Towards people’s power

Anti-authoritarian struggles on the continent aren’t just fighting for democracy, but they are also reimagining it.

A market in Dar es Salaam. Image credit Stefan Magdalinski via Flickr CC BY 2.0 Deed.

At the turn of the millennium, when democratic transitions were still fresh in memory, an academic debate was brewing. Claude Ake, a Nigerian political scientist, argued that the peoples of Africa connected democracy to “economic rights,” while Ghanaian scholar Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi and his co-authors marshaled survey data to show that they conceptualized it in liberal terms: free elections, political rights, and popular self-rule.

The debate has been largely considered settled. I wish to unsettle it. It might be that popular understandings of what democracy is are consistent with what Gyimah-Boadi and friends found, but Ake’s interest was to what ends democracy was popularly seen as the means. To what, in American political scientist Danielle Allen’s words, is democracy envisaged to be instrumental? Particularly in authoritarian regimes.

I have spent nine years studying the democracy movement in one such regime—in Tanzania—especially as represented in its leading opposition party, Chadema. For the last two years, I have studied its counterpart in authoritarian Zimbabwe, the movement known, at least until weeks ago as the Citizens’ Coalition for Change, and known as the Movement for Democratic Change before that. I have heard their speeches. I have read their constitutions. I have listened to their leaders.

What I have found in recently published research is that these movements do not merely rehearse calcified democratic ideas. Democracy is not, for them, a concept, to paraphrase Jonathan Fisher, formulated in the Global North and applied in the Global South. These activists accept the broad institutional contours prescribed in established liberal democratic theory. Yet over decades-long opposition to authoritarian oppression, they have seen differently what democracy can bring. I want the activists who make these movements to hear these claims; I want them to see that they are authors of home-grown visions of democracy.

A people’s power philosophy

Let me start in Tanzania. As Chadema states in its constitution, it sees Tanzania’s history as one of domination. “The ‘people’ of Tanzania,” it states, “have never had a voice, power and authority over” themselves. Instead, “from the colonial era to date,” those things have been vested in “the few people,” in terms that are remarkably reminiscent of radical republican ideas of oligarchic state capture.

This history of domination contains a searing critique of Tanzania today. Although the people of Tanzania may now be free from the oppression of British colonial rule, liberation from that rule has not freed them from oppression. Instead, domination by the British has been replaced by domination, even if milder or less egregious, by co-patriots (in an authoritarian regime).

What looms largest in this critique of authoritarianism in Tanzania today is power. Tanzania’s structure of government gives those who rule the power to pursue their interests at the expense of others. It is this excessive and unchecked power that connects grand corruption, to the privileges that President Magufuli festooned upon his hometown, to the so-called “development levies” imposed upon rural households, which Chadema presidential candidate calls “rural tyranny.”

It is power, equally, which sustains this system. In the eyes of Chadema, the regime “use those powers…to usurp the people’s power.” Chadema chairman Freeman Mbowe wrote that “the government is determined to hold onto power by all means.” While the rule of President Magufuli from 2015 until his death in 2021 marked the most extreme and visible period of such authoritarianism, it did not mark the beginning and end of it.

These concepts of power and domination run through Chadema’s vision of democracy, or as they call it, their philosophy of people’s power. The institutional form that Chadema advocates democracy take is unremarkable. Yet what they envisage will be achieved in it is distinctive. Once the new constitution for which they call is instantiated, in their eyes, the arbitrary power of state offices, from the ward councilor to the presidency, will be broken. Instead, the people will have power through and over their government. Only then will oligarchic corruption be stymied. Only then will Tanzania prosper. Only then will the people be free from domination. In the context of authoritarianism, Chadema has developed an original republican vision of democracy analogous to those being developed in the academy today, not least by authors from the Global South.

The only way out of crisis

These same themes of domination, systemic corruption, and power run through the anti-authoritarian speech of the democracy movement in Zimbabwe, albeit refracted through different emphases and contexts. Successive historical atrocities weigh heavily in their speech, as do a long list of human rights violations. Their critical gaze falls inevitably, not only on the political head of state, but, inevitably on its entanglements with the military and security apparatus, who sometimes appear as the powers behind the throne, and sometimes as cronies of the regime. They see the enactment of a new constitution (achieved in 2013) and the enforcement of its provisions as the path to dismantling this systemic corruption, restraining human rights abusers, and breaking the domination of the regime. In the context of Zimbabwe’s long and armed struggle for liberation from British colonial and white settler rule, they see, as does the scholar and activist Brian Raftopoulos, the achievement of democracy as a necessary step on the path to liberation. As political scientist Sara Dorman elucidates, they are contesting languages of nationalism.

Alongside these homegrown republican ideas, perhaps inevitably in the Zimbabwean context, runs the idea of crisis. In this movement’s view, Zimbabwe has been swallowed by crisis after crisis, almost without interruption. They see democracy as a way out. The root cause of all endless crises is the regime’s “legitimacy deficit.” Absent a mandate, and absent accountability the regime has resorted to successive destructive acts that secure their survival today but beget a crisis tomorrow. In a homegrown liberalism, this movement envisages that democracy will reinstate government accountability and legitimacy alike and deliver Zimbabwe from forever-crises.

For a long time, for many, the question of what democracy means has been a closed one. In academia, it has taken insurgent scholars not least from the Global South to insist that we can re-envisage what democracy is and what is achieved in it. This is not only an exercise taken up by scholars, but also through the evolving political thought of democracy activists in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, just as others are tracing it elsewhere.

I want these activists, and their counterparts elsewhere to see how their actions resemble what public intellectual and author Achille Mbembe might call original if nascent modes of African self-writing. I want them to see the emergent forms of political thought in the academy and beyond to which their ideas are so similar. I want us all to see the visions they paint, and to see through their eyes what democracy can be and to what it can lead us.

Further Reading

Beyond the headlines

Recent violence across the Eritrean diaspora is being instrumentalized by populists. But the violence is a desperate cry for attention and requires the Eritrean opposition to seize the moment for regime change.

A disturbing story

In this interview with Rasna Warah, journalist Michela Wrong debunks the myth of Rwanda as a model developmental state and a poster child for Western aid.