The king is dead: Are we seeing the end of African freedom fighter leaders?

Mozambique and Ethiopia have seen non-war veteran leaders fronted for the top seat, but Namibia, Zimbabwe and Rwanda look set to maintain status quo.

MOZAMBICANS go to the polls on October 15 in an election whose first round winner is by many counts a foregone conclusion. However, it will still be closely watched by many for signs of chinks in the ruling party’s armour and how Mozambique post-liberation transition is playing out. 

Frelimo has held power uninterrupted since independence in 1975, but the latest election will provide a tougher challenge given the reinvigorated visibility of the opposition and wide voter discontent with its policies.

The election will also be scrutinised for the fortunes of Frelimo’s candidate, former defence minister Filipe Nyusi, whose win would suggest a discernible shift in liberation movement politics around the continent, where “outsiders” seem to be rising to the top.

Little known to the public until he was chosen at a party congress in March, the 55-year-old Nyusi is a technocrat, who according to his profile has received management training in various countries. Also a lecturer, he is a fellow of the Africa Leadership Initiative, a US-backed pan-African plan to strengthen the quality of leadership on the continent. 

All these are skills that will hold him in good stead as Mozambique prepares to reap billions from its vast but nascent gas industry, expected to double its wealth according to  this World Bank policy note.

But notably, Nyusi has no war credentials, the closest being that his parents were Frelimo veterans, and he was educated in a school run by the party, according to the official Mozambique Information Agency.

All the candidates that were considered by Frelimo’s Central Committee in March, including three current and former prime ministers, were all under 60 years, and thus  too young to have fought in the liberation war against the Portuguese and which ended in 1975, the news agency noted.

Frelimo might be looking to enact a generational change, with Nyusi’s campaign wrapping up on Sunday with a rock-and-roll style rally to drum up enthusiasm among the country’s burgeoning youthful population.

Such has been his rise that he was only elected to the Central Committee in 2012, and he is not an ex cathedra member of the party’s most powerful body, the Political Commission.

Given his low name-recognition, it is hard not to see the hand of departing president Arnando Guebuza, who is held back by term limits but who will serve three more years as party president.

While concerns over apathy due to disillusionment with the pace and distribution of economic wealth persist, with over 40% of voters having stayed away from 2009 elections, the non-veteran change is also seen in the opposition. 

Veteran Afonso Dhlakama is the flagbearer of the opposition Renamo, the main opposition party and also a former armed movement, and in September signed a widely-acclaimed deal that almost guarantees peace, at least during the election. 

But his failure to reinvent himself from a guerrilla fighter into an effective peacetime opposition leader despite latent wide support as seen by his big campaign crowds  has opened the door for a vibrant new party, whose main candidate has no war credentials.

The Movimento Democrático de Moçambique (MDM) was formed only in 2009 but has been generating a buzz among the country’s youth and emerging middle class, and its performance in the election will be closely watched.

MDM’s leader, Daviz Simango, is mayor of Beira, the country’s second largest city, while the party also controls Quelimane, the admistrative capital of the richest province, both wrested from Renamo.

His father was a vice-president of Frelimo, but Simango joined Renamo in 1997, before falling out with the Dhalakama hierarchy, which was seemingly alarmed by his rising profile. 

On a continent where no post-1970s liberation movement government has ever lost power, and war credentials hold huge sway among the majority rural voters, there seems to be the beginnings of a move away from the typical bush-fighter leader.

Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, an engineer, only became heavily involved in high-level politics in the late 1990s, succeeding Meles Zenawi who died in office in 2012.

Meles led the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in a long revolutionary war against the military junta regime, before coming to power in 1991.

The TPLF is now the lead party in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic ruling coalition (EPRD), which after the last election in 2010 holds all but one of the seats in parliament.

In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni last month shoved out prime minister Amama Mbabazi, a man whose liberation struggle association with the president begun in the seventies-era Front for National Salvation (Fronasa), a rebel outfit that fought to dislodge military dictator Idi Amin Dada in 1979. 

Mbabazi was one of the leaders of the external wing of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) and helped popularise the liberation party, of which he remains the secretary-general. His replacement, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda is more the consummate diplomat, having led the government delegation to negotiate with Joseph Kony’s brutal Lords Resistance Army (LRA) and which he reached an agreement but which the rebel leader would not sign.

Rugunda, a doctor, has also been Uganda’s permanent representative to the UN and was in his younger days a politically active student leader. It is thought that he presents less of a threat to Museveni’s long rule, which started in 1986, than Mbabazi.

Another liberation movement veteran, Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos, has struggled to find a successor widely acceptable to party cadres.

Among others, he is seen to be grooming Manuel Domingos Vicente, currently the vice president since 2012 and who run the state oil company prior to his appointment, from where he derived close ties with Dos Santos.

An engineer by training, Vicente, 58, has no war credentials from the country’s 27-year civil war which ended in 2002, as was only appointed as a member of the ruling MPLA’s Political Bureau in 2009. Concern over his political inexperience have seen him represent Dos Santos as several high-level meetings, including the US-Africa Leaders Summit in August, and at the General Assembly of the United Nations.

But for those who would see a loosening of the war veterans’s hold on liberation governments, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and possibly Rwanda, seem not ready to be swept by post-liberation winds yet. 

Namibia holds elections next month, and the ruling South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) has won all others, from the pre-independence vote of 1989, to the 1994, 1999, 2004 and 2009 ballots with a 70% minimum share of the vote.

Incumbent president Hifikepunye Pohamba, 79, a founding member of SWAPO and a stalwart of the liberation movement, is ineligible due to term limits. 

His would-be successor as party head, Hage Geingob, is as typical a liberation movement leader as they come, having served as prime minister for all but 10 of the southern African country’s post-independence history, and as current party vice-president.

In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe is 90, and though his henchmen say he will run in 2018 – at an unprecedented age of 94 - privately most ruling ZANU-PF power men and women realise he is already too frail and might not enter the scrap. It is one reason there is a lot of succession shoving and jostling.

As of now, the battle is thought to be between Vice President Joise Mujuru, seen as a moderate, and hardline Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is more clench-fisted in the Mugabe tradition.

Both Mujuru and Mnangangwa, though, are veterans of the Zimbabwe liberation war. Zimbabwe, then, like Namibia, is probably unlikely to enter its post-liberation phase until after 2020.

The other case, that is difficult to fathom at this point, is Rwanda. President Paul Kagame, who was military leader of the rebel Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA), will see his second seven-year constitutional term end in 2017. It is not definite at this point whether he will step down, or the pressure to amend the constitution so he stays on will win out.

In any event, because it took power in 1994, and most of its rank and file was only entering their teens when the rebellion started, there are many Rwanda bush war veterans in their late 30s and early 40s. In Kigali cocktail and diplomatic circuits, the whispers about a Kagame successor should he leave in 2017 centre mostly around three people: Donald Kaberuka, 63, currently the president of the African Development Bank (AfDB); Richard Sezibera, 50, currently Secretary-General of the East African Community (EAC); and Foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo, 54.

Neither Kaberuka nor Mushikiwabo fought in the bush. Sezibera, who joined the resistance as a field medical, rose to the rank of Major in the RPA.

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