Africa’s Militarists: Paradoxes And Perverted Priorities…

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[Issues Of Principle]

It is a tragic paradox of history and a chilling mockery of the sacrifices of those who fought so hard for African liberation, that the African continent, which is richly endowed in terms of resources is currently the poorest, with her people enjoying the barest of rights normally accorded to citizens.

Tragically too, the sense of collective purpose and Pan-African solidarity that characterized the fight for independence has now been emptied of contents and instead reduced to a rhetorical mantra to lull people. The tragic paradox about the continent goes beyond the question of poverty; it is above all manifested in the ways Africans are treated in their own countries.
For the most part, foreigners, especially white Europeans and Americans, are accorded more rights and treated with more respect than Africans in their own countries.

A couple of archetypical examples should suffice to illustrate the tragic paradox. Ethiopia, which recently celebrated her new millennium with so much fanfare and cultural festivities, is regarded as Africa’s oldest sovereign independent country. The dynamic history of the country made her for a long period a legitimate symbol of anti-colonial control, African independence, vitality, pride, hope and revival.
Today, however, Ethiopia cannot be taken seriously as a symbolic torch bearer for the continent. On the contrary, its rulers have reduced this once proud country to a shadow of her old self. She now has the dubious distinction of boosting the largest military in the continent, at a time when the great majority of the population suffers grinding poverty.

And her current rulers, as though in a defiant public mocking of her proud history of independence, have sent her military to occupy another African country, Somalia, at the behest of external forces. In both cases, the welfare and interests of African people have been sacrificed to gain approval of foreign forces who often treat African people with contempt.

In the same geographic region of the Nile Basin, there is Uganda, which used to be the melting-pot for refuges from the Sudan, Rwanda, the Congo and other countries; and whose leaders were in the vanguard of Pan-African Movement. Now, however, her ethno-militarist rulers have discarded the country’s tradition of tolerance and democratic pluralism, to boast, like Ethiopia, a large parasitic military, which have preyed on the population and helped muzzle democratic voices.

Not concerned about the welfare of the great majority of her people, the regime is spending millions of dollars to host the British Commonwealth Heads of State — a successor to the British Empire — in November, while in the north of the country, for example, people suffer in abject conditions without housing, medical services, sanitation and clean water and are dying at a rate of about 1,000 per week in the inferno of concentration camps established by the regime. The logic of such perverted prioritization may make sense for a regime that is in power more because of the backing of external forces and the military than because it has the internal legitimacy provided by citizens.

The recent experiences in Ethiopia and Uganda are examples of what occur in a cross-section of African countries, where militarist rulers have confused their personal security and power with the interests of citizens. It is no exaggeration that in virtually every African country run on a personalist-militarist logic, more money is spent on pleasing foreign supporters and on the military than in training doctors, teachers and in building social infrastructure for the welfare of the people. This is not to say that there are no countries such as South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, etc, where democracy and the rule of law have been given reign to create conditions for the realization of the aspirations of people rather than reliance on the military and foreign forces as the mainstays of power.

The tragic ironies manifested in the ways Africans are treated by their own governments, however, contrast starkly with the manner in which the first generation of African leaders conducted the business of the state. An examination of historical evidence reveals that the phenomenon of crises that began to plague Africa in the 1970s up to now was not always a permanent or unavoidable feature of the continent.

Available data indicates that in contemporary African history, there was a period — albeit a brief interlude — between 1956 and 1966, when the continent experienced what might be characterized as a golden era. The period covers the twilight of colonial imperialism and the early era of decolonization. During the period, the continent recorded impressive economic growth and incomes grew faster during that time than they had in the previous half century.   

The golden epoch in contemporary African history witnessed and celebrated peace, prosperity, scholarship and the arts. These were fostered by liberal rule of law and constitutionalism, and robust democratic competition. Importantly, the progressive developments of the period were underpinned by the commitment of the leaders to translate the vision of inclusive society into practice. Significantly too, the leaders of the period yearned to justify their tenure in power by reference to democratic legitimacy of the people rather than the support of external forces or the military. The logic led them to embark on ambitious projects of building schools, hospitals, roads and other infrastructure; of investing in social sectors; and of declaring war against poverty, disease and ignorance.

All of these contributed much to the common and greater welfare of the great majority of the people rather than simply to the personal survival in power of individuals; and they gave the people a sense of promise and of collective affirmative purpose for the future.

However, as indicated above, the golden era between 1956 and 1966 was brief. The buoyancy and optimism during the period proved to be less a false start than a romantic midsummer dream. The dream was turned into a long nightmare by military coups often sponsored by external forces that ousted the first generation of African nationalist leaders.

It should be noted that the external forces that supported coups in Africa are the same ones that now support militarist rulers reluctant to accept African interests and welfare on the same footing and legitimacy as those of Europeans or Americans.
The sorry state of affairs in Africa requires all concerned to examine factors that have contributed to the nightmarish situation. This might be done satisfactorily by retracing the history of Africa and by raising social consciousness among African people about their rights comparable to rights enjoyed by other citizens of the world.

To understand the tragic paradox about the continent, we require a critical examination of and the fundamental issues of values and means in the assumption and maintenance of powers, and for what purposes power was and is exercised during particular periods in Africa.

An historical analysis suggests that the tragic paradox about resources and poverty and maltreatment of Africans is really a symptom of a serious pathology and psychological disorientation among the majority of African ruling elites.

Although external forces have connived to contribute much to the state of misery in the continent, African rulers who have served as conduits for external exploitation of Africans by instituting policies that pervert priorities for the welfare of the people in the continent, must be held accountable.

On the balance of evidence, it would seem that in order to reverse the tragic paradoxes and perverted priorities superintended by a number of African ruling elites, there might have to be another liberation struggle, comparable to what transpired following the blueprint sketched out at the Pan-African Congress of 1945 in Manchester.


Black Star News columnist Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu is UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, Executive-Director of the UConn-ANC Partnership and Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. His column appears bi-weekly online and in the newspaper.

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