There have been a number of looks back for the US and Europe in 1989. Koranteng has written an elegant and informative essay on Africa 1989. Fela realeased Beasts of No Nation that year, a title and album that continues to resonate.
In the background on the album cover are Thatcher, Botha, and Reagan.
Call it politics with an insistent groove, 28 minutes of delicious afro-beat. Fela wrote his sign of the times, broadening his usual critique of the Nigerian government with a fierce attack on apartheid and its enablers (see Reagan, Thatcher and P.W. Botha on the album cover) in particular, and more generally on many leaders: “animals in human skin” was his characterization. The lyrics include a detour on the United Nations and its relevance for Africa.
Dem call the place, the “United Nations”
Hear-oh another animal talk
Wetin united inside “United Nations”?
Who & who unite, for “United Nations”?
No be there Thatcher and Argentina dey?
No be there Reagan and Libya dey?
Is-i-rael versus Lebanon
Iran-i-oh versus Iraq-i
East West Block versus West Block East
No be there dem dey oh- United Nations?
Dis “united” United Nations
One veto vote is equal to 92 (Or more, or more)
What kind sense be dat, na animal sense? (2x)
Although political transformation in the 90s proved to be of variable intensity and longevity, often turned out to be new wine in old bottles, the change on the continent has been lasting. The incidence of military coups has dropped so far as to become negligible and there is an indisputable increase in functional democracies. In 1989 only three countries in Africa could claim to have democratic governments.
— Akwe Amosu musing on Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa: Trends and Transitions (pdf) in 2007
I’ve often wondered what it was like to attend, say, an OAU meeting circa 1989. That must surely have been a rogues gallery sans pareil. Could you shake hands with everyone in that room and look at yourself in the mirror the next day? For that matter, could you sleep that night? And what did the small talk of the nifty fifty sound like? Scratch that, what exactly was their big talk? Inquiring minds want to know.
Yet there were hopeful signs in 1989:
The global conversation in 1989 was all about democracy. Mali led the way in Africa. Their president, Moussa Traoré, was your garden variety military ruler: no ideology to speak of save for the unvarnished exercise of power. With Mali being a poor landlocked country, he must have figured that he would have free reign. There would be no strategic interest for the Americans or the Soviet Union, the colonial power, France, had bigger and more lucrative fish to fry, and neighbouring countries only cared if refugees started streaming over the border. Everything seemed perfect and the years passed. 1989 must have been a rude awakening (1990 would be a nightmare, and 1991 would be the end). The Malian body politic and social compact reacted to his rule as if to an emetic. Malians were simply fed up with military rule and the attendant violence and arbitrariness. Slowly and systematically from 1988 on, they organized themselves to take back their country. It was a truly impressive sight throughout 1989. No external motivation was needed, a society simply decided to change its direction and moved.
But the ravages of the Cold War and the flood of arms in its aftermath continued to burn across Africa. As Koranteng notes:
We must never forget that Ronald Reagan, George Bush the first, Margaret Thatcher and their bagmen, still saw themselves as allies of the apartheid regime.
And I would add, as allies of both Jonas Savimbi and Renamo.
To their dying day, they should be tarred with their association, nay commision, with some of the most awful lot in history. There were many misadventures and much blood spilled in the Great Games of the Cold War; the support by the these governments for apartheid is unambiguously egregious.
Koranteng notes the quote of the year for 1989:
It is worth dwelling on the Angolan case. Jonas Savimbi broke the barely 2 month old ceasefire, the fruit of years of negotiations, and resumed the civil war in Angola. Master of the huhudious, Savimbi declared:
“The Angolan people, to their infinite sorrow, accept that the war has restarted.”
That, without any doubt, has to be the quote of the year 1989. He was the one who decided to break the peace, he didn’t ask anyone, he presented the Angolan people with war as a fait accompli. He was to deepen their infinite sorrow for another 13 years.
There was much more going on during 1989 in Africa throughout the whole continent. If you are old enough to remember that year Koranteng’s essay cannot help but resonate. If you are younger, there is much to learn from this rare and valuable recollection. I strongly recommend you read the entire post: Africa 1989.