Chasing the Tail of the African Revolution

Shall we Break it Down?

  • To ‘chase one’s tail’ means to take vigorous action that doesn’t lead to meaningful progress in the long run. It is an idiom inspired by the sight of dogs chasing their tails.
  • A ‘revolution’ means the overthrow, usually by violent means, of a country’s political system.
  • A ‘revolution’ can (ironically enough) also mean a movement in a circle, ironically enough.

These three definitions come together in the sad history of the African Revolution. It can be entertaining to watch a dog chasing its tail. Watching countries chasing their tails at so much human cost, generation after generation, is tragedy on an epic scale.

What follows now are a few examples of the problem, and a potential solution:.

Tunisia’s Revolving Revolution

Former Tunisian President, Habib Bourguiba

For twenty years, the Tunisian lawyer, Habib Bourguiba, led a revolution against the French colonists in his country. In 1956, Tunisia finally became independent and Bourguiba was elected prime minister. From revolutionary, he turned around to become a colonist himself, converting Tunisia into a one-party state of which he was life president. The country had ‘revolved’ from colonialism through democracy, back to colonialism. Bourguiba ruled for 31 years into his dotage until he was forced out in a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ by Ben Ali.

Tunisia’s 2nd President,
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

The ‘revolutionary’, Ben Ali, in turn, colonized Tunisia for 25 years, regularly ‘winning’ over 90% of the vote and becoming richer and more corrupt with each election cycle, until the suffering on the streets inspired the 2011 self-immolation of the street hawker, Mohamed Bouazizi. That death triggered the second ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in Tunisia and swept Ben Ali out of office. It also inspired a tsunami of Arab Spring uprisings in many family-owned countries around the Middle East and North Africa.

Current Ownership Chart of Africa

This ‘revolution’ from colonialism through paper freedom back to colonialism in one generation is a template for much of Africa since independence, with African leaders evolving from freedom fighters into life presidents and corrupters-in-chief.

Country Current Owner/s  
(as at 1st January 2020)
Duration of Ownership
Togo The Eyadema Family 52 years
Equatorial Guinea The Ngueso Family 51 years
Cameroon Paul Biya 45 years
Djibouti The Aptidon/Guelleh Family 42 years
Congo Denis Sassou Ngueso 35 years
Uganda Yoweri Musevini 33 years
Chad Idris Deby 29 years
Eritrea Isaias Afwerki 26 years

Honorable Mention

Zimbabwe does not feature on this list of current colonists. The revolutionary freedom-fighter-turned-life-president, Robert Mugabe who died on 6th September 2019, was winkled out of office in 2017 after a 37-year reign that converted his country from breadbasket into the basket case of Africa. But his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa was in power with Mugabe every day of those 37 years (except for the few days during which he planned his coup) and has so far proved an adept understudy. The ‘cycle’ of revolution continues.

A Pharaohnic Case Study

Egypt’s 4th President,
Hosni Mubarak

Egypt’s revolutionary story is particularly instructive. The Arab Spring that started in Tunisia inspired Cairo to unseat Hosni Mubarak, a dictator who had spent 30 years in power. Modern Egypt is no stranger either to dictators or to revolutions. The 1952 Revolution sacked the authoritarian regime of King Farouk, ending the 150-year-old kingdom of Egypt, and paved the way for a new Republic under the popular rule of President Nasser. Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981. That opened the door to the presidency of Hosni Mubarak.

Perhaps to avoid his own assassination, Mubarak kept Egypt under a permanent State of Emergency throughout the three decades of his rule. The line between security and authoritarianism can be a hard one to draw. (After Thomas Sankara’s revolutionary 3-year-old government was terminated by his assassination, bereaved Burkinabes might have wished that he was more mindful of his personal security.) Yet, Mubarak’s authoritarian regime was also marked by corruption, nepotism and inequality. In three decades, he went full circle to the royal despotism terminated by the 1952 revolution. Until the people of Egypt sacked him through the 2011 Arab Spring Revolution.

Mohammed Morsi (Wikipedia)

But Egypt was not done chasing its tail. In June 2012, Mohammed Morsi won the new presidential elections. Egypt breathed the air of freedom. Yet, by November that same year, Morsi donned dictatorial toga and granted himself unlimited powers and the ability to legislate without judicial oversight. Protests began again and General Sisi – who perhaps fancied himself a Nasser – took advantage of them to stage a 1952-style coup. Thereafter, he has ‘won’ two presidential elections with up to 97% of the vote. With 20,000 activists arrested and 7,000 killed, Sisi is on course to out-Mubarak Mubarak for the title of Most Authoritarian Dictator in Egyptian History.

The cycle of ‘revolution’ continues.

Sudan, Sudan

The tragedy is that despite the replication of the same story throughout Africa, we seem unable to learn from history. The most recent revolution on the continent started from Atbara, Sudan. Like Egypt, Sudan is no stranger to revolutions. The Mahdi’s revolution of 1885 routed the British colonists for a time. In 1964, the October revolution sacked the Abboud government and in April 1985, over a million Sudanese marched to bring down the government of Jaffar Nimeiry.

Like an early revolution triggered by IMF-inspired price hikes, the most recent uprising in Atbara started as a bread riot. In April, 2019, a military coup ended the 30-year regime of the dictator Omar Bashir, paving the way for a 3-year transition government. Unfortunately, like Sisi’s Egypt, Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe, and other countries in Africa, the current military – or ex-military – occupants of the seat of power were direct facilitators of the brutal regime of the ousted dictator.

The cycle continues.

The real question is: beyond lower bread prices, what should Sudanese, Egyptian, and other citizens of Africa get in exchange for shedding their blood on Revolution Street? Organizers of revolutions often sound like Asmaa Mahfouz, the 25-year old co-organiser of Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement: ‘we all want at least some minimum ground for democracy and a comfortable standard of living and some sort of justice in the distribution of income. We want to fight corruption. These are all things that we have agreed on.’

Protesters may march under different banners, but one purpose must unite them all: create a system that will make future revolutions unnecessary

The real question of course is how Egypt can, after the soul-stirring speeches and marches of January 2011 that brought down Hosmi Mubarak, end up under the heel of Sisi. This is an important question, because every revolutionary cycle that takes a country through freedom back to dictatorship entrenches cynicism and hopelessness in the people.

Usually the products of revolutions are spanking new constitutions and new personnel at the top. But these have proved signally incapable of stopping the tail-chasing cycle.

Year Country Uprising Immediate Trigger for Uprising
1905German East Africa (Tanzania)MajiMaji RebellionForced cultivation of cotton
1961AngolaIndependence WarForced Cultivation of cotton
1963CongoSimba Rebellion The killing of Patrice Lumumba
1964ZanzibarZanzibar Revolution Afro/Arab Racial Tensions
1967NigeriaBiafran RebellionIgbo pogroms
1976 South Africa Soweto Introduction of Africaans as Language of Instruction in Schools
1980 Algeria Berber Spring Banning of the Berber identity and language
2019 Sudan Atbara Rising bread prices

Whatever its immediate trigger, a revolution should not be rested just because a sop is thrown at the revolutionaries. A Revolution is not a mere election where voters should be satisfied with a new incumbent. A revolution is an opportunity to bed in systemic change in a body politic that ends the cyclical nature of political abuse and makes future abuse difficult or impossible. With decades of experience in removing military dictators only to cycle back to the status quo in a matter of months, Sudanese revolutionaries knew that to go from revolution to election is to set up a country for failure. They resisted the army’s attempt, following the ouster of Bashir, for immediate elections. The stage is now set for a 3-year transitional government that will hopefully sanitize the institutions of government of Bashir-era corruptocrats, and rejig the constitution before new presidential elections can hold.

The question though, is whether that will be enough.

However good the constitution, however pristine the reputation of the elected members of government, clearly, there is something in the water of statehouses up and down the continent that converts the most revolutionary and democratic incumbents into colonial life-presidents. Citizens must never again fight and die in revolutionary marches merely for a change in personnel and constitution.

African history forbids it.

Citizens must never again hang the fate of future generations on the promise of good behaviour of politicians.

The Bogey of Restructuring

The other cyclical narrative peddled by revolutionaries is that good governance can only be achieved by the political devolution of power and budgetary control from the centre to regions, most often by secession. In this narrative, the oppression of a section of the country is a consequence of the misjoinder by colonial administrators of disparate ethnic communities in the same administration and once the oppressed communities achieve self-governance their oppression would end.

Although the reality of oppression cannot be denied, the history of successful secession movements in Africa appears to suggest that such movements were more often led by short-armed dictators-in-waiting unable to reach the feeding troughs of the mother country. The incentive for campaigning for a smaller country was not so much the liberation of the People, but the replacement of the colonial family of the mother country with their own family and friends.

Map of pre-1956 Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan

In the early years of the twentieth century, Sudan, South Sudan, and Egypt were administered as one country. Years of campaigns led to the independence of the old Sudan in 1956.

Still, agitation for better governance in both countries continued under the governments in Khartoum and Cairo. Secession campaigns in Southern Sudan continued and following decades of civil war, South Sudan fractured from the north in 2011 but it is clear from the oppression, wars and demonstrations that continued in Egypt and in both Sudans following the fragmentation of the pre-1956 political entity, that restructuring and secession did not end the oppression of the People.

Egypt and the Sudans.
3 Degrees of Separation

It only created new oppressors.

Although the differences in the new countries may be clear, it is also clear that the core problem was the commonality of bad governance systems from Cairo through Khartoum to Juba. This scenario is replicated across Africa. Rather than focus on the governance deficits, warlords are locked into battles to hack out real estate they can colonize and exploit without competition.

Yet, the restructuring logic is a perpetual, tail-chasing narrative. Even now, after decades of war and millions of dead Egyptians and Sudanese, secession campaigns continue for the liberation of Dafur, and discontent in Eastern Sudanese areas of Adjei and Rashaidi continues to drive rebellions inspired by ethnic and religious schisms.

The Sankara Syndrome

Thomas Sankara: 
Burkinabe Revolutionary President (1983-1987)
Thomas Sankara (1949-1987)

Thomas Sankara was the revolutionary President of Burkina Faso who led a transformational government before his assassination in 1987. The Sankara Syndrome is the tendency of revolutionary movements to be too focused on the personal qualities of charismatic leaders and the shopping basket of exciting policies they have to offer. Thomas Sankara’s government was replaced by that of Blaise Compaore who spent the next 27 years as president on a policy of ‘rectification’, reversing all Sankara’s revolutionary policies and heritage.

Systems Thinking & the Bribecode

The antidote to the Sankara Syndrome is Systems thinking: preparing for the reactionary leaders that would follow, and creating and bedding in structures that would resist the retaliation of entrenched interests.

If the solution to the perennial misery of African peoples is neither a new constitution nor a new government, if the problem of bad governance cannot be ended by the fiat of a secession, or political restructuring, what then is the solution?

The solution is to devise means of ensuring that the citizen’s power to sanction leaders who err against the constitution is never delegated to those same leaders. This will signal an end to impunity. At minimum, the revolting citizen should aspire to place systemic restraints on public offices to guarantee that public officers are infinitely disposable and the power of the people over their leaders can neither be delegated nor usurped. That is the only way to break the cyclical nature of Africa’s oppression and fix the revolving door of the African Revolution. The goal of the Bribecode Campaign (www.bribecode.org) is to convert public servants into eunuchs in the Palace of the People, honestly stewarding public property and incapable of exercising their lusts, were they so inclined.

Beyond the Bribecode, it is also realistic to recognise that there will be countries so bled of initiative by decades of brain drain, whose citizens are so religiously sedated and mentally subdued, where state capture is a forgone conclusion, whose armies, institutions and elites are deep in the pockets of a ruling family. In such countries, the level of self-abnegation is so extreme that popular uprisings are inconceivable and the prospects either of a revolution or the Bribecode are negligible.

These countries and others make the concept of Superstate Africa indispensable to the possibility of a liberated Africa.

If you are a revolutionary tired of chasing your tail, perhaps it is time to sign up here: We would also love to hear from you.

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