Past Legacies and the Challenges of Transition in Africa

Published on 23rd October 2012

From Liberation Movement to Government: Past Legacies and the Challenges of Transition in Africa
Case Study: Zimbabwe

Not many generalisations can be made about progressions of events after African countries achieve liberation from colonial rulers, but the transition styles chosen by liberation movements, once they become governments can be sorted into a fairly small number of groups.

We have formally negotiated transitions, such as Botswana and The Gambia, we have chaotic transitions such as the Congo DRC, we have failures of colonial office master-plans, such as Malawi and Zambia and we have open insurrections such as Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. If we had to sort all the experiences of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Swaziland, Nigeria and the rest, we would find that most would fit comfortably into one of those three sorting boxes.

We might have a problem placing South Africa, whose avoidance of civil war was as wonderful as it was surprising, and some, such as Niger and Burkina Faso, made smooth transitions from colonial rule, but were very soon under the rule of dictators.

Independence struggles that were harsh and costly tended to lead to more radical policies being adopted by the first governments to take office after colonial powers were displaced, but in many of these cases, the inherent instability was caused by the colonial imposition of borders that encompassed people of different tribal and language groups that distrusted one another.

However, the many variations do not alter the basic indictment: most African countries have attracted attention because of the dismal quality of their governance. Failures abound and successes are extremely rare. So the subject invites the identification of commonalities that that might throw light on the causes of the problem. Today, almost every African country is once again owned and run by its original inhabitants, so learning of the causes now will be too late to alter the trend. But perhaps a discussion around these causes will shorten the interminable post-independence agonies that are still being experienced by almost every one of these countries.

One of the features that the countries have in common is that, until fairly recently, they were all basically feudal societies. Before they were colonised, virtually all the rights and powers were held and wielded by autocratic rulers, together with their appointed deputies. Many exercised absolute authority in political, judicial and spiritual spheres and no ordinary subject had the right to challenge that authority.

Another interesting feature that liberation movements have in common is that the expulsion of the colonisers is usually followed by liberation party moves to dilute or revise colonial laws. But more pointedly, sooner or later, the leading liberators decide that they, in particular, are absolutely entitled to elevate themselves above any laws that might diminish their powers.

The publicised moves against colonial laws in general are usually packaged as proof of how sovereignty has been recovered. However, the subsequent conduct of the leaders usually reveals deeper intentions: to entrench themselves as all-powerful masters, mainly to ensure that the weaknesses that permitted the overthrow of the colonial regimes are no longer present to threaten them.

All this is to ensure that their subjects will not dare to again express their liberation ambitions. In Zimbabwe, a powerful example of this is the extremely harsh suppression of the supporters of Joshua Nkomo, Robert Mugabe’s main competitor for power.

To the leaders who had to fight hard for independence, this additional step to put themselves above the law was necessary for another reason: to help them keep their promises to reward supporters for their loyalty during the liberation struggle. To keep these promises, they needed to be able to claim their right to confiscate and redistribute whatever assets they thought would make suitable rewards.

Very conveniently, a key feature of the feudal societies that were almost within the living memories of these leaders was that individually owned private property existed only in highly constrained form. The powers of each ruler were so great that he was entitled to claim ownership of everything. With the arrivals of independence for African colonies, the ability to reclaim and exercise such authority was at first very helpful. But as more and more people arrived to claim promised rewards, it became absolutely essential.

However, as these transfers of assets or privileges could be sustained only by confiscating them from the people who already had them, and as the new leaders had to appear to be working within the post independence legal structures that regulated everyone else, the leaders’ entitlements to take whatever they needed had to be formally constituted. When formalised acquisition powers were put into place, the leaders’ popularity soared.

To help with the process, the people owning the targeted assets were sometimes declared unworthy, or denied access to the courts, or simply beaten down by the authorities. The core issue here is that the leadership released itself from any obligation to show respect for the property rights of those who had the property they wanted.

All this ties in with the old feudal belief that whatever the ruling class wanted was theirs for the taking. And restored African feudal structures came with claims that the new feudal overlords had no need of protection from legal challenges, especially if the challenges were backed only by laws introduced by colonisers.

But as the new owners of the assets acquired in this way were far more concerned with consumption than with production, the generation of what they described as wealth slowed down.

Before long, the standards of living for the whole population started falling. When that happened, the privileged beneficiaries of presidential patronage, brandishing their entitlement claims, usually followed the president’s example by demanding ever more generous shares of the shrinking pie.

However, a problem with forced asset transfers is that the preferred asset varieties soon begin to run out. Inevitably, the transfers are mostly at the expense of producers, who are considered to be legitimate targets. Later, when the process goes beyond damage to production levels and starts hurting jobs and tax revenues, the party will deflect blame onto the producers.

In Zimbabwe, new claimants for rewards kept arriving and ways to satisfy them inevitably declined. The authorities had to keep looking for other options and almost twenty years after independence, new hand-outs of land seemed to be the best way to defuse yet another crisis of expectations.

Even before Land Reform, Zimbabwe made a particularly good choice as a case study because it elevated patronage entitlements to a level that energised and sustained the whole process. Specially helpful, the list of attractive assets that appeared to be on offer was much longer than in most other newly independent countries.

However, they went much too far. Confiscations of productive assets to ensure that privileged people could get something for nothing led to business failures, shortages, higher prices and so many job losses that Gross Domestic Product was cut by more than half.

Many resented the behaviour of the ruling party, but if they became too critical, they became targets of violent suppression. This reached a peak during the exercises launched to evict commercial farmers, when hundreds of thousands of people watched their jobs being destroyed.

As the already long list of human rights abuses lengthened, the ruling clique became all the more determined to avoid being held to account, so remaining in power was essential. They had to have the means to prevent any possibility that they might be prosecuted for what their critics were describing as criminal and malicious behaviour, or crimes against humanity.

Zimbabwe’s case also brings in other very important international connections.When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, it was after a struggle that was as much an ideological contest as it was a fight against colonialism. Unfortunately, the real ideological contest was between the East and the West. Zimbabwe was one of a number of countries that were pawns in the Cold War game.

We should not forget the fact that when competing Zimbabwean liberation movements combined forces to displace the colonial government, they were sponsored, trained and equipped mainly by China and the Soviet Union, usually in training camps that were set up by Chinese or Soviet personnel in neighbouring countries.

These liberation movements also received material support from North Korea, Cuba and Yugoslavia, so when they took office, they were already beholden to their mentors. They obligingly claimed to have firm beliefs that the Zimbabwe of the future should be run on communist lines.

When Robert Mugabe announced in 1980 that the country was now a Marxist-Leninist state, among his firmest friends were the leaders of the People’s Republic of China as well as Marshal Tito, Fidel Castro, Kim Il Sung, Nicolae Ceausescu, Erich Honecker, Colonel Qaddafi and Colonel Mengistu. 

Mugabe’s expressed intention was to eventually do what they had done – bring all business sectors under State control. And he looked to them for inspiration and support because they did not share the Western countries’ annoying habit of being critical of him for alleged human rights abuses.

So, with frequent mentions of his concern for the “toiling masses,” Mugabe launched his mission to reward his supporters. I have to return to that dominant theme because it explains so much. He started by working on so-called wealth redistribution plans, which he initiated with generous subsidies to keep staple food prices low, strict price controls to keep all other goods affordable, accelerated pay increases to all employees below management levels and a salary freeze for all management and senior business people.

Then he imposed higher tax rates and a few new taxes, he imposed limits on local bank finance for all foreign-controlled businesses and restrictions on the proportion of after-tax profits that could be declared as dividends. Existing controls were tightened on rents, exchange rates, imports, interest rates, dividend remittances and project approval procedures that had been imposed by the previous Rhodesian government.

Then, to reduce the new government’s need to depend on the now alienated business sector for its funding, aid was sought from every possible donor country.

Next, the party leadership directed its energies into the challenge of fully indigenising the whole public sector. All non-indigenous state employees were invited to take early retirement. Those who chose to stay were told that their prospects of promotion had come to an end.

More rapid promotions thus became a component of the wealth redistribution process and many loyal party supporters with no experience in public administration suddenly found themselves in senior civil service positions.

These wealth redistribution and reward schemes were so well publicised that large numbers of people, who all considered themselves to be deserving of special recognition for their loyalty and support during the liberation struggle, kept presenting themselves to the authorities to lodge entitlement claims and to collect on the promises being made.

Mugabe had already rewarded the most important of these by making them Cabinet Ministers or MPs, Politburo and Central Committee members, diplomats, senior civil servants or senior officers in the uniformed services, and some were made chief executives or directors of parastatals.

However, thousands of others still awaited their rewards. By then, the best of the possibilities were seen to come from the business sector, over which the government was wielding considerable power, having inherited a wide range of controls from Rhodesia’s siege economy days. Businesses were forced to seek project approvals for any significant changes and permission was also needed for company mergers or sales, and permission was often denied unless concessions were made that looked attractive to the politicians. For sales of farms, government required that all properties be offered to them first.

These measures provided government with the means to reward a few more supporters. Some were given directorships of companies and others were given farms, allowing government to boast of progress on the promised redistribution of land. But thousands still remained unsatisfied.

Government then realised that many more transfers of considerable value could be made in the form of allocations of foreign currency. Rhodesia had managed its scarce foreign exchange resources during fifteen years of international sanctions by rationing its limited foreign earnings to ensure that only the most efficient and productive importers would receive the funds.

Mugabe inherited the whole system and kept it going, but he saw the transfer of these allocations of foreign currency, plus their accompanying import licences, to be an easy way to achieve several important objectives.

Firstly, the allocations and import licences would handsomely reward his supporters, and secondly, by redirecting access to the funds into the hands of loyal supporters, wealth-generating capacity would be transferred away from mainly white industrialists to selected indigenous people.

As these chosen beneficiaries would remain dependent on his patronage for regular installments, Mugabe felt he was not only securing their continuing loyalty, but that the transfers would start towards the promised indigenization of the economy. His comment at the time was that the new recipients of scarce foreign currency would become the industrialists of the future.

Unfortunately for governments everywhere, people who successfully claim that they are entitled to support tend not to be very productive. With very few exceptions, the Zimbabweans who received allocations of scarce foreign currency found that the easiest way to profit from the allocations was to simply sell them at an attractive premium.

This premium soon settled at 100 percent of the face value of the back-to-back allocation and import licence, so the allocations became a very good income that required no business knowledge and no hard work. Having successfully claimed the pay-outs as entitlements, they relaxed and enjoyed a steady flow of funds.

As a result, most of these beneficiaries of government’s wealth transfer process did not become industrialists. A few became importers and sellers of finished goods, such as motor spares or electronic equipment. The rest sold their foreign exchange and import licences back to the companies from which they had been taken, so the industrialists who were running the factories before paid twice as much for their imports, but remained in business because import licences were never granted for the goods that Zimbabwean factories could make.  

To be continued.

By Mr. John Robertson

During a conference on the mostly unsuccessful progressions from independence to democracy experienced by most African countries. The Brenthurst Foundation sponsored conference was held in  Italy at Lake Como.


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