Africa Rising: the Political Agenda

Published on 15th April 2014

That there is a direct and symbiotic relationship between political structures—that determine socio-economic policies—and levels of development attained in any particular society is common knowledge. What has remained controversial is what political structure, or superstructure, is relevant and effective for Africa to ‘rise’ in the competing global economy. Rising, itself, is not free from interpretation and misinterpretation depending on one’s inclination. How is rising measured? Are the indicators universal? These are all contentious questions. 

Africa’s political agenda, just like political agenda everywhere else, ought to have been a development agenda: admittedly, development is yet another debate. An effective political agenda should roundly address people’s economic development, social development, cultural development, and, equally important, enhancement of their political space. This is the ultimate aim of the political agenda.

A rising Africa needs a rising political agenda that is, first, constantly mindful of the past hard learnt lessons. Second, the agenda should be clear about the current needs of the people and offer a pragmatic and responsive policy guidance for the immediate development needs. Third, the agenda must give hope; forge unity, and take Africa to a higher level of prosperity and happiness.

To achieve this end, every African citizen has a role to play. Institutions must be strengthened; education improved; popular participation should have no alternative; democracy should grow and right to property uncompromised.    

In all these, media has a dominant duo role to play: to shape ideas and vision for Africa and to keep governments on check and accountable to the people. To succeed, our media strategy should be overhauled.

Africa’s rising is real, true and evident. Whether the growth is going to be sustainable and result into individual wellbeing (trickle-down effect) is dependent on the effectiveness of political leadership; economic policies; wider democracy; human rights; and effective public institutions. This paper focuses on the political structure and what should constitute a political agenda for Africa’s rise to yield required results.      

Understanding Africa’s Political Agenda

Africa’s political agenda is active and dynamic as well as sad. In a very generic categorisation, Africa’s political agenda, after World Wars, has evolved in about four phases. The fifth phase is still in the making and one cannot be sure what form it will finally take.

Uhuru Movement

The first phase was pre-independence or liberation politics. They ranged from peaceful mass movements—political organisations, trade unions, cooperative societies, among others. The generally peaceful resistance demanded freedom without engaging in serious and coordinated bloodshed. Taking motivation from Mahatma Gandhi, countries like the then Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Gold Coast (now Ghana) obtained their independence by these peaceful means.

Elsewhere, for historical and structural reasons, peaceful means were not possible, or effective in Africa’s pursuit for independence. Often, armed struggle came as a result of a failed, or rather failing, peaceful movement. The initial struggle against apartheid in South Africa took a peaceful strategy until when it became evident that without taking arms, freedom and equality would remain at bay. Umkhonto we Sizwe was formed in order to use armed struggle back-to-back with the peaceful means. The same can be said for Kenya’s Mau Mau, Mozambique’s FRELIMO, Zimbabwe’s ZANU PF among others. The nature of the armed struggle depended on the colonial ruling policy in particular settings. Whatever the strategy, the objective of the pre-independence struggle was substantially clear and fairly universal—to seek independence and right to self determination.

Nation Building

The second phase, that followed immediately after Africa’s political independence, was nation building. Soon after independence, there was jubilation for the self determination and zeal to build nations. It was not an easy task. For the first time, African countries created their own political structures, governance system, defence and security mechanisms: of course with heavy influence from the colonial structures. The hopes were high and the determination of the people evident. Most of these structures were not home-grown and therefore were not necessarily effective. But efforts were made to build effective structures. Regionally the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was formed in 1963 to, first, “promote the unity and solidarity of the African States” and second, to “coordinate and intensify their cooperation and efforts to achieve a better life for the peoples of Africa.”

Economically, “African Socialism” saw the day. This may mean anything from Nkrumah’s proposal for a massive industrial programme; Nyerere’s socialist structure founded on the Arusha Declaration; Kaunda and Obote’s humanism; to Kenyatta’s “African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya.”There was a lot of confusion, failure of, or sabotage to African economic policies. What commenced as a bright beginning of nations turned out to be a disappointing experience.    

Confusion, Tension, Instability

The third phase has many faces. It is characterised by a series of military coups that were successful, failed or were contained. This is how did Idi Amin, Muamar Gaddafi, Jerry Rawlings, Olusegun Obasanjo, Hosni Mubarak, Jean-Bedel Bokassa,and Major Mengistu Haile Mariam, among others, came to power. Elsewhere, civil war facilitated change of regime for several reasons—refer to East Africa’s Kaguta Museveni and Paul Kagame.  

One could also look at the third phase by identifying a series of political regimes that have remained in power for a longer period. These commenced with revolutionary faces but evolved into the all powerful and always right political leaders. Remaining in power by all means necessary, fair or foul—rigging elections, changing constitutions to increase terms or to remove term limits all together or to capitalise on security threats to their countries to diverge attention. The strategies used were not always congenial. They involved killings, misuse of media etc.

One important characteristic of the third phase is the emergence of a one party political system or, as devised by Museveni, no party system. There emerged single rulers per country with single political organisation. Attention, then, was on an individual leader instead of the overall policies and political structures. Individuals became very important. Examples of these leaders include Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, Banda and Kaunda. Some other totalitarian leaders were even worse in managing themselves and their countries, for instance, Mobutu Sese-Seko.

The effect of limited democracy, unfair resource distributions, long serving political leaders, by all means necessary—including genocide and divisive politics—gave rise to resistance and civil wars. Here the litany is long: Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo DRC, Angola etc. In some areas, especially areas rich with natural resources, there ware cycles of endless wars.  

Rebuilding of the Nation

The fourth phase comes up as a lesson that war serves nobody at the end of the day. Somehow the Solomonic wisdom that one “who kills dies” the same way he killed became an invention and peace building became Africa’s political agenda.There were initiatives for reconciliation, power sharing, and disarmament programs. Efforts were both nationalistic and global. There were two major issues in this phase: first, how to deal with those responsible for wars and, second, how to ensure that wars do not become African phenomenon again.  

In terms of the political process, a central challenge is, invariably, balancing between the need to deal with criminality, war crimes, crimes against humanity & genocide—under the Viena Conventions—and the extreme urgency of the need to finding a solution to the underlying political problem resulting to instability. There were two schools of thought: one is the international intervention by means of UN or extra-continental structures, be it permanent or ad hoc, such as the ICTR or ICC. The other school advocates home grown solutions. Africans, it is argued, have their own ways of dealing with their problems without use of the conventional legal approach of who is right and who is wrong. This is the background of Rwanda’s Gacaca, South Africa’s CODESA and Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission among others. 

Emphasising the need for an African way of ‘joint problem solving approach’ Thabo Mbeki and Mahmood Mamdani concluded that:- “In civil wars, no one is wholly innocent and no one wholly guilty. And extreme violence is seldom a stand-alone act. More often than not, it is part of a cycle of violence. Victims and perpetrators often trade places, and each side has a narrative of violence. To call simply for victims’ justice, as the I.C.C. does, is to risk a continuation of civil war.

Human rights may be universal, but human wrongs are specific. To think deeply about human wrongs is to wrestle with the problems that give rise to acts of extreme violence, which means fixating less on perpetrators and particular atrocities, and being more alert to issues that drive continuous cycles of conflict from which communities need to emerge. For this to happen, there can be no permanent assigning of victim and perpetrator identities. Instead, there must be a political process where all citizens — yesterday’s victims, perpetrators and bystanders — may face one another as today’s survivors.”

Arriving at the same conclusion Kaguta Museveni in a speech at the occasion of the Heads of State meeting of the ICGLR in Luanda Angola, 15th January 2014, concludes that “to deal with the consequences without dealing with the cause is not a durable solution.”
How far this fourth phase succeeded in defining Africa’s political agenda is yet to be conclusively established. For instance, there is an ongoing battle between Africa and ICC over indictment of African leaders by the ICC. So much so that AU had to adopt a resolution in October 2013 questioning the appropriateness of sitting Head of State to be taken to ICC. UN Security Council disagreed with the AU. Perhaps Frank-Walter Steinmeier in The Guardian (Tanzania), Tuesday April 1, 2014 p. 7,  sums the lesson of war well when he said, as a hindsight of what are Germany’s lessons from World Wars,  “two lessons stand out: the belief in the rule of law and the belief in cooperating with our neighbours.”

These lessons are relevant for Africa today in order to reduce hostility such as the tensions in the Eastern DRC. And in order to strengthen regional cooperation. 


The fifth phase is the emerging trends. We see progressed regional blocking and self assessment such as APRM trying to keep leaders accountable. There appears to emerge a booming democracy with periodic elections and encouraging constitution making. The 2013 Africa Progress Panel calls this “a decade of unprecedented growth—and uneven development.” Natural resources—minerals, oil and gas are being ‘discovered’ en mass. Uganda has oil, Kenya has oil and Tanzania has gas reserve. In fact, it is said, it is now number one in Africa for its volume of reserve!

But what are the early signs?

•Unprepared region with no appropriate strategies to make this natural wealth work for the people.

•Legal, tax and fiscal regimes do not appear to be promising.

•Business as usual—it appears no lessons have been learnt from elsewhere and from within given a decade or so of minerals extraction.

•No strategies appear to be in place to ensure that the extractive industry drives the economy sustainably.

In the circumstances, what should, then, be Africa’s political agenda?

•Collectively, we need to stop pretending that all is well, because all is not well. We need to seriously interrogate our political structures and systems to ensure that they respond to peoples’ needs and expectations. It is not true that everything African is bad or ineffective and that everything Western is the best.    

•In terms of elections, this winner takes all monster is a killing parasite in the absence of defined and untouchable national interests. Currently in most countries elections are decided on simple majority and winners take all and losers take nothing. As a result our politics are very confrontational and divisive.  

•Political leadership should learn to listen to opposing views and strive to build national and regional consensus on major issues of public interest (both national and regional interests).

•Empowerment of our people—education, enabling environment of businesses, reduction of red tapes, competitive tax regimes etc—should be given priority so that our economies are substantially in the hands of our people. 

•Devolution—power closer to people is the key.

•Regional cooperation has no replacement. With our small countries our economic power is reduced to insignificant. Having stronger regional economic communities will go a long way in increasing our competitive advantage and gives us an edge when it comes to economic interaction with the rest of the world.

By Daniel B. Welwel

The author is an Advocate and Partner at Asyla Attorneys law firm based in Dar es Salaam.

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