What went wrong with African liberation?

The anti-colonial movements in Africa did not liberate the people; they only liberated the state.

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Then-President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe looks on during a rally in Harare, April 18, 2012 [File: Stringer/Reuters]

How the recently deceased Zimbabwean ruler, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, should be remembered is a question that has split opinion across Africa. Many have hailed him as a “liberation hero” who led the fight to end white rule in Zimbabwe, while others have insisted that his transformation into a murderous dictator had tainted whatever good he had achieved in his earlier years.

It is indeed a curious debate. One would think an answer would be readily available given the continent’s depressing post-colonial familiarity with similar Jekyll-turned-Hyde autocrats.

Across Africa, those who led the fight against colonial rule and those who came after them became just as brutal as those they had deposed. As Mmusi Maimane, leader of South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance noted last year in a speech in the Senegalese capital Dakar, the same pattern is repeated. “First comes the era of colonial rule – unjust and exploitative. Then comes independence along with a new, democratically elected government. And then follows years, even decades, of oppression by the very same people who were meant to deliver freedom.”

In this context, there is a need to examine the terminologies we employ. What exactly does “liberation” mean when one continues to be oppressed? What does “independence” mean when post-colonial elites continued to be dependent on their former masters?

Take the case of Kenya. At “independence” in December 1963, the country remained a British dominion with the British queen as sovereign, her functions were performed by her representative, the governor-general who served at her pleasure and was commander-in-chief, exercised executive authority, could summon, prorogue and dissolve parliament and appoint or remove the prime minister, whose main role was merely as an adviser. Jomo Kenyatta, the independence hero and first prime minister, who is usually pictured receiving the articles of independence, had virtually no power.

Although, for many, “liberation” is synonymous with freedom, it is plain that few of the peoples “liberated” from colonial rule actually got freedom. As related in Charles Hornsby’s opus, Kenya: A History Since Independence, in the run-up to 1963, anti-colonial activist Jomo Kenyatta asked his future subjects, “If you cannot obey the present [colonial] laws, how will you be able to obey our own laws when we have them?”

After he ascended to power and transformed Kenya into a republic and himself into a president in 1964, few could tell the difference between his government and that of the colonials he had replaced. Hornsby quotes one of Kenyatta’s contemporaries, Masinde Muliro, describing the situation just three years later: “Today we have a black man’s Government, and the black man’s Government administers exactly the same regulations, rigorously, as the colonial administration used to do.”

Were Kenyans free? Were they liberated? Or was the situation more akin to the one described by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela following his country’s triumph over apartheid: “The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed.” It is doubtful, given the facts of post-colonial history, whether Kenyans, Zimbabweans and others on the continent had even gotten this far. They clearly had not secured “the right not to be oppressed”.

So what was liberated, if not the people? The simple answer is the state itself. What was being fought over was less the rights of the people than the opportunity to rule over them; it was about who governed them, not how they were governed.

Although many believed that the struggle against colonialism was also supposed to vanquish economic exploitation and introduce social justice, democracy and respect for human rights and civil liberties, the new overlords often entrenched an authoritarian political culture and mimicked the lifestyles of those they had succeeded.

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1886 book, Beyond Good and Evil.

Sadly, for many Africans, liberators do not always take this to heart as they pursue and maintain power. There is little recognition among governing elites today that the failure to reform the inherited colonial systems of oppression embodied in the state continues to be at the root of the continent’s malaise. And things are unlikely to change unless we redefine liberation to mean real freedom for the continent’s people rather than simply freedom to be oppressed and plundered by black elites.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.