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Editorial: Former Rebels In Africa’s Presidential Palaces

Editorial: Former Rebels In Africa’s Presidential Palaces

The recent breakdown of governance in South Sudan left observers aghast.

The tragedies of South Sudan present a good opportunity to take stock of governance by ex-rebel leaders throughout the Africa. AFKI looks at former rebels in Africa’s presidential palaces: how are they doing?

The level of violence and the ability of politicians to quickly mobilize massive forces is simply staggering. The speed with which South Sudan’s highest-ranking politicos returned to their prior (and potentially more comfortable) status as fighters is extremely troubling.

While South Sudan remains in limbo as fighting continues and negotiations are bogged down over the fate of alleged coup conspirators held by government forces, some observers believe both sides are merely using the time to revitalize their sides.

It is a particular difficulty of post-colonial countries, in particular those in Africa, that rebel leaders, often of the military persuasion, are among the most famed and charismatic characters in new or newly independent countries.

This, combined with a collective belief in the “father” or “mother” of the country, often causes them to be the first to reside in a new country’s presidential palace. This can be difficult for a number of reasons. What makes a movement or an individual successful on the battlefield does not necessarily translate to the body politic. While military success can stem from charisma, military leaders can be less tolerant of dissent than is desirable in political leaders and can have different ideas on the rule of law and hierarchy than are necessary to build a free and robust democracy.


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Rebel leader Riek Machar once said to a former U.S. envoy: “War (is) easier than politics because in war you (know) who (is) shooting at you…” according to a ForeignPolicy report.

The continent has mixed experience with such leaders making the transition from rebels or freedom fighters to political leadership.

The most shining example of such a transition is recently deceased Nelson Mandela. His image as a driving force for peace is true of his later years, but there is a tendency among his supporters to gloss over his younger days as an advocate for armed sabotage as one of the founding members of the African National Congress’ armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).

Mandela is atypical of freedom fighters. He spent 27 years in prison reforming how he felt about the ability of violence to achieve freedom. Mandela never advocated for violence against individuals, instead focusing on sabotage of apartheid institutions. He emerged from incarceration an advocate for peace. This experience is far from the direct transition from rebel to politician that many leaders undergo.

The opposite end of the spectrum is found just north of South Africa: Robert Mugabe, the longtime Zimbabwe president went from prison to rebel leadership to continual political dominion over the country for more than three decades. Mugabe ascended to leadership in his Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front party while still in prison. After emerging from prison he would play a vital role in the Lancaster Agreements that transferred the white minority rule to the former rebel leaders. Since Mugabe became the country’s prime minister in 1980 (and president in 1988) Zimbabwe has gone from one of the most promising countries in the global south to a place devoid of human rights and the rule of law. Mugabe is not only consistently rated at or near the bottom in rule of law, democracy and human rights factors worldwide; he has also overseen the impoverishment and starvation of a country once known as “the breadbasket of Africa.”

Most leaders — whether former rebels, Oxford-educated career politicians or populist dark horses — do not exist at the far ends of the spectrum that Mandela and Mugabe occupy. Across the continent there are many former rebels who have a number of successes and a number of failures.

In South Africa the two presidents that followed Mandela can neither be seen as success or failure. While Thabo Mbeki made important strides towards coherent administration along with managerial moves necessary for the country’s future, he also had one of history’s most disastrous HIV/AIDS stances, resulting in untold levels of human misery. Jacob Zuma immediately sought to remedy Mbeki’s flawed HIV/AIDS policy and oversaw the development of one of the world’s most widespread anti-retroviral distribution networks. But his tendency towards corruption and personal idiosyncrasies made him so unpopular that the ANC’s near-one-party dominance may be threatened and he was booed at Madiba’s recent funeral.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has gone from being considered an alleged war criminal for her support of military strongman Charles Taylor in the 1980s to a Nobel laureate. Johnson Sirleaf managed to keep the peace and work towards human rights and foreign direct investment in Liberia. However, the country remains riddled with graft, with three out of four Liberians stating that they have paid a bribe in the last year and Human Rights Watch classifying the state security force as a “predator” rather than a “protector” of the populace.

There is no exact science on whether a former rebel leader will be a Mandela or a Mugabe. Most fall somewhere in between. Most are also set up for immense difficulties based on the fragile state of the countries they are attempting to guide. While the skills do not always transfer from rebel to politician, it is worth thinking about ways to aid former fighters and prevent a fallback to the atrocities such as we are seeing in South Sudan.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email atafriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.