Changing Patterns of Politics in Africa

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Olukoshi, Adebayo. Changing Patterns of Politics in Africa. En libro: Politics and Social Movements in an Hegemonic World: Lessons from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Boron, Atilio A.; Lechini, Gladys. CLACSO, Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales, Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, Argentina. Junio. 2005. pp: 177-201.
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Adebayo Olukoshi*

Changing Patterns

of Politics in Africa

THE LAST DECADE AND A HALF in Africa’s recent history have been marked by some dramatic and significant developments on the continent’s political terrain. These developments have been as varied as they have been contradictory. They have also constituted a major source of challenge to political theory as different schools of thought grapple with them in terms of their weight and meaning. As can be imagined, there is no consensus on the most appropriate approach for interpreting the changes that are taking place in the structure, content and dynamics of African politics; indeed, efforts at conceptualizing the changes have produced a veritable Tower of Babel, with commentators not only speaking in different tongues but frequently past one another. The sense of confusion which is prevalent in the literature is indicative as much of the complexity of the changes themselves as of the crisis of theory in the study of Africa (Mkandawire, 1996; 2002; Zeleza, 1997; Mamdani, 1999). The contradictoriness of the changes, at once inspiring hope and generating despair, has polarized the scholarly and policy communities into Afro-optimist and Afro-pessimist camps. But for all the insights which they may offer into the problems and prospects of progressive change in Africa, both the Afro-pessimist and Afro-optimist frames are far too simplistic and subjective to serve as an enduring basis for capturing the dialectics of socio-political change and transformation. A more careful, historically-grounded interpretation of the changes occurring on the continent is, therefore needed, and for it to be useful, it should enable us to transcend the narrow and narrowing parameters that currently dominate the discourse on the processes and structures of change occurring in contemporary Africa.

Dimensions of political change in contemporary Africa

The changes that have taken place on the African political landscape over the last decade and a half have been multidimensional. They have occurred as much at the level of formal politics as in the arena of the informal processes that underpin the political system. They have been generated by factors internal to the political system and those external to it, necessitating a close attention to the contexts within which the changes are occurring. Furthermore, while domestic, local and national-level considerations are critical to the definition of the process of change, external factors and international actors also continue to play an important, even at some conjunctures determinant, role in shaping outcomes. Understandably, much of the attention which has been focused on political change in Africa has been concentrated on the formal institutions and procedures of politics, because these are both more visible and measurable. However, as is the case with politics elsewhere in the world, as important as institutions and procedures are, they do not tell the whole story in and of themselves. For this reason, it is important that attention be paid also to the processes that underpin and mould/remold formal institutions and procedures, including especially the actors and actresses whose actions –and inactions– give life to the political system. And this can be done without resort, as Chabal and Daloz (1999) do, to stereotyping African politics almost as a domain of abracadabra where the more one sees, the more mystified one becomes.

The main features of the changes in African politics occurred over the last 15 years that have attracted the most attention in the literature include the following.

The re-structuring of the terrain of political competition and governance: the decade of the 1990s in African history was ushered in with popular street protests or pressures, which in many cases culminated in concerted efforts at reforming the institutions and procedures of politics and governance. Among the most interesting developments occurred as part of this reform effort were: the convocation of sovereign national conferences in many Francophone and Lusophone African countries; widespread constitutional reforms that resulted either in the amendment of existing constitutions or the production of entirely new ones; the end of single party/military rule; the restoration of multiparty politics and the organization of multiparty elections; the embrace of the notion of independent electoral commissions; the adoption of widespread electoral reforms, including mixed list and proportional representation systems; the achievement by a significant number of countries of a peaceful alternation of power between ruling parties and their opponents; and the organization of repeat elections that have been identified by some as a critical indicator of democratic consolidation. These changes were designed to open up the political space, and in so doing, allow for greater competition in the struggle for political power. The ambition was to create a level playing field for all political actors, make government more representative and accountable, allow for greater popular participation in national governance, and enrich the public space as an autonomous arena for the articulation of popular aspirations and/or the canvassing of policy and political alternatives (see Olukoshi, 1998, for further details). Afro-optimists have mostly concentrated their attention on the improved prospects for the continent around the re-structuring of the political terrain. Some early commentators were even to assess the changes in terms which spoke of a second liberation or an African renaissance. An Afro-barometer project (see ) designed to capture the progressive changes occurring was also promoted. However, Afro-pessimists have in the main read the changes with skepticism, pointing to their shortcomings and the problems of democratic consolidation that persist.

The emergence of media pluralism: almost without exception, and as an integral part of the pressures for the opening up of the political space, the monopoly on media ownership exercised by the state was broken during the 1990s through the licensing by governments of private newspapers, radio stations (mostly FM stations) and television stations. Inroads were also made by digital satellite broadcasters and private Internet service providers. Apart from representing a radical departure from the situation previously prevailing, the development marked a new and important element in the promotion of political pluralism, governmental accountability, and popular participation (see Olukoshi, 1998; Fardon and Furniss, 2000; Hyden et al., 2002).

The efflorescence of associational life: during the course of the last one and a half decades, across Africa there has been a massive growth in the number and range of civil associations active in various spheres of life at the local, national, sub-regional and continental levels. Mostly set up as non-governmental organisations, they were seen by many as symbolizing the re-birth and vitality of civil society, and therefore as critical to the unfolding process of democratisation on the continent. Equally important, the civic associations were seen by some scholars as central to the emergence of new political actors in Africa –actors who, by the fact of their insertion in the civic arena, played the critical role of underwriting the African democratic transition and thus contributed to the dawn of a new era in the affairs of the continent (Chazan, 1982; 1983; Bratton, 1989; Diamond, 1994).

The demise of the last vestiges of colonial rule and institutionalized racism in Africa: the persistence of (settler) colonialism in the Southern part of Africa and the institutionalized racial discrimination that went with it constituted the most important challenge to African nationalism and its agenda of the total liberation of the continent from foreign domination. Beginning with the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980, and culminating in the 1994 national elections in which the black majority in South Africa participated for the first time, the end of colonial rule and the collapse of formal apartheid unleashed new political forces and possibilities in the countries concerned. Within Southern Africa and in the rest of Africa, the development also unleashed new processes and alliances. If there was a perception that the unfinished business of national liberation prevented African countries from giving full attention to the challenges of overcoming their underdevelopment and dependence, the end of colonial rule and apartheid was interpreted as marking the end of an important phase in the history of the continent, and the beginning of a new one in which concerns about African unity and development would pre-dominate.

The revival of regional cooperation and integration efforts: there was a marked increase, in the period from the beginning of the 1990s, in the tempo of activities designed to promote sub-regional cooperation and integration in Africa both as an important exercise in its own right and as a building block towards pan-African economic unity. At the same time, new efforts were made to strengthen continental-level governance, as evidenced, among other things, by the enabling of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the outlawing by the defunct Organisation of African Unity (OAU) of the unlawful seizure of power and the exclusion from the counsels of the continental body of all governments installed other than by lawful means, the intensification of efforts at promoting pan-African conflict resolution mechanisms/peace-keeping instruments, and the transformation of the OAU into a new African Union (AU) complete with a pan-African parliament, a pan-African judicial system, and a reinvigorated commission.

The changing nature of inter-state relations: African countries attained independence in the 1960s on the basis of the inviolability of the boundaries they inherited and strict non-interference in the internal affairs of one another. These principles were, by and large, respected for some 30 years. In the 1990s, however, they began to be seriously questioned and challenged in the wake of the crises that engulfed the Great Lakes region of the continent, which culminated in the invasion and occupation of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by armies from several African countries. Armed conflicts in a number of other countries, most notably Liberia and Sierra Leone, further eroded the principle of non-interference, as sub-regional peacekeeping efforts were undertaken in the face of the actual or imminent collapse of central governmental authority. The position is now broadly established that governments involved in massive and gross violations are not entitled to enjoy the principle of non-interference in the affairs of their countries.

The politics of transitional justice: during the course of the 1990s, as part of the unfolding reform of political systems, various programmes were introduced to revisit the impact of the immediate authoritarian past with a view to establishing what had happened, who had responsibility, and what corrective measures could be taken in order to achieve national reconciliation. The first major experiment in this regard was undertaken in South Africa with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Various adaptations of the TRC model and/or principle were subsequently developed by several other countries, particularly those emerging from periods of violent conflict and prolonged military rule. There was also an experiment in Rwanda with the Gatchacha or community-based system of tackling and overcoming the legacy of the genocide which the country suffered.

An increased United Nations role in African governance: the context of the 1990s also featured new developments in the political system connected to an increase in the profile of the United Nations family of organisations in the domestic governance processes of African countries, particularly those emerging from protracted conflicts. There were various dimensions to this increased profile, but perhaps the most prominent are the international war crime tribunals that were established primarily on the ideology of discouraging impunity and sending a strong signal to political actors about the need to respect human rights and internationally established rules of conduct in situations of violent conflict and war.

The most evident and visible dimensions of change in African countries tell a substantial part of the story about the shifts that are occurring in the political systems of the countries of the continent. However, as far as they go, they only cover the obvious processes of change. Other less visible or measurable but nevertheless powerful dimensions of change which deserve to be factored into analyses, but which have not been sufficiently taken into account, include the fact that there have been significant demographic shifts in African countries which add up to project children and youths into a position of much greater prominence. With well over 50 per cent of the population of Africa made up of children and youths –a reason for which Africa is nowadays described as the “youngest” continent– a gradual but inevitable generational shift is occurring at several levels at the same time in the political system. The youth vote is perhaps the most important, easily recognised aspect of this development, but there is also the emergence into positions of leadership of a generation of politicians who did not directly experience colonial rule and were not directly part of the nationalist anti-colonial coalition. The implication of this shift for the agenda of politics is one area which remains under-researched beyond the early, self-serving references made in the late 1980s/early 1990s in some western foreign policy circles to the emergence of a new set of renaissance leaders in East Africa, the Horn, and Southern Africa. By contrast, the impact that youth alienation and disaffection –often connected to prolonged unemployment– could have on the stability of African polities has attracted the attention of scholars and policy intellectuals concerned with developing alternative interpretations of the conflicts that resulted in the collapse of central governmental authority in countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. What is now referred to in some of the literature as the Youth Question in African politics constitutes an important dimension of change which addresses the core of the political system, including the process of constitution and renewal of citizenship, the social contract within which citizenship is articulated, the politics of representation, and the legitimacy of government and state (Abdullah and Bangura, 1997; Abdullah, 2003; Mkandawire, 2002; Sesay, 2003).

Also critical to the changing frame of politics in Africa is the rapid rate of urbanisation taking place across the continent and the intensive internal population migration associated with it. As with the demographic shifts taking place, urbanisation and internal population flows would seem to be challenging many of the assumptions and structures on which post-colonial political governance was built. In addition to the obvious rural-urban reconfiguration that is occurring, there is also the growing politics of “settlers” and “natives”, the revival of competing ethno-regional/socio-cultural networks, the proliferation of urban gangs/armed militias/neighborhood vigilante groups, the spread of intolerance and xenophobia which also finds expression in policies that are hostile to “non-natives”, the increased challenges of social inclusion and service delivery for a rapidly growing urban population, the massive expansion of the boundaries of the informal sector and informal networks, and the spread of a new religiosity that ranges from the syncretic to the puritanical. The many different questions associated with the process of accelerated urbanisation have been refracted into the political system in the form of contestations around issues of citizenship, individual and group rights and entitlements, the role of the state and the nature of its political and policy capacities, the content and reach of social policy, the secular status of the state, and the entire spectrum of urban governance (Sesay, 2003; Mamdani, 2001; Mkandawire, 2002).

Post-independence politics in Africa was fashioned within the framework of the nationalist anti-colonial struggle that gathered steam in the period after the Second World War. The agenda of the anti-colonial nationalist coalition that ushered African countries into independence constituted the kernel of the social contract on the basis of which policy –political, economic and social– was developed. Almost without exception, a central role was reserved for the public sector in what has generally been described as the state-led or state interventionist post-colonial model of accumulation. It was a model of accumulation which came with its own structure of incentives –of rewards and penalties to which the players in the polity responded for much of the period it lasted, namely, the first two decades of independence. The collapse of the state interventionist model in the course of the 1980s and the efforts at replacing it with a “free” market-based framework also translated into the alteration of the incentives system in the polity. However, the impact of this development for the patterns of politics has not been seriously researched beyond the early efforts, which, heavily ideologically-driven by one-sided pro-market partisanship, were limited to suggestions that the market-based system would produce a new middle class that, drilled in the competitive ways of the market, would pioneer the African transition to a new era of (true liberal) democracy.

This perspective was connected to the view that the emergence of a vibrant civil society, defined as essential to sustainable democratisation, was the flipside of the free market system –as much as liberal democracy itself. The important question of the ways in which the collapse of the state-led model of development, the prolonged socio-economic crises which African countries have experienced, and the externally-driven efforts at market reform have produced a new incentive structure and redefined the normative boundaries of politics, remains insufficiently researched beyond anecdotal observations.

The various dimensions of change that have impacted on the pattern of politics in contemporary Africa have been the subject of competing interpretations to which we will return fully in this essay. The key point which is worth keeping in mind at this point is the fact that the dominant methodology that consists of seeking to establish a balance sheet of progress and regression has hardly been helpful in enabling students of contemporary African politics to capture the nuances of change. Often taken in isolation, rather than in their inter-connectedness, and frequently treated episodically rather than as part of a broader historical flow, the various elements of change are also routinely assessed without an adequate attention to the context within which they are unfolding. A first step towards redressing the prevalent analytical gaps in the study of contemporary Africa necessitates a discussion of the context within which political change is being fashioned and unfolded.

The context of political change

Irrespective of the interpretative weight which may be placed on the changes which have occurred on the African political landscape in the period since the onset of the 1980s, these changes have taken place in a context defined and characterized by:

- A prolonged economic crisis which African governments were encouraged or outrightly pressured to redress through an equally prolonged programme of orthodox International Monetary Fund (IMF)/World Bank structural adjustment that has already lasted over two decades, and which has failed to overcome the difficulties it was introduced to help with at the same time that it has created new complications of its own (Mkandawire and Olukoshi, 1995; Mkandawire and Soludo, 1999). Economic crisis and decline, the state of maladjustment of African economies, the expansion of the informal sector, and the erosion of domestic policy autonomy and capacities, represent a critical component of the context within which politics is being restructured in Africa.

- The end of the old East-West Cold War as it was once played out, a development symbolized by the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, and the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). While it lasted, the Cold War had a major impact on the domestic politics of many African countries as the rival ideological blocs immersed themselves in the internal political dynamics of different countries in their quest to contain each other and retain/expand their spheres of influence. The end of the Cold War may not have meant the end of history or ideology, as was hastily suggested by some commentators; however, it altered an important geo-political factor around which a welter of strategies and interests had mushroomed in the domestic politics of African countries. Post-Cold War African politics involved a complex set of re-alignment of forces and interests, in ways that affected the pre-existing patterns of politics.

- The significant weakening of the African state by a combination of factors, not least among them the distinctly anti-state market reform agenda promoted by the IMF, the World Bank and other donors. That agenda had the consequence not only of delegitimizing the state as an actor in the political economy, but also of eroding its capacities through a series of retrenchment measures that also served to fuel the brain drain, facilitate the erosion of the domestic policy system, and reduce Africa to the most under-governed region of the world. Given the central role that the African state assumed in every facet of the post-colonial political economy, the institutional decline and decay to which it was exposed represented a major development, which reverberated in all spheres of life –the economic, the socio-cultural and the political (Mkandawire and Olukoshi, 1995; Mkandawire and Soludo, 1999). The politics of filling the voids created by state retrenchment, delegitimation and decay has been at the heart of some of the changes that have occurred over the last decade and a half or more, including the emergence of new actors/actresses of various kinds with competing/conflicting projects.

- The widespread resort to violence and arms in managing domestic political conflicts or demonstrating disaffection. Connected to the end of the East-West Cold War and the retrenchment of the state in a manner which hobbled it, Africa witnessed the emergence/resurgence of conflicts, mostly of an intra-state type kind and with varying degrees of intensity. Some of the conflicts were carried over from the Cold War period, while others derived from grievances arising from other sources. The most spectacular and tragic of the conflicts had genocidal dimensions, while in many cases there was also the collapse of central governmental authority. Furthermore, in what some commentators presented as evidence of a new genre of wars, the conflicts departed from the traditional patterns in which professional armies were pitched against each other. Instead, armed civilian groups took on others and/or heavily factionalized professional armies. Also, the widespread recruitment and deployment of child soldiers represented another unique aspect of the conflicts, as did the terror and mayhem which was visited on unarmed civilian populations, especially in the rural areas. Lacking in ideological clarity or an alternative social project, these wars were easily dismissed by many as amounting to banditry at the interface of greed and grievance; in fact, they spoke a much more profound change associated with the emergence into political significance of a disaffected urban youth (Abdullah and Bangura, 1997; Abdullah, 2003; Mkandawire, 2002; Mamdani, 2001; Sesay, 2003).

- The emergence of a Diaspora of recent migrants from Africa also constitutes an important contextual factor, which is growing in significance as the new Diaspora grows in influence as a constituency whose influence is refracted back into the domestic political processes unfolding in different countries. The process of the constitution of this new Diaspora is recent and still on-going, as a wave of professionals, many of them still in their prime, migrate for a variety of reasons to Europe and North America at the same time that many who left temporarily to study abroad also choose to stay away. Their weight in lobbying around issues of political reform and human rights in their host countries is growing, and their voice in the affairs of their home countries reverberates among some important constituencies. It is a mark of their growing influence that formal recognition has been conferred on them by the African Union.

Dominant themes in the study of political change in Africa

The main contextual factors that have shaped the content and practice of politics in contemporary Africa also provide pointers to the themes that have preoccupied students of the process of change on the continent over the last decade and half. These themes vary in their details, but they can be summarised as including the following broad issues:

- Transition and electoral politics, including party and electoral systems, programmes promoted by political parties, the process of electioneering, the quality of access to the media enjoyed by the competing parties, the legislative structure adopted, voter education and turnout, and judicial independence.

- The problems and prospects of democratic consolidation on the basis of various competing frameworks for assessing and measuring the African transition.

- Constitutionalism and constitutional reform, encompassing the basic rights of citizenry, separation of powers, administrative decentralization, and political succession.

- The emergence, significance and role of an African civil society in the process of democratization.

- The nature of state politics, the dynamics of state-society relations, and the challenges of governance facing African countries.

- The causes, dimensions and consequences of contemporary African conflicts.

- The political economy of reform in Africa, with particular emphasis on the interface between market reforms and political liberalisation, “good” governance, and public sector reforms.

Easily, the bulk of the literature produced on African politics over the last decade and a half is focused on these broad themes. While the commonality of issues covered might suggest a convergence on the critical markers of change in African political systems, in reality there is diversity in the interpretative frames employed for reaching conclusions about the direction of politics. It is to these competing interpretations to which we now turn attention.

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