This Is Why China’s Party-Army Model Creating De Facto One-Party States in Sub-Saharan Africa Is Problematic

By Amodani Gariba

Chinese military soldiers standing in room smiling
Credit: China Daily

With the Communist Party of China (CPC) in power since 1949, China is not only the oldest One-party state in the world, but also, the most famous and powerful.  A one-party state does not entertain political opposition. If the state does not outlaw political opposition out-rightly, it employs methods of frustration and intimidation to squeeze them out of relevance. This often comes with violence. In China, the CPC has thrived as the driving force behind the country’s one-party rule under the party’s subjugation of the military – Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA follows the dictates of the party and none else. For African leaders, the prospect of being in power for life is very tempting. Many have not been able to resist the urge. China’s political model of directly subjecting the military to the control of the party appeals to African leaders seeking to extend their control. It is therefore not surprising that in many sub-Saharan African countries, we are seeing parallels of china’s Party-Army model. This article, however, discusses how the model is creating de facto One-party states in African democracies and why they are bad.

What is China’s Party-Army Model?

In China, the central principle of authority is what Mao Zedong, founder of the CPC, famously coined as “the party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the party.” The principle is executed through the politburo of the CPC. The Politburo, which is the highest decision-making body of the party, directs the activities of the Central Military Commission. There is also the Political Works Department, which with its political commissars, conducts political and ideological education for soldiers of PLA. These commissars are not officers of the PLA. Recently, Xi Jinping led the restructuring of the PLA which led to the purge of over 100,000 commissars from the military. As part of the sweep, senior army officers now join the top leadership positions of CPC affiliate organs. This model makes the PLA intrinsically intertwined with the affairs of the party. Unlike elsewhere where the military only enforces the laws of the country, the military in China not only enforces the law but also helps in making them.  

African countries adopting China’s party-army model

There seems to be a pattern. With the notable exception of Uganda and Ethiopia, African countries with a history of armed liberation from colonialism tend to be the main one’s copying China’s one-party states. In Uganda, Oliver Tambo Leadership Academy trains army personnel to be loyal to Uganda’s ruling party and president – Yoweri Museveni.  Namibia’s ruling party, SWAPO, also has a school in the capital, Windhoek, where it gives party-sanctioned political and ideological education to soldiers. Serving the same purpose is Tanzania’s CCM ideological school. There is also a political school in Tatek, Ethiopia, serving similar purposes. Similar arrangements can be found in Zimbabwe, Angola, and Mozambique. The creation of the schools for political and ideological education of soldiers is one of the many manifestations of China’s model. In the countries mentioned above, the military’s allegiance is to the party, not the constitution of the land. The military is largely not independent and unprofessional. 

China is also training many African army officers from these African countries, along the lines of the party-army model. The officers come back home and with the sanction of party leaders, put into practice whatever they learned from the military academies in China. 

De facto One-party states

The Arab spring of 2011, which started in North Africa, rid the continent of the three remaining one-party states – Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. Well, I have to concede that this is not very accurate, considering that, many democracies in Africa are de jure in actuality. 

Regrettably, many ruling Political parties in Africa that led the armed liberation struggles from colonialism have turned their backs to the principles, which once guided them at their early stages. These parties have now come under the control of people whose only way of survival is to cling to power until they die. It is in this pursuit that these leaders bring the control of the armed forces right under them. They use the armed forces to silence opposition elements. 

Uganda’s Museveni has the habit of using security forces to terrorize his opposition, which includes the People Power Movement, led by Bobi Wine. Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF has also been using the military to neutralize the opposition, MDC.

By using the military to decimate their opposition, ruling parties of some sub-Saharan African countries have effectively created one-party states. Museveni has been in power since 1987. ZANU-PF, CCM, FRELIMO in Mozambique, SWAPO in Namibia, MPLA in Angola, etc. have power since their country’s independence. While it is possible that these parties still command the support of a majority of their people, we cannot discount the decimation of political opposition as a factor contributing to the prolonged rule of these former liberation movements. 

Why is this bad?

Having the military loyal to the party instead of the country and the constitution engenders political exclusion. It becomes difficult for an opposition to win elections. In the case these oppositions win popular votes, governance becomes difficult due to the military’s allegiance to the old party. 

Having a system of one-party state with Africa’s current crop of leaders will only exacerbate the problem. Endemic corruption is already dragging the progress of the continent. Having a situation where leaders cannot be held accountable would only make the problem of corruption worse. With one-party states, democracy is thrown out the window. Where there is no democracy, there is no telling of the rule of law. 

Though the economic cooperation that China has had with Africa has had a tremendous impact on Africans, its ambitions to extend ties into military cooperation could worsen the already bad governance problem on the continent.

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