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War Liberators turned democrats: The changing story of Liberation parties in Southern Africa


inauguration of Emmerson Mnangagwa as the President of Zimbabwe marked the completion of the transformation of liberation parties in southern Africa that fought colonialism, finding the balance between participating in democratic processes whilst still having a firm grip on power.

The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) was established in 1992 as a regional body meant for socio economic and political integration. Behind closed curtains, it also served as an Old Boys club where the Presidents and party leaders of People's Movement for The Liberation of Angola (MPLA), Chama Cha Mapinduzi (Tanzania), Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), Front For The Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo), South Western African Peoples Organization (SWAPO), and the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) met to deliberate on how they could stay firmly in power in reaction to the end of one party states and the emergence of the wave democratization (1985-1995) that was sweeping all over Africa and had led to the liberation party in Zambia, the United National Independence Party (UNIP) losing power.

By learning from the mistakes of Zambia, BDP in Botswana introduced democratic reforms in a calculated, piecemeal way since reforming the democratic institutions all at once could have left them with little to no control of the outcome. The most significant was the introduction via a public referendum of the first past the post electoral system which inherently favors retention of power for incumbents compared to the proportional representation system. All other liberation parties adopted this system and entrenched it in their electoral systems.

Another significant feature of the liberation parties was their unquestioned loyalty to the President of the party. Renowned leaders such as Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Sam Nujoma (Namibia), Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia), Jose Eduardo Dos Santos (Angola) enjoyed on average about 26 years in office. Democratization fought this very hard calling for the renewal of leadership and the end of big man politics. Liberation parties at different intervals realized that a change in President did not have to mean a change in actual power over government. Presidential term limits were added into national constitutions without being amended even though the parties could do so. Incumbent Presidents like Sam Nujoma and Dos Santos began to retire. The most remarkable case in point is the deep nepotism running in Botswana which has allowed for the Khama family to remain in power as Presidents or as kingmakers unabated.

The 21st century brought with it a new onus of economic growth on these liberation parties which had for their history played the liberation and peace cards as justification to remain in power to the electorate. The liberation parties began to read from the same neo-liberal, foreign direct investment focused handbook to manage their economic issues. Tanzania which for prior decades prided itself in socialism moved to the right and opened up its economy to foreign investment. Botswana had shown their uncanny, quiet policy leadership on this by the handling of their diamond resources in partnership with De Beers diamond company.

In all these fronts of democratic processes, change in leadership and economic policy, Zimbabwe was the proverbial bad apple. Former President Robert Mugabe's regime lasted for 38 years and had no clear plans for succession. He led a solemn fight against foreign investment which he argued was imperialist in nature as highlighted by the famous land reform program that took away majority land ownership from the white minority. Elections in Zimbabwe were famous for being violent, heavily skewed towards the incumbent, a mockery to the idea of democratic elections in itself.

Mnangagwa in six months has done what all the other liberation parties had been begging Mugabe and ZANU PF to do for the past fifteen years. The just held national elections although controversial are a remarkable improvement in previous elections in terms of fairness and freedom. Comparing the election observer reports of 2013 and 2018 show a change in tone to one of improvement. Mnangagwa has been a mannequin in the shop window of international investment with the price tag marked "Zimbabwe is open for business." It is no wonder that five SADC Presidents were at his inauguration. One could not help but notice the grins and firm handshakes Mnangagwa and in effect, ZANU PF was given. The happiness was similar to a classroom that gives wild cheers for the student who had passed the exam they repeatedly failed.

The Zimbabwe question for the meantime would stop being a periodical issue at SADC meetings. They would now all be able to go to international meetings hand in hand showing off how grown-up SADC had finally become and that would hopefully mean a bit more aid, some more loans and more investors walking through their airport swinging doors as they cherry-picked which resources they preferred to scoop up.

The emergence of China's silk road to international economic hegemony, Donald Trump's inward-looking "Make America Great Again" foreign policy, Brexit's effects on the United Kingdom and the European Union have opened up a chasm where democratization in itself as a goal is no longer important as the self-interest of economic prosperity regardless if it is in partnership with a benevolent dictator such as Rwanda and Uganda or emerging democracies.

Moreover and more importantly, the liberation parties retain power for at least another generation. When SADC meets next, the Old Boys Club will share whiskey and wine in between the rancorous laughter of their success. The bullets of the liberation parties have finally all flowered into pseudo-democratic lilies. Zimbabwe's graduation into a pseudo-democratic nation has allowed these liberation parties to once again dream of ruling for the next thousand years and with friends like these, it is very possible.

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