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The problem of vanguard parties

    The problem of vanguard parties
    Revolutions are often organized by either a ‘vanguard party’ or civil society/association approach. A major problem in many African countries is that most of civil society (middle class) work for either the government or western (non-political) NGO’s. They can not allow themselves to be confronting the state, as they would lose their jobs. As a result, the vanguard party became the dominant method for change. In this post I will explain why this has not worked so far.

    Vanguard Parties

    The idea of the vanguard party is that a certain group of politically awakened activists lead by example. They lead the masses towards a successful revolution. Their main goal is to capture political power, after which they will transform society and economy. It was Lenin who popularized the use of the vanguard party in the USSR, and it has remained the dominant method in Africa since then.
    Known vanguard parties are Conventions People Party (CPP) with Nkrumah, African National Congress (ANC) with Mandela, and National Resistance Movement (NRM) with Museveni.

    Problem of Vanguard Parties

    Unfortunately, this has not led to change. As Nkrumah coined it: ‘seek ye first the political kingdom and all else shall be added unto you’. When vanguard parties captured power, ‘all else was added unto them’, but only them, not the people that helped them to take power. As a party can only have 1 president, 1 secretary general etc. it concentrates power, instead of decentralizing power.
    Furthermore, it attracts ambitious politicians whose main goal is positions, not change. Therefore, most in vanguard parties became corrupt eventually, after they captured political power. It led to a vicious cycle of autocratic rule.


    In Uganda, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) is structured as a vanguard party. The youth movement People Power also seems to be transitioning towards a vanguard party in the form of National Unity Platform. It is often led by a charismatic leader.
    The danger of vanguard parties are this:
    • concentrates power at the top
    • attracts politicians looking for positions
    • power struggles for positions/opposition vote
    Vanguard parties will not bring the radical and fundamental social-political-economic revolutions that are needed to solve the underdevelopment in most African countries. The status quo will remain.

    Civil society approach

    A better method is the ‘civil society’ or ‘association approach’. Activists organize themselves into a multitude of organizations, and only focus on the change they want to achieve. Power is decentralized, there are no positions to be fought over, and there is no need for power struggles. It is often faceless, it is led by leaders, but in the background.
    How can we overcome the vanguard party trap in Uganda? People Power transitioning from a movement to a vanguard party can lead them into the same trap as FDC.
    How can we unite those genuine activists and leaders in Ugandan vanguard parties to not only focus on capturing political power, but fundamentally transforming the livelihoods of the common people.
    People power as a movement can still be the answer to that challenge. Something is needed to transcend the vanguard parties.

    Erik van der Zanden

    Founder of Sankara Revolutions. His mission is to help Africans living under oppression to liberate themselves. Follow Erik: on

    Picture by Vlad Tchompalov


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