Africa Ready For Change? Lessons from the French Revolution


[Letter From New York]

Backwards ever! Gen. Museveni delivers on his promise made 32 years ago to lead Uganda to middle-income status. Photo: Facebook 

I read history for the principal purpose of drawing lessons to prevent bad things from happening again or to emulate the good things with modifications as appropriate for our times.

The French Revolution, particularly its causes, offers useful information that has been recorded by different researchers and is readily available. This information should be read by current and future leaders and the public and its lessons applied as appropriate to avoid future political revolutions.

While this commentary can be broadly applied, in this case focus I focus on Africa — a continent with a number of monarchical-behaving regimes. 

Revolutions reflect resistance to inflexible status quo that confers disproportionate benefits to the few in power at the expense of the exploited majority that are powerless and therefore voiceless; in the absence of an alternative the people finally resort to revolution.

Those who rebel are also influenced by the information they receive about the need for reform such as from the enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire on religious tolerance and Jean-Jacques Rousseau on social contract. Conditions, such as taxation without representation as was the case in the American revolution can also have a significant impact.

Political changes that took place including in Zimbabwe in November when long-time leader Robert Mugabe was eased out of power, and in South Africa and Ethiopia, where Jacob Zuma and Hailemariam Desalegn, respectively, were forced to resign last week might have an impact elsewhere especially on the African continent.

So what caused the French Revolution? The causes are classified as long term, immediate and precipitating grievances? What is the relevance to the situation in contemporary Africa?

The French people who numbered 26 million on the eve of the revolution in 1789 were divided into three classes or orders referred to as estates.

The first estate was made up of 100,000 clergy that owned about 10% of the fertile land which they used to accumulate wealth. The church also levied tithes of 10% from the meager income of peasants. The church was exempt from paying taxes. However, the benefits from this wealth were enjoyed by the high clergy of archbishops, bishops and abbots who were from the noble families. The parish priests were as poor as their commoner parishioners and therefore wanted reform in the church operations and distribution of wealth.

The nobility of 400,000 men, women and children owned 20% of the best land. They paid no taxes but enjoyed the benefits of government revenue squeezed from the peasants who were least able to pay. The nobility occupied the high-ranking positions  in the bureaucracy, the church, security forces and judiciary and retired comfortably on pension. One can see why they wanted things to remain that way.

The commoners who made up 98% of the French population included the bourgeoisie or middle class of lawyers, engineers, doctors, business people and merchants. They were rich but were locked out of high-ranking positions in the French society by the accident of their birth as commoners. They therefore had grievances and wanted them addressed.

The commoners also included wage-earners whose purchasing power had considerably declined in the 50-years period before the revolution. Between the 1730s and 1780s the cost of living had increased by 65% while the wages had increased by only 22%. They wanted this grievance addressed.

The peasants were either landless or had plots that were too small and had poor soil to provide a decent quality of life. Inequities in land distribution are common in virtually all revolutions including in France, Mexico, Russia, Ethiopia and Iran. One of the reasons for the 1848 revolutions that swept through Europe was a demand for land by the working class.

It was the commoners who paid land tax, income tax, salt tax, labor tax –in lieu of free labor on public works– church tax or tithes and feudal dues. They therefore  had serious grievances and wanted change that the nobility,  higher clergy and the royal court, rejected.

Because of resistance to fiscal reforms by the higher clergy, the nobility and “parlement” or high court of Paris, the government generated revenue through borrowing. However because the debt was high, creditors were not willing to lend more. To avoid bankruptcy the king decided to convene the ancient parliament called the Estates-General — a legislative and consultative assembly of the different classes of French subjects– that hadn’t met in 175 years since 1614 to discuss and decide how to raise government revenue.

Parliament met at Versailles Palace in May 1789 at a time of economic recession marked by high unemployment and shortages reflected in high food prices beyond the means of many consumers. So the atmosphere wasn’t good.

The members of parliament couldn’t agree on where to meet and how to vote. The clergy and nobility wanted each class to meet separately and vote by order as before which favored them rather than meet in one chamber and vote by head which would favor the commoners.

When the deputies couldn’t agree, the commoners that formed 98% of the population decided to form the National Assembly identified with the majority and called on the first and second estate deputies to join them. The commoners vowed that they would not disperse until they had given France its first written constitution that would correct past wrongs.

This position was supported by the parish priest deputies and by moderate deputies from the nobility like Lafayette –who declined an offer to become French dictator– and Mirabeau. The public also supported the National Assembly especially the mobs in Paris.

Louis XVI, the king, realized that he couldn’t use troops to disband the National Assembly because French soldiers had declared openly that they wouldn’t fire at fellow citizens (Leo Gershoy 1969) and some soldiers joined the demonstrators. The use of mercenaries was considered unwise because they were unpopular in France. It is instructive how the armed forces in Zimbabwe acted in similar fashion in November.

The French Revolution succeeded in large part because on the one hand those that benefitted by exploiting the commoners were not ready to moderate their inherited status and privileges and on the other hand the commoners, parish priests and moderate nobles in Parliament were determined to make reasonable reforms which included a constitutional monarchy, a representative assembly to pass laws and taxes, guarantee individual liberty for all and relax economic regulations that constrained free trade.

Instead of striking a compromise the king, upon advice from those against change, dismissed liberal officials including finance minister Jacques Necker who wanted to lighten the burden on the commoners. When the news of the dismissal of the liberal ministers reached Paris together with a rumor of military action to disperse demonstrators, the Parisians armed themselves in self-defense. They attacked the ancient prison of Bastille looking for more arms and gun powder.

The governor of the prison was killed as was the mayor of Paris precipitating the revolution that overthrew the monarchy and finally declared France a republic. A written constitution was provided and the Declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen was adopted.

During the last weeks of his life Louis XVI was referred to as Citizen Louis Capet. Both the king and Marie Antoinette were executed. Many nobles fled the country including senior military officers. This opened the door for Napoleon Bonaparte to take over in 1799 thus ending the revolution.

One lesson is clear: if the deputies had negotiated and reached a compromise, the destructive revolution would have been avoided.

The examples of peaceful regime-change in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and South Africa should be applauded and emulated.

Yet there are intransigent rulers on the African landscape. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni stands out.

 Kashambuzi is a human rights activist and an international economist.

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