Some African cases of populism

Next, we look closely at four cases that represent different manifestations of populist politics and leadership in Africa. We analyse these four political leaders’ rhetoric, tactics, strategies, and policies with the overall aim of contributing to the understanding of the origins and impact of populism in contemporary African societies.

Idi Amin in Uganda

Described by Hoberman (2017) as a ‘populist demagogue’, Amin come to power through a military coup and ruled Uganda with an iron fist for nearly a decade between 1971 and 1979. Keatley (2003) argues that the self-proclaimed Conqueror of the British Empire responded to all forms of dissent from both loyalists and political enemies with heavy-handed systematic brutality and repression. Even though he associated himself with local benevolence, he nevertheless unleashed an ethnically charged wave of repression against the same people he claimed to be representing (Munnion 1972; Tall 1982; Kyemba 1977).

In defining populism, Kyle and Gultchin (2018) propound that ‘rather than seeing politics as a battleground between different policy positions, populists attribute a singular common good to the people: a policy goal that cannot be debated based on evidence but that derives from the common sense of the people’. By targeting the Asian community, consequently deporting them by the thousands, Amin saw no irony in claiming that dispatching Asians from Uganda was being done to protect the interests of ethnic Ugandans, who he had targeted (Jorgensen 1981). Chasing Asians away on a radical nationalist, nativist, and thus exclusionary populist platform was therefore justified by what he considered to be a pro-people agenda that was meant to benefit black Ugandans. Amin, who claimed ‘God told him to order the expulsion’ (Bhushan 2020), accused the Asians of‘milking Uganda’s money’or ‘sabotaging Uganda’s economy’ (Dawood 2016). In insisting that he was protecting the interests of locals by chasing out Asians, Amin turned to the “us versus them” rhetoric which is often used by populists to win the support of the native people (e.g. Henning 2018; Rice-Oxley and Kalia 2018).

The argument by Barber (2019) that ‘populists are not tyrants or dictators’because they ‘rely on the support of the people for their power’ (2019, 129) appears to be not in tandem with African politics, in which, in the case of Amin and others, dictatorial tendencies are apparent, whereas appealing to the people seems to be equally significant. While protecting the interest of ‘ethnic Ugandans’ appealed to locals, many did not realise Amin only did this whenever it was handier for him to do so. Patel (1972) argues that African leaders, apart from Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, responded to Amin’s persecution of Asians by adopting a non-interference policy, an approach that would prove to be instrumental in the successful implementation of populist agendas by the next generation of anti-colonial leaders, such as Zimbabwe’s Mugabe. Religion was one of the reasons evoked by Amin to justify the expulsion of Asians from his country. This justification would also receive a tacit endorsement from future populist leaders (e.g. Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, and Jacob Zuma in South Africa) as they also turned to religion to rationalise their actions.

Samora Machel in Mozambique

Samora Machel, a guerrilla leader, became Mozambique’s first president after independence from Portugal in June 1975 and until 1986, when he died in a plane crash. For several years, Machel held ‘the country together largely by force of his own personality, traveling extensively, condemning corruption and inefficiency’ (Krebs 1986). Even though the use of (populist) ideas and words always needs to be placed into the proper context, there are several elements that substantiate Machel’s populist approach to politics and thus support the label of populist leader in his case: the use that he made of his own charisma and the way in which he framed his proposals are just a couple of examples. Machel’s approach to politics was completely people centred; there are several references to the ‘people’s power’ and to the priority that should always be given to the people: for example, in a speech he gave in Maputo on 7 February 1980, Machel’s own words were, ‘The State must be the first to be organized and totally committed to serving the interests of the people’ (Machel 1987).

The anti-system narrative was also recurrent in his rhetoric (e.g. ‘profound change of the country’s society and politics’), even after Samora Machel formed his government and became part of the ‘system’. The anti-system position was rooted in a dramatic change from the colonial system of politics and society, but it also pushed forward a socialist model of society. Not only was it against the Portuguese settlers (‘imperial domination’) and the Mozambicans who had supported the Portuguese rule (Machel referred often to ‘the victory of the people over the forces of oppression and exploitation’), but it was also aimed at transforming social and economic relations (Lipschütz and Rasmussen 1986). The people would overthrow completely the inheritance of the colonial state that, after the country ’s independence, was being somehow maintained by the native bourgeoisie (Parry 2004, 85). For Machel it was necessary to break away from the bourgeois culture and enforce the culture of the people.

The idea of unity of the people was ever present in Machel’s speeches (see e.g. Machel 1976; Sopa 2001). Because he was well aware of the dangers of tribalism in Mozambique and of the differences among the country’s many ethnic groups, he always presented the people as unitary while he strived to unite them around common goals and especially against common enemies: first, against colonialism and then against those who were ‘corrupt’, ‘opportunist’, ‘lazy’, or ‘recidivist’. It is interesting to note that cities were seen as places of corruption, in contrast to the correctness and purity of rural life.

In addition to the Unitarian vision of the people, Machel targeted those who did not share his Unitarian view of Mozambican society. After independence, when the ‘enemy Portugal’ was no longer relevant, Machel was not able to unite the entire country around his vision of establishing a socialist state in Mozambique; instead, he had to face a new opponent, the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) and, ultimately, civil war. RENAMO started as a militant political organisation and guerrilla movement in Mozambique and was founded in 1975 in Rhodesia in opposition to Machel’s FRELIMO (the Mozambique Liberation Front, which resulted from the merger of several nationalist groups into a single organisation and was founded in 1962 by Eduardo Mondlane as a nationalist independence movement) and its ideological stance. RENAMO was mostly an anti-Machel resistance movement. As Hanlon (1991) explains, ‘when FRELIMO started losing control, the response was a complex mix of populism and authoritarianism’ (1991, 27).

Context dictated that Machel would have to face different opponents throughout his political life. He commonly used the word enemy (see e.g. Lefanu 2012), which was a distinctive strategy employed in his speeches and in his specific framing of reality. Eduardo Mondlane (the first FRELIMO president assassinated in 1969) had already persuaded many to unite against a shared enemy (Salazar’s Portugal), and Machel commonly interpreted events through this logic. But the enemy was not only Salazar’s Portugal or RENAMO, which Machel often referred to as ‘enemies of the people', but also several other enemies, vague or specific (e.g. the ‘enemy of the nation’, the ‘enemy of women’, etc.).

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