#BookClub: East Africa After Liberation

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In the latest in our popular #BookClub feature, Jonathan Fisher reveals the most significant lessons of  his important new book East Africa After Liberation. To see all of our #BookClub blogs, click here.

Earlier this year, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni was introduced to a regional audience by his Kenyan counterpart as “the elder of the region”. Now in his 35th year in office, Museveni – who once argued that “the problem of Africa … is … leaders who want to overstay in power” – is the third longest-serving ruler on the African continent and the architect of a system of government which is widely criticised for its corruption, political violence, and authoritarianism.

This was not, however, the initial blueprint for Museveni, whose rebel National Resistance Movement (NRM) seized power in 1986 promising Ugandans “fundamental change in the politics of our country”. Indeed, between 1986 and 1994, the political status quo across East Africa was profoundly challenged as four revolutionary ‘liberation’ movements – including the NRM – seized power in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda. After years of armed struggle against vicious dictatorships, each of these movements transformed from rebels to rulers and pledged to govern entirely differently to their maligned predecessors.

My new book, East Africa after Liberation, examines how these four ‘post-liberation’ governments have tried  – and, ultimately, failed – to do this. Drawing on over 130 interviews conducted with (current and former) political elites across the region between 2009-2018, it also reflects more broadly on the acute challenges revolutionary, liberation movements face in seeking to disrupt and reshape domestic and regional politics.

These challenges include having to contend with pre-existing political institutions, elites and, indeed, political cultures which are deeply resistant to fundamental transformation. Neither the NRM nor its counterparts in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Rwanda, came to power with a blank sheet of paper. Though conflict and (in Rwanda’s case) genocide had gutted the pre-liberation state, defeated armies, political elites and other rebel movements survived, as did state bureaucracies. East Africa’s post-liberation regimes also inherited states with a long history of strong, centralised rule.

‘The liberation is still on-going!’

The military character of the four movements – and their victories – made it easier to enforce major change; new political systems were introduced in Uganda (“No-Party Democracy”) and Ethiopia (Ethnic Federalism). It also, however, ensured the privileging of violence and confrontation in post-liberation approaches to politics, governing, and diplomacy. As rebel groups, the NRM, EPRDF (Ethiopia), EPLF (Eritrea) and RPF (Rwanda) were all, at their heart, military organisations whose primary raison d’être had – in some cases for decades – been to fight and defeat an enemy.

Post-liberation elites have struggled to recalibrate this militarised way of thinking since coming to power; “the liberation war did not end in 1994”, many RPF cadres told me during my research for the book, “the liberation of Rwanda is still on-going!”.

The knee-jerk response to opposition and threat has, therefore, in all four cases been zero-sum and often violent. At the domestic level, this has meant the development of closed political systems (Eritrea has never had presidential elections), oppression of critics and opponents, and internal power-struggles. Each movement experienced a damaging split during the early 2000s, with the vanquished factions being arrested, imprisoned (in the case of Eritrea, ever since) or forced into exile. The sacrifice of liberation movement cadres during the liberation struggle has provided a powerful and legitimising discourse in this regard.

Indeed, the language and theatrics of liberation has become ever more acute as the actual memory of struggle has faded, and as the promise of liberation has become increasingly difficult to realise. Largely empty mega-complexes can be found in Ethiopia’s Amhara and Oromia regions, constructed in the later 2000s in dedication to members of the EPRDF rebel coalition. Earlier this year, Uganda’s Museveni commenced a six-day hike through the Ugandan bush retracing the steps of his liberation movement. Promoted by the government as “a journey through the past to appreciate the present”, the initiative was condemned by opposition figure Robert Kyagulanyi (popularly known as Bobi Wine) as “part of the wasteful ventures government is taking aimed at boosting [the president’s] dwindling support”.

From friends to enemies

It is at the regional level, though, where the militaristic political culture of post-liberation regimes has been the most destabilising. The four movements have been significant actors in some of Africa’s most devastating conflicts in recent decades – from the Sudanese Civil War and Congo Wars to the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea Border War. This has often been the result of unresolved legacies of the struggle, including the hosting of Rwandan génocidaires in eastern Zaïre/Democratic Republic of Congo and, critically, personal, ideological, and historical tensions between the movements themselves.

The core of the RPF, for example, emerged from within the NRM, while the two Horn movements fought beside one another during key periods in their struggle against the Ethiopian Derg regime. This led to the emergence of strong bonds – including marriages and lifelong friendships – within these two pairings, but also bitter resentment and rivalries.

Between 1998 and 1999, these spilled over into violence in the Horn and the Great Lakes, leading to a two decade long ‘Cold War’ between Addis Ababa and Asmara and a Rwandan-Ugandan relationship characterised by deep unease. The legacy of these divisions continue to be felt strongly today. Even with peace agreed between Eritrea and Ethiopia since 2018, the two sides have struggled to institutionalise their accord beyond the level of personalities at the top.

At the time of writing, the Rwandan-Ugandan border has been closed for over a year, with both sides accusing the other of undermining their internal security. One editorial published earlier in the year in the Daily Monitor, Uganda’s principal independent newspaper, compared the Kampala-Kigali relationship to two families jointly running a pizzeria – ‘so close-knit, it is hard to sift one family’s lives without having to wade through the others’. The families end up, however, as bitter competitors when the respective patriarchs come to blows over seniority. ‘Does anyone know what exactly is going on between Uganda and Rwanda?’, the writer asks.

A fundamental change?

The four movements’ regional footprint has also been informed, as the book explains, by broader aspirations to transform regional politics – though the shape and content of these aspirations has evolved over time. Ideational appeals to pan-Africanism and regional liberation have undergirded military actions as different as post-liberation support to the SPLM/A, intervention in DRC, and peacekeeping in Somalia. These reformist ambitions have also morphed into developmentalist discourses and agendas since the 2000s – particularly in Ethiopia and Rwanda.

To what extent have these movements fundamentally transformed their polities and the region, though? Modernist developmental models are not new initiatives in this part of Africa, as much recent work has shown, and efforts to disrupt past models of governance based around ethnic or regional dominance and sectarianism in Uganda and Rwanda have been increasingly undermined by patronage and/or the de facto preferment of groups drawn from the liberation movement’s core constituencies. In Ethiopia, as the last five years has shown, ethnic federalism has unleashed forces which represent – for some analysts – an existential threat to the polities’ integrity.

Nor are uneasy and militarised neighbourly relations a new feature of East African regional relations – indeed, these were a central feature of the region’s politics 30-40 years ago when Milton Obote, Juvenal Habyarimana, Mobutu Sese Seko and Hailemariam Mengistu stalked the corridors of power. Authoritarian rule is also a familiar form of governance since the days of colonialism.

What has remained consistent throughout the post-liberation regional – and national – story, has been the use of violence as a principal policy tool and this, I would suggest, is where the post-liberation moment’s influence is likely to be most enduring. The transformation of regional body IGAD since the 1990s from a trade and development bloc to one largely focused on security is indicative of a broader trend – the institutionalisation of patterns of regionalism based around militarised ‘solutions’.

One can also see this in the evolution of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia since 2007 – an intervention which has combined peace support operations with counter-insurgency and regional politicking and involved almost every army in the region despatch troops to the country.


Jonathan Fisher is Reader in African Politics and Director of the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham.

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