September 18, 2021

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Legitimacy of Release: How Much Does It Matter?

by Yousef Aljamal

This following piece, by Palestinian rights activist, author and translator Yousef Aljamal was crossed by Politics Today

Liberation legitimacy occurs when a group that is fighting a liberation war in the context of foreign domination enjoys the feeling of the support of the masses and gains international legitimacy to fight the war. This feeling of legitimacy often remains the only force on the ground in the context of foreign domination, occupation or colonization.

The legitimacy of liberation derives its validity from the self-perception of non-state actors fighting a war of liberation, from the continuation of foreign occupation, and from related international laws which stipulate that people under occupation have the right to self-determination. This argument, from the point of view of non-state actors and international law, appears to be consistent with the existence of occupying foreign forces occupying another nation. But the question is: what happens if these forces go away?

In some examples, non-state actors have engaged in civil wars following the emergence of other forces that have adopted different views on how to deal with the foreign presence on their territory. This includes Algeria, Palestine, Angola, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Vietnam, among others. One of the main justifications for the use of force by dominant non-state actors is the legacy of the struggle against foreign forces which very often gives them valid legitimacy. This legitimacy ceases when the presence of foreign forces ceases; however, some self-defined liberation groups behave as if it lasts even after the foreign forces are gone.

Some liberation movements (non-state actors) in many parts of the world, both in Algeria, Zimbabwe, Mali and Ghana, have abused the legitimacy of liberation even after the end of the foreign occupation. This has created a dilemma for these self-defined liberation groups as in the transition to democracy many of them have relied on their right to rule which stems from what they see as their liberation legacy. Some non-state actors, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Palestine and the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Algeria, act as if this legitimacy is stronger than the electoral boxes.

Voters, who may be the same base that gave support to liberation groups during the wars of independence, could vote for another group or individuals who did not emerge from liberation groups. In many cases, such as the NLF in Algeria, voting for a liberation group out of government results in the army’s opposition to such unfavorable election results and its intervention that will impact the country for years to come. In other cases, the leaders of the war of liberation remain in power indefinitely, claiming a legitimacy and a legacy of liberation.

An example of a leader who remained in power by exploiting the legitimacy of liberation is Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the leader of the liberation war, who remained in power for 30 years despite becoming seriously ill towards the end of his life. Although Mugabe has adopted reforms that defended his people’s rights to better access to education, health care and land, his final years in power have seen his country’s economy deteriorate to record levels. Claiming his right to rule as a result of fighting a liberation war, he even appointed his wife as his deputy. Mugabe was only forced to leave after the army intervened and pressured him to step down in 2017.

Although there are examples where liberation groups cling to power by claiming their legitimacy and liberation legacy, there are other examples where liberation groups establish democratically elected governments. A well-known example is the government of South Africa, which despite allegations of corruption, still functions as a functioning democracy. It was the struggle of the African National Congress (ANC) that led South Africa to end white minority rule and state apartheid.

This culminated in the election of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president in 1994. Today, however, the South African government faces growing challenges and a legitimacy crisis due to allegations of mismanagement and corruption.

Another example where national liberation groups have managed to take over is Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, where the political group is now part of the country’s political system. Sinn Féin’s transition to government and its acceptance of a political deal came at a high cost as it followed a wave of violence to gain independence from Britain. The transition to Sinn Féin government has also created divisions among the Irish people, with some viewing the 1998 Good Friday Agreement as a positive step and others as a setback.

In many cases, liberation movements fail in government because they lack an understanding of the dynamics of government that are other than waging a liberation war and taking up arms. Fighters waging a war of liberation tend to have a different understanding and working mechanisms than those involved in government.

Looking at decision making in absolute terms doesn’t help people on the ground. For this reason, many liberation groups, whose competence is limited to the armed struggle, fail to present solutions to the struggles of the people on the ground.

The claim of the legitimacy of liberation creates a dilemma for liberation groups in the government; sometimes they act against the will of their people even though they were meant to exist to defend this same will. Liberation groups must establish bodies and mechanisms that can ensure a smooth transition to good governance after the end of the wars of liberation.

Once a war of liberation is over, it is the electoral box that gives legitimacy to a government. Once liberation groups refrain from respecting the will of the people under the pretense of enjoying a legacy of absolute liberation, they lose the people’s respect.

The last stage of liberation should always be that of good democratic governance. Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s charismatic leader, set a good example by running for president only once. Refusing to let go of power based on liberation inheritance claims doesn’t sell. What it sells to ordinary people on the ground is providing them with solutions to their problems, especially in a post-liberation phase, where the transition to government faces many structural challenges.

It does not matter if a group has won the country’s independence by arms or by dialogue: what matters ultimately is to satisfy the growing needs of the people. It is up to liberation groups to present to the people leaders capable of winning elections. Once a group is unable to do so, it should definitely not use its liberation legacy as an excuse to continue being in power in opposition to the will of the nation’s people.