Book Review-Warlord Democrats in Africa;Ex Military Leaders and Electoral Politics

Reading Time: 7 minutes

When Tony Moturi, my lawyer friend bought this book, I sighed in exasperation, thinking, “Oh No!!! not another bunch of white guys writing authoritatively about Africa and telling us what to do with our lives.” With the picture of Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president in his signature austere stare on the cover, my assumption was that the book was a predictable attack on our sometimes flawed, imperfect, leaders, but our leaders, nonetheless.

but reading the book proved that I was being unnecessarily defensive, presumptuous, and wrong. The book is a good study on the struggles countries plagued by military rule go through as they transition into a democratic society. All of them suffer teething problems occasioned by the  mismanaged transition period, made worse by the fact that such transitions are typically managed by the West and lean more on expediency and rarely reflect the reality on the grond.

This 2017 book systematically examines the lives of a dozen ex-militaries leaders among them; Antipas Mbusa Nyamwisi of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), João Bernardo “Nino” Vieira of Guinea Bissau, Sekou Conneh and Prince Johnson of Liberia, Afonso Dhlakama of Mozambique, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Julius Maada Bio, Eldred Collins, and Samuel Hinga Norman and finally closer home, Riek Machar of South Sudan.

All these men have been part of a civil war or unrest in their respective countries, and have tried to be part of the ruling cabal in the post-conflict state created once some semblance order is established in their country.  Each of the countries under review has had a unique civil war, whether historical (Mozambique and South Sudan), fought over resources (DRC and Sierra Leone), or a full-scale genocide like Rwanda. There have been millions of casualties, millions of displaced individuals and some of the men under study have been directly involved as perpetrators or liberators of their people, depending on who is doing the study. Sometimes, they they stood to defend their territory or their people or sometimes to ensure that their power can be felt in negotiations.

Warlord, Prince Johnson, famed for his hands-on ouster of Samuel Doe’s regime, became a pastor in exile in Nigeria, before returning to Liberia to win a senate seat.

The book is a collection of papers by mostly European scholars, well researched as they offer both autobiographical backgrounds of the Warlord Democrats (abbreviated as WD), as well as trace their journey through the warring period, and how they transform themselves into democrats when the war is over. The book emphasizes how these military leaders flaunt their war credentials during political campaigns to remind the people that they are military men first and politicians second. This is their strongest bargaining points since it is a way of assuring the asses that they will be secure if they trust the warlord with the security.

This reminds me of a joke back at the University of Nairobi, where goons, campaigning for student politicians always insisted that you decide if they become the source of security of insecurity. Pay them well and they will protect you. Ignore them and they will make your campaigns a living hell. In real life that is how WDs roll.

The book calls this, ‘Securitizing of wartime idenntities.”

There are those WDs who succeed to become presidents, like Rwanda Kagame, Guinea Bissau’s Vierra, Sierra Leone’s current President Bio. There are those who end up in the cabinets or holding certain critical posts in the future government such as Nyamwisi or Prince Johnson in Liberia who has been a senator for sometime. And those that are obliterated into oblivion by circumstances that are beyond their control like Sekou Conneh.

The most interesting WD in Africa is Afonso Dhlakama, the leader of Mozambican National Resistance (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana, RENAMO). It is a position he took over after the founder of the movement, André Matsangaissa was killed in a raid in 1979. RENAMO as a movement had the backing of Zimbabwe and South Africa to neutralize the communist vibe that was taking root in Mozambique after their independence from Portugal in 1975.

Most of us are familiar with the needlessly long war in Mozambique that nobody quite understood what was going on. And that is what makes Dhlakama interesting. Dude never wanted to be anything beyond being a rabble-rouser. And boy, did he cause trouble? He kept the country busy with sporadic wars though the 1980s until a truce was formed in 1992, six years into the presidency of Joaquim Chissano, who took over after Samora Machel died in a plane crash in 1986. After 1992, Dhlakama’s army was assimilated to the national army or and some members decommissioned, but he remained a thorn in the flesh, and in the 1999 elections he came second against Chisano, an election RENAMO complained that was fraudulent. Subsequently RENAMO became the largest oppostion party in Africa, and Dhlakama squandered the opportunity and after the 1999 defeat, he sort of gave up, settling for less and occasional threats.  He never attempted to get to parliament or join the government. Poor in communication, unambitious and short-sighted, he remained outside, often causing disturbances until his death two years ago, leaving RENAMO an amorphous outfit with a succession problem. Maybe staying out like this was more lucrative for him, you never know.

In West Africa, through the 1990s, that zone with Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea Bissau was a belt of costly civil wars. One fascinating case is the 25-year-old Valentine Strasser taking over in Sierra Leone as the president in 1992 and his juvenile rule until 1996. The book doesn’t dwell on Strasser, just a mention as it moves to talk about more active players; Bio, Collins, and Norman.

The war in Sierra Leone and Liberia,  did take a decidedly ethnic angle, and ethnicity did cost Conneh a suitable position despite being a contender for the presidency in the 2005 elections saw Ellen Sirleaf Johnson elected as the first female president in Africa. As a Mandingo, an ethnic group considered outsiders in Liberia, and having benefited from trade, his quest was complicated the more by his estranged wife siding with Sirleaf Johnson. Conneh only received 0.6 % of the vote, and in the end was magnanimous in defeat, and retreated to be a businessman. Fellow warlord, Prince Johnson, famed for his hands-on ouster of Samuel Doe’s regime, became a pastor in exile in Nigeria, before returning to Liberia to win a senate seat. While campaigning, while thumping while thumping the bible, on one hand, he reminded people of his ability with the gun. He has attempted to go for the big seat, but he is hamstrung, always throwing his weight behind anyone with a chance.

Viera of Guinea Bissau provides another interesting scenario. An independence war veteran who took charge of the country in 1980 and mutated from a communist leader to a warlord and drug lord.

In May 2009, the Chief of Staff Batista Tagme Na Waie was assassinated in the military headquarters. Na Waie had had a frosty relationship with Viera, predicting that should anything happen to him, the president will die too. Na Wale’s assassination was ordered by the president, but it was a costly undereestimation of the consequences.

The military attacked the president, lobbing a grenade that subsequently injured him while trying to escape. After capturing him, he was attacked by a machete and finally succumbed. This ended one of the most colourful chapter of leadership in Africa, characterized by two terms earlier in his life, followed by an exile and a master-stroke of a comeback, that promised everyone goodies from the proceeds of the drug business that became the main the business of his government. His previous military experience played a great role in securing him an unlikely reentry to one of the most unstable countries in Africa.


Military coups have become a few and far between in the last two decades. Civil Wars have trickled down to a drop, and these type of leaders are a dying breed, but their style and approaches have become so entrenched that even peaceful countries like Kenya, more or less operate on the same style if we can treat our tribal kingpins as WDs.

Politics in Africa is all about elite bargains; A discrete agreement, or series of agreements, that explicitly sets out to re-negotiate the distribution of power and allocation of resources between elites, like what is presently happening in Kenya. It is clientelism and elite predation at best, as the authors of the book outline write.

By creatively overlooking or downplaying the agency of foreign powers in our domestic problems, a reader in Europe or America may think that Africans often decide to butcher each other.

These WDs thrive because as a continent we have failed to build a political system that can transcend tribe, religion, and regional ambitions. Also, is the question of democracy’s internal flaws that insist on equal or proportional presentations that leads to unrestrained party formation. Leaders consistently fail to come up with parties that can carry the aspirations of everyone in their country.

And WDs, with the exception of Kagame who has unified Rwanda, however imperfectly, are good examples of small thinkers. Greed, pride, and a pathological lack of ambition, certainly stemming from personal academic, ethnic (e.g coming from a small ethnicity or regional to mount a serious national threat) always get in the way of their personal and community advancement. Best exemplified by Riek Machar ill-fated quest to succeed Salvar Kiir in South Sudan.

Other leaders like DRC’s Nyamwisi, one of the architects of the instability of the Eastern part of DRC, succeeded to join the government of Kabila, which is full of musical chairs, one moment he was heading a powerful ministry of Foreign Affairs, the next he had been relegated. He has been accused of applying the pompier-pyromane strategy: stocking up animosities to the point that they turn violent, and extinguishing them in order to reassert control, and with that, you reinforce and demonstrate authority.

Is the book worth your time? Absolutely. It is written in academese, but highly accessible to be enjoyed for any reader, especially history and policy wonks and anyone into non-fiction.  At times, the details may be a bit too much, but the devil is always in the details.

Two let-downs.

The book does not explicitly explain why we have wars in Africa. Maybe that was not their mission, but it is strange to talk about the Eastern Congo, without a mention of the multinationals exploiting its minerals and displacing people to make it cheaper for them. In most cases, if mentioned, these are mentioned in passing. However, when talking about the problems that Africa brings on themselves like making their countries a conduit of drugs, they are very explicit.

By creatively overlooking or downplaying the agency of foreign powers in our domestic problems, a reader in Europe or America may think that Africans often decide to butcher each other. And by denying readers and scholars the knowledge of who sponsors what war in Africa, it absolves the West of their responsibility of war and chaos in Africa.

Overall, it is a great read for those who want to understand what goes on in other parts of the continent.

Book: Warlord Democrats in Africa-Ex-Military Leaders and Electoral Politics. Edited by Anders Themer

Available: Prestige Bookshop, Mama Ngina St: Sh 3,150.

Reviewer: Silas Nyanchwani

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