We discussed the nature and character of African politics. Another way of looking at the issues raised in this unit is to look at them as problems confronting African politics. Certainly these problems were created by certain historical forces, though external in nature, but were re-in forced by other factors, internal to the continent. We will also discuss the origins and problems of African politics.


Benefits Derived from the Colonial Origins of African Politics

The title of this section is not intended to convey the impression that there was no politics in pre-colonial Africa. This mistaken view, believed in some quarters, will form the subject of a latter unit. Rather we are interested here with politics in post-colonial Africa, the origins and its associated problems. It is tempting to say there was nothing of value in colonialism; even if those benefits were not originally intended by the authors of the colonial script. This will be uncharitable and will amount to an incomplete history of colonial rule in Africa.

i. Creation of Nation-State: First, foreign rule created modern nation-states, with defined boundaries and capitals. Before colonial rule there were hundreds of clans, lineages, city-states, kingdom and empires, with “shifting and indeterminate frontiers”. Reader (1998:604) argues that “whatever the iniquities of colonial boundaries, they also contributed to peace in the continent”. His contention is that virtually all the wars in Africa since the colonial period have been intra-state, and not interstate. It should be noted, however, that most of the wars have been attributed to the indiscriminate and arbitrary boundaries bequeathed to the continent at independence of these states.

ii. Western Education: Africans were introduced to Western education which ironically equipped them with tools of resistance. As it is well known education stimulates people to want what they do not have. British colonial administration established Achimota College in Gold Coast, Yaba Higher College in Nigeria, Fourah Bay in Sierraleone and Makerere in Uganda. The French established William Party School in Dakar. In Nyasaland, present-day Malawi, Africans were educated at Lovedale. The curriculum was though foreign. Instead of dividing seasons into rain and hamattan, that would have been appropriate for the tropics, Africans were introduced into temperate classification into spring, summer, autumn, and winter. This foreign content, not withstanding, colonial education produced many Africans who later became leaders in their countries.

iii. The Mandate system: The League of Nations mandates under which former German colonies were assigned to victorious European nations stipulated that they should be governed as “a sacred trust of civilization”’ until they could stand on their own feet. This injunction was implemented in various ways. In her colonies Britain substituted the idea of paramount chiefs/kings with the familiar institution of constitutional Monarchy. When France discovered that kinship was no longer compatible with her republican tradition, it was abolished.

iv. Economic Activity: Relative peace and security also stimulated economic activity. The overriding priority of colonial administration was to make the colonies self-supporting. This was the purpose of the amalgamation then in Nigeria in 1914. Western education emptied the villages, populated the cities, increased mobility and urbanization. If urbanization forced Africans to mix, even if they failed to congeal, it created an awareness of their similarities, as well as their distinctiveness from others. Ali Mazrui argues that colonialism made Africans realize they are one: “a sentiment was created on the African continent-a sentiment of oneness’ (Mazrui 1978:38).


Problems Created for African Politics by its Colonial Origins

We may have attributed some gains to colonialism in some areas. But this is not to deny that, in other vital areas, colonialism created problems for African politics, in its system and process, as well as the policies pursued by its practitioners in the continent. Gabriel Almond et al (2003) identified systems, process and policy as three critical areas to view politics and assess government. This section will deal with the first two. Let us now discuss the critical problem areas in African politics.

1. Lack of Institutionalization: The absence of effective political institution is a major problem in African politics. This has, in turn contributed to the inability of most African states to establish and sustain political order. S.P. Huntington  (1981) argues that, unlike developed countries, most third world nations, including Africa lacked “strong, adaptable, coherent political institutions”. Worse still, virtually all African states have borrowed foreign institutions developed for different setting. He identified the following systems and process deficiencies: lack of well organized political parties; inefficient bureaucracies; low degree of popular participation in public affairs; ineffective structure of civilian control over the military, and absence of relatively effective procedure for regulating succession, and resolving political conflicts. The implication of these systems and process deficiencies is failure to create political order in Africa.

2.  Tribalism/Ethnicity: Tribalism is one of the dangerous legacies of colonial rule. Tribes had existed before colonial rule, but the arbitrary manner the partition of Africa was delineated complicated tribal relations. The world tribalism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary was coined in 1886; and was used to refer to a condition where “no national life, much less civilization, was possible”. In Africa, tribalism has a negative connotation, though there are ethnic groups in other parts of the world, who are equally, or highly antagonistic as those in Africa, but their differences like the one between the Serbs and the Croats are attributed to religion, not tribe. Consequently, the relations between the Maasai and Kikuyi in Kenya, the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi, the Zulu and Xhosa in South Africa are perceived in competitive, and sometimes, acrimonious terms. This was also promoted in the service of colonialism. For example, the British invented and promoted the fiction that the Kikuyi and Maasai were strong enemies. In Rwanda and Burundi, colonial policies eroded the previous reciprocal balance in the relationship that had existed between the Hutus and Tutsi, which promoted the latter, also the minority group into a ruling caste. Having enjoyed benefits within the upper colonial hierarchy, the minority Tutsi would obviously perceive the idea of democracy, or majority rule a threat to their privilege. The 1994 genocide of the ethnic Tutsi, and moderate Hutus was to redress balance of power which Surento favored the Tutsi. But before this time the Tutsi and Hutus were cordial, they intermarried and even looked alike, the only difference being that the Hutus were agriculturalist, while the Tutsi were pastoralists. This confirmed Reader’s view that ethnic thinking had colonial origin.

According to him, ethnicity or tribalism was not a cultural characteristic that was deeply rooted in African past; “it was a consciously crafted ideological tradition that was introduced during the colonial presence”.

3. Double Allegiance: The other negative implication of ethnicity in African politics is that it has made the task of nation-building difficult. Colonial policies promoted the view that every African, belonged to a tribe, just as every European belonged to a nation. Since a tribe was defined as distinct cultural units, with a common language and a single social system, the impression was created that every tribe could stand on its own; with any multi-ethnic arrangement viewed as a burden, and a violation of cultural purity. The disservice of this policy to nation building effort in Africa is that while 19th century Europe witnessed the unification of Germany and Italy, in the 20th Century, colonial rule perfected the policy of divide and rule in Africa. Africans therefore found it difficult to accept the boundaries of the nation states as legitimate when those boundaries had their origins in alien rule.

4.  Crisis of Modernization: Africa like most third world states are said not to be politically developed. The ingredients of political development include rationalization of authority and differentiation of structure. But social Darwinism places Africa at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder (Smith 2003:44.53). Because most African States are in a hurry to modernize, in order to escape from the trap created by their past; a gap inevitably developed between the limited capacity of institutions and the expanded levels of political mobilization. Huntington (1968:45) developed this proposition from de Toeque Ville’s thesis which says “among the laws that rule human societies, there is one which seems to be more precise than others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which equality of conditions is increased”. This is not the case in Africa.

5.  Weak Political Authority: Politics in Africa are not supported by values that strengthen representative government. To remain in power most governments in Africa substitute power for authority. The conception of state power and authority of government in developed countries differ. In America, for example, rather than creation of authority and accumulation of power, the system works best with limitation of authority, division and devolution of powers, checks and balances, and recognition and guarantee of rights. In the federalist, No 51, James Madison had the American experience in mind when he advised on how to frame a government which is to be administered by men: “the great difficulty lies in this”. You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself”. For most African States, the two goals have remained an elusive dream.

6. Weak Economic Base: Most African States are still struggling to provide for their citizens basic necessities of life. For this reason most people view competitive party based politics as unnecessary waste of scarce resources, while elected political structures and their salaries and other perquisites as needless drain of resources those most African economies can hardly support. In terms of cost-benefit analysis, there is widespread belief that the poor performance of most governments in Africa does not justify the huge amount spent to erect and support democratic structures. It is instructive that in Nigeria, most citizens opposed the recommendations by the National Revenue Mobilization and Fiscal Commission that the salary of political office holders in the country be increased by over 100 percent.


Problems of Politics and Failures of African Government

In the previous unit we discussed some constraints facing African politics in the areas of systems and process. In this section we will discuss how failures in these two areas have also created problems for government policies in Africa. Ideally government exists to guarantee public order and security, build political community, protect properties and other rights, promote economic growth and development, protect the weak and ensure social justice (Almond 2005:3-6). However in most African states government have been recording failures in these respects. It is either the machinery of government has totally collapsed in some, or the state institution itself is collapsing, failing, or has failed. The examples of Liberia and Sierra Leone, in recent times, or Somalia and Sudan presently occupy both sides of the spectrum of state incapacity.

i. Destruction of Sense of Community: Most governments in Africa, far from building a political community, destroyed the sense of community that is gradually developing among its people. Many of the citizens are remote from the centre of activities, such that they are not affected by government policies. The effect of this is more severe in Africa where government is expected to fill a major space in the lives of the citizens. In many African States, there is scant regard for the provision of basic infrastructure and welfare facilities. This has contributed in creating disconnect between the government and the governed, and a feeling of alienation from the government, and the state, and what they stand for.

ii. Violation of Basic Rights: There are also a few African States like Zimbabwe and Sudan where consideration for regime survival, has elevated human rights abuse to the official policy of the state. The International Criminal Court in March 2009 issued a warrant of arrest for the Sudanese leader, Omar Al- Basar, for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. In the aftermath of the general elections in Zimbabwe in March 2008, many opposition elements were murdered by agents of the ruling ZANUPFF, led by Robert Mugabe. In the words of Almond (2005), “while those who have power are corrupted, those without it are degraded and alienated”. The reign of terror in some of these states is justified by reference to Rousseau’s oft-quoted phrase” the strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right and obedience into duty”.

iii. Government for Private Gains:  The transformation of public office to an avenue for private gain is another explanation for failure of government and state incapacity in Africa. Most leaders in government are self-centered and self – seeking, and not benevolent. Before he was deposed in 1977, after he ruled Congo, which he renamed Zaire, for 30years, Mobutu Seseseko (1930 – 1977) accumulated huge personal fortunes, while the living standards of Congolese plummeted (Almond 2005)



Modern politics in Africa had its roots in the colonial period. The central proposition of this unit is that colonialism was a mixed-grill for African politics, while recognizing that the score sheet is loaded more on the negative side. Cicero wrote over 2000 years ago that history “is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; illuminates realities and vitalizes memory”. Close to half a century after African year (1960), African leaders by a new approach to governance should begin to rewrite a new positive history for African politics. This is the only way that the colonial encounter, no matter how long its history, or deep its impact, in creating problems for African politics, will become a foot note in future narration and analysis.

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