Lessons of independence (I)

RW Johnson writes on the strange mythologising of Africa's post-colonial leaders

 The death of Kenneth Kaunda has been greeted with the headlines one might expect – “The last giant of an African era” – and with a good deal of misleading sentimentalism. Adekeye Adebajo – the Director of the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation at UJ – hailed him as one of the generation of African leaders “who fought for the liberation of their countries”. Adebajo spoke of how Kaunda’s attendance at the All African People’s Conference in Accra in 1958 “exposed him to Africa’s most important liberation fighters”.

There is a sort of determined wooziness about this as, perhaps, one ought to expect from an institute which is, apparently, about thought and conversation but not exactly research into actual facts. One notes the same deliberate vagueness about the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection. No doubt a lot more opining and conversation goes on there though, of course, this is not just the idle chatter and speculation that one might imagine – it is strategic chatter and speculation.

If you happen to strategically reflect for a moment or two about this first generation of “liberation fighters” you realise that very few of them did any actual fighting and that those few who did – like the Algerian FLN and the guerrilla movements in the three Portuguese African colonies – were most unlikely to attend English-language conferences like the one in Accra.

The fact is that most of Africa got independence without any sort of fight. The real hard work was done others - by the decades-long struggle of the Indian National Congress which was finally rewarded by Clement Attlee’s Labour Party granting Indian independence in 1947; and by Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap and their Viet Minh movement which defeated the French army in a large set-piece battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, winning sovereign recognition for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam via the Geneva Accords in 1955.

The key voice was Eisenhower’s. The US Chiefs of Staff were entirely happy to respond to French appeals and use nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh. Eisenhower was scornful: “What, use atomic weapons twice in ten years against Asians? Where will that leave America’s relations with Asia? You must all be mad.” Ike, a general himself, had no faith in the political judgement of generals.

Once these two thunderous victories in Asia had been achieved, the logic of decolonization was clear and was heavily supported by strong American and Soviet pressure. Africa’s independence was a by-product of that conjuncture. It was pushed along by the irruption of Mau Mau in 1952 and the beginning of the Algerian war in 1954 but neither of these were the work of sub-Saharan African nationalists.

On 11 May 1956 Britain resolved to give independence to the Gold Coast (Ghana) provided a clear majority in the newly elected parliament asked for it. As simple as that: Nkrumah never needed to be a “liberation fighter”.

Then came the Suez crisis in October-November and by mid-January 1957 Harold Macmillan had succeeded as Prime Minister of Britain. Shaken by the Suez crisis Macmillan ordered his Colonial Secretary to go full steam ahead with African independence.

In May 1958 De Gaulle came to power in France and promised self-determination for French Africa. So rapid was the metropolitan push for decolonisation that in Nigeria African leaders actually asked for a short delay before independence was declared. Even the really difficult cases were settled soon thereafter – Algeria in 1962, Kenya in 1963.

In fact the era of African independence had begun before there were even many African parties or leaders asking for it: Liberia became independent in 1847, South Africa in 1910, Egypt in 1922, Ethiopia had its independence restored by the British army (with South African help) in 1941. Libya became independent in 1952 and Sudan, Tunisia and Morocco in 1956. By the end of 1963 another 27 African countries had followed.

The fact is that most African leaders had no need to fight to get independence: at most they nagged and demonstrated. All the real decisions were made in London, Paris and Brussels, and they usually had no seat at the table. To call them “liberation fighters” is absurd – but it is part of the mythologization of the independence era.

It is difficult to understand why anyone should regard Kenneth Kaunda as a giant in any sense. In the late 1960s Zambia had the highest per capita income of any newly independent African state. Under Kaunda’s rule it was rapidly reduced to penury, with the largest debts of any African country.

As usual, corruption and mismanagement were accompanied by grotesque policy errors. Kaunda’s nationalisation of the copper mines was a complete disaster and had to be reversed. As the economy fell to pieces KK (as he was known) struck a peculiar figure – traversing the country, frequently lamenting the state it had fallen into as if it had nothing to do with himself, invariably waving his white handkerchief and often bursting into tears.

With his popularity in steep decline KK introduced a one-party state to prevent any chance of his losing an election and was quick to detain without trial opponents whom he thought dangerous. Several of my friends on the Left such as Robert Molteno were flung into jail in appalling conditions. This state of affairs was termed Zambian Humanism.

The fall of the Soviet Union led the Western powers to decide that they no longer needed to tolerate African tin-pot dictators and they exerted strong pressure for the introduction of multi-party democracy. Kaunda had to concede to this pressure and in 1991 free elections were allowed in Zambia. By that point Kaunda had been re-elected just once but had been President for a grotesque 27 years. Zambian voters seized their opportunity and threw him and his party, UNIP, out.

This led to one of the funnier scenes that I have ever been part of. I was at that point stationed at Oscar Dhlomo’s Institute for Multi-Party Democracy working on a large study of South Africa’s approaching first democratic election. Oscar called a big conference on multi-party democracy to which he invited Kaunda (who had earlier been a notable friend to Inkatha – Inkatha’s constitution is based on UNIP’s).

KK was introduced as the guest of honour. Oscar argued that the true test of democracy was alternation in power and pointed out that when KK lost the election he had stepped down gracefully and conceded defeat, which was greatly to his credit.

This was true. When the election results came through in Lusaka Jimmy Carter was present as part of the Carter Center team monitoring the Zambian election. Everyone realised that the big question was whether KK would concede. Carter decided to stroll across to the presidential residence where he told KK that he knew just how he felt, for he too had been routed by Reagan in the 1980 election.

The only thing to do, Carter said, was to concede with maximum grace, congratulate your opponent and give him all the help you could. It was the right thing to do and history would remember the gracefulness of your departure. KK accepted this advice and behaved accordingly.

However, he soon fell into a mighty sulk and greatly regretted listening to Carter. In effect he had assumed he would be President-for-life and he now wished he had clung on to power, whatever the voters said.

So as soon as Oscar had sat down KK launched into a furious denunciation of multi-party democracy which he described as an “imperialist conspiracy”. He was extremely angry that he had been “tricked” into giving up power – a bizarre view given that his opponent had won 76% of the vote.

At the end of this graceless tirade poor Oscar had to get up, thank KK for his speech and then gently say that he entirely disagreed with every word of it. Many members of the audience found it difficult to stifle their laughter.

So it is rather strange to hail KK as a great man and even stranger to mythologize the whole generation of African leaders who led their countries to independence. To give them credit for wresting independence from reluctant imperial powers is, as we have seen, a gross exaggeration. And once in power most of these leaders did not behave like heroes.

Nkrumah quickly became a tyrant and behaved disgracefully to the gentle J.B. Danquah, who had originally invited Nkrumah back to the Gold Coast to head the United Gold Coast Convention party. Danquah, who had come up with the name “Ghana” for the new country and had been instrumental in founding the University of Ghana, had the temerity to stand against Nkrumah in the 1960 election. For this he was detained without trial. Emerging from detention, he was elected president of the Ghana Bar Association, only to be detained again, this time dying in detention.

Nkrumah dictated policy by simple autocratic fiat (what sort of man insists that he be called “the Redeemer?”) and by the time he was overthrown, the Ghanaian economy was in chaos. Crowds cheered his fall and a great national funeral was held for Danquah.

Guinea’s Sekou Toure was even worse. Like Nkrumah he installed a one-party state and ruthlessly suppressed anyone of whom he had the slightest suspicion – and Toure was a very suspicious man. Thousands died in dreadful conditions in his notorious prison, Camp Boiro, including Diallo Telli, the first OAU Secretary-General, who was starved to death on Toure’s orders. His crime was simply that his successful career at the OAU had made him famous so Toure saw him as a possible rival.

I attended Guinea’s tenth independence celebrations in Conakry and saw (the now exiled) Nkrumah sail by with his large retinue but my sadder memory is of the Guineans I knew who ended up dying, often under torture, in Camp Boiro.

One reason why memories of that first generation of African leaders are still suffused with a rosy glow is that, like Mandela, they came to power after a long period of white/colonial rule. This gave them great political clout. And meanwhile everything still worked well in their countries’ infrastructure for a decade or so.

The combination of corruption, mismanagement and a general lack of maintenance meant that by the time their successors appeared potholes, power cuts, water shortages and a whole raft of other problems had appeared.

What is really striking is the way that so many of these leaders destroyed their countries’ economies and, indeed, came close to destroying their countries altogether. Milton Obote ruled Uganda with an iron fist, presiding over unprecedented corruption. After being forced out of power by Idi Amin’s coup, he was restored to power in a rigged election in 1980, mainly thanks to the support of Julius Nyerere.

Obote’s second period in power was even worse and he was overthrown by Yoweri Museveni in 1985. Obote then sat in Zambia – supported by Kaunda - plotting his return to power, only giving up in 2005, forty-three years after he had first become President. If Kaunda had had the slightest regard for the views of Ugandans he would have shown Obote the door.

Julius Nyerere was a man of integrity, honesty and principle but it is difficult to argue that he did much good for Tanzania. His 25 years of presidential rule were entirely authoritarian. He installed a one-party state and imprisoned political dissenters without trial. His brand of ujamaa socialism saw Tanzanian growth stagnate and it led to forced “village-ization” – in other words, mass forced removals in order to suit Nyerere’s social engineering. Much the same practice under apartheid in South Africa led to world condemnation.

Village-ization, besides being a gross denial of human rights, never worked. It was supposed to increased agricultural production but instead it produced famine. Despite Nyerere’s stress on self-sufficiency, large-scale fatalities were prevented only by recourse to famine relief from abroad. Similarly, Nyerere swore that he would never ask Britain to intervene in Tanzania but when a military coup occurred he appealed to Britain which sent a small force of just 60 commandos who closed down the coup and restored Nyerere to power.

Similarly, Nyerere’s sweeping nationalisations had disastrous results. His nationalisation of property, including private houses, forced the emigration of much of Tanzania’s Asian community. Amin, Kenyatta and Moi earned condemnation for forcing the Asians out of Kenya and Uganda but Nyerere’s saint-like status protected him from criticism. East African leaders have since pleaded with the Asians to return, for their departure dealt a major blow to their economies.

Like many other first generation African leaders Nyerere was a strong advocate of Pan-Africanism but that cause has gone steadily backwards. Not only have attempted regional associations often failed – like the East African Community which Nyerere promoted, but African countries have continued to sub-divide, not unite. When Nyerere left power many of his policies were quickly reversed and today there is little trace of them.

One could go on. Some of that independence generation were monsters. Some, like Leopold Senghor of Senegal, were simply frauds. Senghor philosophized about “negritude” and humanism but ruled a repressive one-party regime, detained opponents without trial and his prisons made frequent use of torture. When he retired he went to live in Normandy. He owned a chateau, had a French wife and clearly preferred France to Senegal.

Quite a few of these leaders were just crooks, amassing large personal fortunes while they preached African socialism. In such company perhaps it is right to celebrate Kaunda. He was foolish and did a great deal of damage to Zambia but he was otherwise relatively harmless. Compare that with Mobutu, who ransacked his country, or Mugabe who ruined his: under his rule life expectancy in Zimbabwe fell to half what it had been under Ian Smith in 1980.

As one looks back the title of Rene Dumont’s L’Afrique Noire est mal partie (1962) (Black Africa has begun badly) – published in English as False Start in Africa – floats before one’s mind. But why did it all go so wrong, so quickly and so thoroughly?

Sadly, perhaps, one must conclude that the fact that the vast majority of those early leaders espoused some form of socialism was a fatal mistake. This is not because socialism is always or necessarily a bad choice. After all, the social democratic governments of Northern Europe rule over what are, by common consent, the most advanced and civilized societies in the world. But two practical and circumstantial reasons made this a very poor choice for Africa.

First, the combination of a dearth of skilled manpower and the prevalence of extended family networks and obligations meant that in African circumstances all SOEs would be poorly managed and liable to corruption. Secondly, all African societies were relatively poor and their development depended on their attracting large amounts of foreign capital. Socialist regimes were much less able to attract such capital and thus doomed their countries to lower growth.

The alternative was to go all out for growth. Not many African countries did this but those who chose the market economy route – Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, Malawi – achieved the highest growth rates, whereas most of the socialist African countries have stagnated or collapsed.

Realising the force of this comparison a number of hitherto socialist states, such as Ghana and Tanzania, have joined the market economy column and almost all African states are edging in that direction, while the real success stories – Botswana, Rwanda and Mauritius – eschewed socialism from the outset.

Even a once radical state like Mozambique has carried out over 1,200 privatizations, greatly increasing the national growth rate. The privatization drive in Angola is even more extensive. In effect all these states have acknowledged that the independence generation of leaders made major policy blunders.

Dumont was right: independent Africa made a disastrous start and many of the things which went wrong in that initial period are still wrong today. Thus, we still have far too many African leaders clinging to power for 20 or 30 years or more. Corruption is endemic across the continent, truly free and fair elections remain a rarity and everywhere public service workers are grossly overpaid, their wages making up an absurdly high proportion of the national budget.

Why has this happened? Dumont was struck by the way a “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” had assumed power in most countries. Analysis of parliamentary and cabinet elites showed a preponderance of former teachers, civil servants and the like, which in turn meant that public service workers – the educated elite of most societies – derived continuing advantages from their proximity to political power. Moreover this educated elite also ran the state-owned enterprises. In both cases this enabled the elite considerable opportunities for the primary accumulation of capital through corruption.

The newly independent states also opened up a large number of well-paid positions which the educated elite tended to monopolize – not only parliamentary but ministerial and deputy-ministerial roles, ambassadorships and other foreign service posts around the world, top civil service posts, chairs, vice-chancellorships and senior administrative posts in now all-black universities, board memberships and senior positions in SOEs, hospitals, colleges, quangos, the police and armed services and so on.

Few, if any, of these posts had existed or been available to Africans under colonial rule. In many societies there were also at least rudimentary structures of local and provincial government and these too were occupied by the same elite. All of these positions commanded good (often very good) salaries and afforded further opportunities for corrupt accumulation. The overall result was the large expansion of a public-sector financed black middle class, the main beneficiaries of independence.

Naturally, it was among this group and particularly among what passes for a black intelligentsia that one finds enthusiasm for the Pan-African cause and celebration of the founding fathers of African nationalism – Nkrumah, Toure, Nyerere, Kaunda and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh. This is, though, a thin stratum and its enthusiasms are not shared by those who have benefited less from the independence era.

In a second article I will attempt to draw some lessons for South Africa (read here).