African revolutions turn out to be sadness, there are few that are sunnier and bring regime changes. Out of the Valentine Strasser and the Maada Bio revolution came the flowering of democratic tenets and good governance in Sierra Leone born out of the bloodshed of the 11-year civil war. There may be some political and development challenges in Sierra Leone today but the hope is that in the long run, democratic values and good governance will survive for the greater progress of the country.
Helpless African betting on Jerry Rawkings, Samuel Doe, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Lansana Conteh, Sani Abacha, among others, have been the African way of attempting to change the recurring appalling leadership and generally trembling domestic power configurations. Most African revolutionary outcomes have been largely the African elites fighting for political and material power while the average African languishes in poverty and unfreedoms.
For almost 42 years, Libyans had no freedoms and lived in fear. Libyans could be either killed or imprisoned anytime despite Muammar Gaddafi professing that his much-trumpeted revolution is to free Libyans from the tyranny of King Muhammad Idri I. Still, notwithstanding The Green Book (that sought solutions to the problems of democracy and economics) and the People’s Committees (that sought to upgrade the authority of the Libyans), Gaddafi and his associates, for 42 years the privileged few, not only dreadfully controlled Libyans but the principles and institutions of government did not become egalitarian – institutions like the police and the military were ruined, making Gaddafi look for mercenaries when the freedom fighters came calling six months ago.
More seriously, Gaddafi and his The Green Book were allergic to liberal democratic ideals. These are insults to the intelligences of contemporary Africans’ on-going fight for democratic revolutions that sought for free press, good governance, freedoms, human rights, social justice, equality, choices, free speech and good governance. In the absence of democratic ideals, Gaddafi and other African tyrants are consumed in tyrannies and dictatorships that have put African states in almost unending revolutions for democratic order and good governance.
Unlike the Rawlings and Lansana Conteh revolutions, the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions show that non-violent social networking, via social media, is becoming the order of the day in Africa’s democratic revolutions. This made tyrants like Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali turn into sand in a matter of weeks, with virtually no resistance. Fear or a “culture of silence” vanishes into thin air. Egalitarianism, choices, elections, democratic tenets, good governance, merits and issues replace the God-has-predestined-me-to-rule syndrome.
With their increasing grasp of social media, these are Africans’ shining age of their democratic revolutions backed by the increasingly influential African diasporan networks. The era of the old school African revolutionaries picking up arms, standing on armoured cars and sloganeering, waving AK47s and their fists, and blasting out the African dictatorships are out.
In come non-violent protests and social networking sites such as Facebook, internet forums, blogs, social blogs and microblogging such as Twitter, collaborative projects such as Wikipedia, podcast, content communities such as Youtube, photography or pictures, video, email, instant messaging, rating and social bookmarking are the key tools of today’s African democratic revolutionaries and not AK47s, military tanks and hot-headed sloganeering. The “cascading dominoes,” as Joe O’Connor of the Toronto-based National Post argues, “are characteristic of a revolutionary age. Europe went crazy for liberal democracy in 1848, in a tide of mostly fruitless revolutions … And when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it took communism with it, a mass combustion of authoritarian governments often miscast as a spontaneous event.”
Despite the instant power of new media, some experts argue that generally revolutions start in simmering ways before erupting. The Liberian revolution came about because of long years of oppression of native Liberians (the “country people,” as they are called locally) by the Americo-Liberians, who believed they are more civilized than the native Liberians. For decades, the native Liberians were oppressed and effectively made second-class citizens on their own land. A triggering moment happened and Samuel Doe and his associates seized the time.
Like most African democratic revolutions, the Liberian revolution wasn’t any specially planned event, it was largely meaningless flare. So the Liberian revolution happened, it didn’t just happen, as Jack Goldstone of George Mason University would have argued, as he did of the nature of revolutions in the world. Samuel Doe and his associates quickly realize its “game on and there is no turning back” in attempting to clare out the autocratic Americo-Liberian oligarchy.
There may be twists in Africa democratic revolutions and experts may argue that it may be easier to know when revolutions start than when they end, but Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana, Mali and Uganda point to the reality that African democratic revolutions will eventually move into the direction of real democracy and good governance under the current continental and international atmosphere. There are no two ways about this.
By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong