After colonialism and the dictators comes Africa's third liberation

While Western eyes view Robert Mugabe as a vote-rigging dictator, many in Africa see him as a liberation hero, standing up to colonialism. A ‘third liberation’ through economic development must allow Africans to set their own agendas.

Karen MacGregor

More than a decade ago, as Zimbabwe reeled under a violent crackdown against an emerging political opposition and state-sponsored invasions of white-owned farms, I stood on the steps of the People’s Palace in Kinshasa and watched thousands of people roar with rapturous approval as Robert Mugabe arrived at the funeral of assassinated Congolese president Laurent Kabila.

Yes, Mugabe was a liberation hero, a leader of the struggle against colonialism. One of Africa’s Big Men – and one who in the early years of power had driven improvements in the lives of the majority of Zimbabweans, especially in education.

But why were people cheering a ruler whose security forces were now harassing and killing citizens for their political views, who was ejecting commercial farmers and thus undermining food security, and who was reversing – through oppressive new legislation, and disregard for the rule of law – the rights and freedoms the struggle fought so hard to achieve? For how long can liberation credentials trump citizen rights?

The question of why so many liberation leaders became oppressors is vexing. Especially since the political platforms of post-colonial leaders were founded on rights, democracy and the rule of law. What went wrong, why and how?

Vote rigging and continuing crisis

Mugabe, who has been ruling Zimbabwe since independence from former colonial power Britain in 1980, retained power in yet another contested election in July.

There were credible claims of rigging, but nevertheless Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party ‘won’ decisively – 61 per cent of the vote against 33 per cent for the opposition, and 150 of 210 seats in parliament, a two-thirds majority that enables Zanu-PF to change the constitution. The constitution, legislation and the rule of law have been at the heart of Zimbabwe’s more than decade-long crisis.

It was popular rejection in a 1999 referendum of constitutional reforms proposed by Mugabe and Zanu-PF that unleashed their fury against a nascent opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). And it was through subsequent, ever-more draconian legislation and disregard for the rule of law that the ruling party violently smashed the MDC, threw farmers off the land, and rigged polls, enabling Mugabe to retain power.

At the recent opening of parliament on 15 September, Mugabe announced the legislative agenda. However, wrote The Financial Gazette’s Clemence Manyukwe, he did not herald ‘long-awaited revision of media and security legislation aimed at granting citizens greater liberties’.

The president said parliament would align existing laws to the new constitution, including in the areas of labour, education, health and ‘indigenisation’ – transferring ownership of the economy to black Zimbabweans (in the past, those in or close to Zanu-PF and the security forces).

‘During more than half a century of post-colonial rule, millions of Africans have been killed, displaced and impoverished by poor leadership, lack of rights and the rule of law. It remains to be seen whether money through economic growth will finally set Africa free’


Manyukwe wrote that there had been no mention of revising the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the Broadcasting Services Act or the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which had been used to shut down newspapers, ensure state monopoly of television and clamp down on political parties, unions and residents’ associations.

He quoted Dhewa Mavhinga, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, who said that progressive policies should be founded on democracy, rule of law and human rights, and parliament should ‘swiftly’ revise AIPPA and POSA and guarantee fundamental freedoms.

There is little chance of that happening, or of rule of law being reinstated or adhered to by the security forces, Zanu-PF or its supporters, or of the justice system being restored: breakdown of the rule of law in Zimbabwe notoriously included the government ignoring court rulings.

Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles suggests that the only reason Mugabe called an election was that he knew he would win – even if only by manipulating rolls, managing stations, shutting down mobile phones and denying the huge diaspora the vote. ‘Power – military, political, bureaucratic – is what he understands, loves and has enjoyed for 33 years. It’s more than love – it’s an addiction,’ Dowden says. Mugabe would leave power only when he wanted to, ‘or when his body gives out’.

Upsetting the Big Men

Dowden argues that Africa does not like to upset Big Men such as Mugabe – ‘I will vote for him because he is president’ has been heard in many elections. And then there is the historically ambivalent relationship with the West. ‘I suspect, many middle-class Africans throughout the continent and the world will stealthily clench a fist and whisper “yesssss” – without of course agreeing with what he has done to Zimbabwe.’

Mugabe had stood up to former colonial powers and won. ‘Many people in Africa feel that the relationship is still not one of equality: multiparty democracy has been imposed, resource nationalism is blocked by a Western-controlled economic system and attitudes to Africa are still patronising and sometimes bullying.’

At the People’s Palace in Kinshasa it became clear when a bus transporting Western journalists and diplomats from Kabila’s funeral was attacked by a massive crowd, whose cheering had turned to rage, that hatred of colonialism still runs deep. For many Africans, half a century later, over-throwing colonialism trumps the failings of liberation leaders.

Writing in the Times of Swazilandon this year’s 50th anniversary of the Organization of African Unity, predecessor of the African Union, Vusi Sibisi, argued that following independence there was merely a changing of the guard in which colonial masters were replaced by indigenous regimes that left oppressive laws created under colonialism in place, laws that were ‘used and abused’ by the new leaders. ‘To this day, this continent is punctuated by pockets of countries where a host of colonial laws exclusively created to oppress the indigenous peoples, remain in force.’

Ghanian economist George Ayittey, President of the Free Africa Foundation in Washington DC and author of Africa Unchained: Defeating Dictators, put forward three reasons why post-colonial African leaders cling to power. First, they came to believe that their countries belonged to them (and their families) as liberators, whether from colonialism or later from corruption or tyranny. ‘Having won independence from colonial rule, they were hailed as heroes and deified.’ Leaders came to believe they were the state.

Many took on grand titles and plastered their presence on currency, portraits, streets and buildings. Examples were Uganda’s Idi Amin, DRC’s Mobutu Sese Seko and Guinea’s Ahmed Sékou Touré. Many of the next generation, some of them coup leaders, were worse than those they ousted: Liberia’s Charles Taylor and DRC’s Kabila being just two.

Secondly, wrote Ayittey, insecure leaders surrounded themselves with loyal supporters, often from their own tribes. Other supporters were ‘bought’, such as soldiers with high pay and opposition leaders with posts and flashy cars. Top supporters were allowed to do business using political connections. Mugabe’s security chiefs became rich plundering the DRC and stealing diamonds.

‘Even when the head of state is contemplating stepping down, these supporters and lackeys fiercely resist any cutbacks in government largesse or any attempt to open up the political system – for fear of losing the jobs, perks and privileges.’

The third reason is fear, according to Ayittey. Dictators know they have done bad things, and fear reprisal and the International Criminal Court. For example, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan is wanted by the ICC. ‘So they cling to power, regardless of the cost and consequences.’

Setting Africa free

In their new book Africa’s Third Liberation: The New Search for Prosperity and Jobs, Greg Mills and Jeffrey Herbst argue that Africans must look for liberation through economic growth. ‘If Africa’s first liberation was from colonial and racist government, and its second stage involved freeing itself from the tyranny and misrule of many of the liberators, the third stage must involve a change in focus,’ they suggest. ‘This will require concentrating on economic development to the exclusion of racial, tribal and religious issues that have plagued much of the continent in the past.’ The third liberation, Mills and Herbst contend, will enable African citizens to at last set their own agendas.

While many African countries remain in the second stage of liberation, they point out that armed conflict has lessened and democracy has spread; they also chart ways to achieve a third liberation. ‘Those countries nimble enough to exploit the real market advantages open to them have the opportunity to lead the rest of the continent to prosperity.’

During more than half a century of post-colonial rule, millions of Africans have been killed, displaced and impoverished by poor leadership, lack of rights and the rule of law. It remains to be seen whether money through economic growth will finally set Africa free. 


Karen MacGregor is a freelance journalist. She can be contacted at