HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsHow did the 1990s wind of change pass us?

How did the 1990s wind of change pass us?


“The wind of change is blowing through this continent (of Africa). Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”

Develop me with Tapiwa Gomo

This was part of the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the Parliament of South Africa in 1960. The speech became historically significant as it signalled the British government’s intention to let go of many of their colonies in Africa.

It subsequently marked the beginning of the first wave of the wind of change, with many countries in Africa gaining independence from British government in the 1960s. More than a dozen and half countries got their independence from Britain between 1960 and 1968.

However, given the geopolitical dynamics with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the granting of independence came with some conditions and strings attached, part of which was that the former colonies would remain allegiant to the British system, in exchange for political and economic support.

That arrangement, coupled with euphoria that came with independence, manifested into new forms of dictatorship across many African countries. Those who took over at independence were not keen to leave power despite evidence that they were failing to sustain their economies and to create jobs for their people.

Because the African states still enjoyed support from the British government and, therefore, the international community, keen on keeping them into their fold against the Soviet Union, most of the African governments turned into dictatorships. In Malawi, for example, the late President Kamuzu Hastings Banda, who took the country at independence in 1964, declared himself life president in 1971.

Similarly, President Kenneth Kaunda, who took over Zambia the same year, declared himself “President for Life” in 1972 turning the country into a single party-state under the motto “One Zambia, One Nation” until 1991.

Despite clear evidence of their autocratic tendencies, they both enjoyed international support. Kamuzu’s government was hailed as a good and compliant customer of the World Bank credit facilities, while Zambia continued to receive support from the same bank.

However, political events which started around 1989 elsewhere, especially in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe partly contributed to the second wave of the wind of change in Africa.

During that same period, the Soviet Union was no longer in a position to sustain those African states that had depended on them for survival. The withdrawal of support by the Soviet Union and Western governments saw most of the African regimes weakening as they could not stand on their own.

In 1989, street demonstrations in Eastern Europe led to the downfall of dictators in Romania and East German.

That marked the end of Cold War which saw Western countries shifting their attitudes towards Africa. With weaker Soviet Union, there was no longer any value for Western governments to support autocratic regimes in Africa for simply being friendly with the West.

In addition, the World Bank flagging its neoliberal agenda, also did not see any added value in propping up one-party regimes because of their perceived lack of popular support. Thus, those African regimes began to be seen as barriers to the new global neoliberal agenda of economic development and democratic reforms.

That was the beginning of the second wind of change that blew across the African continent, again starting in 1989 to the mid-1990s which saws the hinges to power falling off leading to the disposal of several dictators.

The backing from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other members of the international community, saw an increasing investment into a host opposition groups and civil society organizations which together invoked and directed public anger towards the change agenda in pursuit of democracy and economic growth.

Between 1989 and 1995, several dictatorships that had prevailed for generations crumbled, paving way for politics of democracy. Military regimes in Congo-Brazzaville, Benin, the Central Africa Republic and Mali were wiped away through electoral processes.

In Ethiopia, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, having been denied backing from a weakened Soviet Union was pushed out of power in 1991 and fled to Zimbabwe to seek asylum. Eritrea gained independence two years later.

In Southern Africa, the same period marked Kaunda of Zambia and Banda of Malawi’s demise.

Until today, albeit some challenges, Zambia has continued to be an example of a maturing democracy.

How did that wind of change miss us? While traces of autocracy were evident in Zimbabwe within that first decade of independence, we were still forgiving as we were immersed in the euphoria of independence.

It could be that, it was the same time that the African National Congress was negotiating for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the subsequent independence of South Africa.

Perhaps this scenario meant that a trade-off was reached that the international agencies of change, who had economic interests in South Africa, would spare Zimbabwe in exchange for government shelving the land reform.

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