This week was the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, an event which symbolically marked the end of the cold war. Today, the memory of that event has faded, becoming a blur even to those who witnessed it. To my generation, the collapse of the wall was a momentous event, some would even say the most momentous one. In fact, it is easy to make a distinction between the world BEFORE and AFTER the wall;
The collapse of the Berlin wall, the culmination of Gorbachev’s Glastnost and Perestroika policies, marked the beginning of the AFTER characterized by the great thaw, the collapse of communists states in Eastern Europe like dominos, and dreams that the “East Wind” would eventually blow over Africa – then under the stranglehold of single-party and military dictatorships – and transform it into a beacon of liberal democracy, human rights, economic growth, equal opportunity and rule of law.
The collapse of the wall, which millions did not expect to see in their lifetime, was the most spectacular event in a long summer of dissent which began with the (re)legalization of the banned Solidarity movement in Poland which later went on the win the parliamentary elections of June 4 and lead a coalition government. This was followed by unrest in Hungary which abandoned Leninism that October, transformed the communist party into a “regular” socialist party, introduced multipartyism, and rehabilitated executed nationalist leader Imre Nagy who led the 1956 revolt against Soviet domination. Events in Hungary cascaded into unrest in Eastern Germany resulting in the massive exodus of East Germans trying to flee to West Germany through Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Eventually, Eastern Germany caved in to the pressure, lifted travel restrictions to the West and opened the wall on November 9.
At midnight East Germany’s Communist rulers gave permission for gates along the Wall to be opened after hundreds of people converged on crossing points.
They surged through cheering and shouting and were be met by jubilant West Berliners on the other side.
Ecstatic crowds immediately began to clamber on top of the Wall and hack large chunks out of the 28-mile (45-kilometre) barrier. (BBC News Archives)
With this act, the Berlin wall, the most palpable and deadly symbol of the East / West divide, was gone, and a new world order born. As John Berger later wrote in Le Monde Diplomatique (May 1990, p. 8) in an article titled « Quelque chose de gigantesque a pris fin » (something gigantic has come to an end):
Ce qui se passe ces derniers jours en Europe de l’est ne ressemble à aucune autre révolution des temps modernes, cette cascade d’affrontement politiques, cette libération de la parole critique ont provoqué des secousses d’une telle ampleur à l’échelle planétaire / What is happening in Eastern Europe these last few days is unlike any other revolution in modern times. This cascade of political confrontation, this freeing of critical speech, have provoked a major earthquake at the planetary level.
Waiting for the East Wind
The events in Eastern Europe were followed with keen interest in Africa. Just as in Eastern Europe where images of the consumer societies in the west had contributed to the revolt, so too did images of unarmed citizens heroically standing up to communist dictatorship have a profound effect in Africa. Pictures of the collapse of the Berlin wall, and later, of the Romanian revolution and later and the bullet-riddled body of Ceuceuscau, made Africans believe that their time too had come.
At the University of Yaounde where I was a student, the political awakening sparked by the events in Eastern Europe was visible. The unending and tiresome discussions about the Cameroon’s national football team and the French football league gave way to passionate and acrimonious debates on political liberalism, multiparty politics, press freedom, etc. Some of the most heated discussions took place under that mythical mango tree across from the old university restaurant – “Sous le manguier” it was called. This was the University’s own Hyde Park where political activists, budding politicians and pundits held court. It was at “sous le manguier” that the first rumblings of student discontent with the political status quo were heard, where the first pro-democracy rally on campus began six months later. But that is story for another time…
Although African regimes tried desperately to deny it, the similarities between the discredited regimes of Eastern Europe and Africa were obvious – bureaucratic strangulation of the economy, excessive and crippling centralization, the unbearable weight of an ever-increasing debt burden, a dramatic drop in living standards for the majority of the population, a massive exodus into the black market sector, very severe austerity programs, a loss of confidence in the official ideology, the squandering or dilapidation of valuable human capital through coercion and terror leading to what Achille Mbembe described as “the inertia of political and intellectual structures”, etc.
The climate in Africa was therefore a very fertile one where the seeds of political liberalism brought in by the “East wind” could blossom into beautiful plants. In Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire, Zaire, Niger, Togo, Benin, Mali, etc., the spiraling cycle of protest, violence and repression went on as citizens took to the streets calling for the dismantling of the repressive systems in place. In February 1990, Cameroon felt the first gust of the “East wind” following the arrest of Yondo Black, Albert Mukong and others for subversion...
As in Eastern Europe, rebellion against authoritarian one-party or military regimes mostly took the form of popular uprisings inspired by a budding civil society centered around associations such as the church, human rights associations, and corporate groups such as trade unions. Many observers described this transition from authoritarian rule as Africa's "second decolonization" because it was generally considered to be "a corrective political tendency," a peoples' revolution that intended to put an end to the exclusionary, violent and predatory dictatorial systems of the first three decades of African independence.
The euphoria over the second decolonization soon gave way to disillusion and despair as the regimes in place successfully subverted the democratic process. 20 years on, most African regimes have instituted cosmetic multiparty systems while successfully staving off the promise of political liberalism – apart from a few exceptions, the dream of a truly democratic Africa has long crumbled. The dream of Berlin is now just a mirage for most Africans…