The last week in African politics yet again demonstrated the axiom that post-strongman and post-military junta states in Africa will inevitably struggle to find stability.
On Sunday in Libya, forces loyal to renegade general Khalifa Hifter stormed Parliament and said they had suspended the House.
Backed by anti-aircraft guns, mortar and rocket fire, the militia sent lawmakers scampering for their lives in an audacious attack. They also attacked an airbase in the east. Two people reportedly died in the Parliament raid, and more than 50 were wounded.
Libya is beset by endless problems, from broken utilities and once pristine streets overflowing with garbage, to terrorist attacks, and a seemingly endless mushrooming of militias.
Libya may be a freer country after a revolutionary mob lynched its long-term dictator Muammar Gaddafi three years at the end of a bitter rebellion, but it is a more dangerous and miserable place. Inside and outside Libya, there is no shortage of voices saying, “Things were much better under Gaddafi.” Libya’s problems are not unique.
In many African countries, where a ruling party dominated power and suppressed the opposition for decades, or a predatory and brutal military ruled, it has been a struggle to establish effective and competent governments.
Scholars argue that a long-drawn out dictatorship or monopoly of power undermines the development of strong alternative institutions. Faced with repression and a fruitless wait for power, the brighter lights in opposition movements usually drift away into academia or leave their countries, leaving the diehards to soldier on.
When the regime changes, the key opposition leaders who come to power are thus either bitter men and women out to settle scores, or opportunists out to make up for lost time by dipping into the Treasury. The progressive elements, because they are few, are usually shunted aside or marginalised in short order.
Even Kenya, which didn’t have a Gaddafi-style military dictatorship but a more traditional one-party monopoly of power by the Kenya African Nation Union (Kanu) that was ended by a rare opposition victory after 38 years in 2002, is still struggling to get back on its feet. The post-election violence in the country of 2007 and early 2008 was mostly explosion into the open of the issues that had remained unresolved by the one-party dictatorship.
Nigeria, which from a distance looks like it’s being brought to it knees by Boko Haram terrorists, is for its part suffering from years of singularly corrupt and brutal rule by the military in the past. When the military finally went back to the barracks in 1999 and gave power back to an elected government, it handed over a shell of a country.
Somalia too went down the drain because military dictator Siad Barre killed most of the people and institutions that would have held it together. In the process, clans politics arose as the basis on which groups pushed back against the dictatorship. When Barre was deposed, the clans became a Frankenstein’s monster.
There is no way one can understand the recent violence in the Central African Republic without taking into account the brutal, eccentric and allegedly cannibalistic dictator “Emperor” Jean Bedel Bokassa.
Egypt too, where a street revolution ousted long term dictator Hosni Mubarak, is an example of what happens when civil society is hollowed out by a long dictatorship. Today the euphoria of the Arab Spring looks like a distant memory, with a military that is even more hardline than when Mubarak was in charge.
The revolution was hijacked by the highly organised, popular, but illiberal Muslim Brotherhood that, in turn, played into the hands of the military. Ordinary people are paying a high price for these conflicts, terrorism, and violence.
In South Sudan and Libya, they threaten to tear apart the entire country. Yet there is a sense in which the pent-up emotions need to be expressed, even if violently. Like forest fires, many of these conflicts need to burn themselves out.