The Nature and Character of African Politics


The Nature and Character of African Politics

In this site, you will be introduced to African Politics. This is a follow up to your study of Introduction to politics. This unit will introduce you to the application of the major principles and concepts you have studied.


The various issues that will be examined include the colonial background of African politics, the structure and nuances of political party formations in the post-independence era, and the major indices that define the nature and character of African politics. The site will introduce you to the factors that are responsible for unstable political systems in Africa, and problems associated with such upheavals.

Background to African Politics

It is difficult to explain and analyze the nature and character of African politics without taking into account the encounter of these states with foreign influence, under colonial rule. What is now described as colonial legacy is an admission that this asymmetric colonial relation had a formative, if not disruptive or destructive influence on politics in Africa. Almost five decades after that threshold popularly referred to as the

 “African Year of Independence”, it would amount to self-delusion to claim that African states today are free from the corrosive effects of European values, systems and institutions. Indeed, the manner these foreign models were grafted into African indigenous structures, continue to have consequences for contemporary African politics.

 The key issue here is whether an ex-colonial, new state in Africa, and a plural society, composed of old nations can evolve viable political systems, institutions and structures that can sustain political order. The reality today is that African post-colonial political setting is a confusing mixture of authoritarian and democratic parliamentary/liberal institutions. While the ideas of supremacy of the law and the structuring and organizations of a political community from which authority derives were consciously introduced by the colonial administration, corresponding consciousness that the ultimate control of government power play with the people was lacking. According to Jordan (1978:60), the absence of these elements of modern constitutionalism added to the existing confusion due basically to the co-existence of elements belonging to three constitutional traditions: pre-colonial African constitutionalism, the constitutional system of indirect rule and authoritarian administration and the Western model of liberal democracy.

This created an almost irreconcilable gap between the authority of a strong and effective government struggling to modernize and integrate, and the liberty of the citizens, who were anxious to translate the pre-independence

“revolution of rising expectations” into concrete developmental fulfillment. The failure to resolve this conflict, which had its roots in the colonial era, was the major dilemma faced by African leaders in the immediate post-independence era. Rather than find solutions to this problem, the inheritors of political offices were so much pre-occupied with the struggle for power and appropriating to themselves the privileges of offices vacated by the colonialists that little time was left for constructing political agenda appropriate for a developing society.

In a recent commentary on Africa’s unique sociological setting, Henry Kissinger (2001:203) remarked thus: “in no other continent did national borders emerge so directly and intrinsically from the way the imperial powers delineated their spheres of control”. Awolowo’s (1947) description of Nigeria as a “mere geographic expression”, a phrase arising from the country’s colonial origin is, therefore, equally applicable to most African states. This explains why unlike in most countries in the world where the state precede the nation, in Africa the nation precede the state. Consequently, it is difficult in African states to wrest a national consciousness from among a plethora of ethnic groups, or forge a national identity where centrifugal forces are strong.

Party-Politics in Post-Independence Era

In the movement towards national independence of African states, political parties were in the vanguard of that struggle. In Nigeria, for example the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC), led by Herbert Macaulay, and later, Nnamdi Azikiwe gave nationalist struggle a boost.

In former Gold Coast, now Ghana, the struggle for independence was initiated by the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), until Kwame Nkrumah broke away and formed the Convention Peoples’ Party (CPP), proclaimed Positive Action and won independence for Ghana in 1957.

In Sierra Leone, the Sierra Leone National Council, (SLNC), in Gambia, the Peoples Progressive Party, in Zimbabwe, both ZANU and ZAPU formed the Patriotic Front to demand for self-government, and eventually led their countries in the immediate post-independence era.

In South Africa, the ANC struggled, not for independence, but for majority rule from the apartheid regime. During the struggle for independence two factors accelerated the pace of parties’ formation: the devolution of power by colonial authorities who attracted the nationalists, and induced them to convert their movements to political parties, and the modification of electoral system and constitutional adjustments that made it technically possible for political parties to seek power constitutionally (Sklar 1983).

It is a fact that political parties were the prime force in the struggle for independence in Africa; it is however an irony that immediately independence was granted, they became sources of instability and undemocratic policies.

The reason for this is not far-fetched. Unlike in the advanced democracies like Britain where the party system is at the center of parliamentary government, political parties in African states are rarely institutionalized, lack clear cut ideology, are not issues or programme driven, not properly organized, lack party discipline and are not massbased movements, that can speak for the whole country.

In his study of political parties in French West Africa, Morgenthau (1964:336-41) made a distinction between what he called “patron” and “mass” parties. Although Smith (2003: 151) described the distinction as “less neat in fact than in definition,” yet it gives us an idea of the organizational structure of parties in most African states in the early years of independence. By Morgenthau’s definition patron parties were weakly organized, undisciplined, with little direct membership participation. The individuals were of interest to patron parties only for the purposes of exercising their franchise. Most parties in Africa fit into this category.

In the rare cases like in Ghana, Ivory Coast or Guinea where we had “mass” parties, citizens were often mobilized or driven by ideologies to perpetuate leaders in office.

We must, however, admit that in spite of the observed deficiencies in parties their leaders were wise enough to close ranks, and forged a common front to demand for, and win-self government for their countries. But they faced the first major challenge in transiting from anti-colonial agitators to managers of newly independent states. Because these parties were a curious combination of traditionalism and liberalism, they were therefore unable to reconcile these conflicting values.

Traditionalism enjoined political leaders to take care of everyone regardless of party differences. However liberal democracy dictated that government should alternate between the majority and the minority. But in a continent where divisions are along tribal, ethnic or religious lines, the opposition, often the minority ethnic groups, usually found it difficult to understand the idea of their permanent exclusion from power, along with the privileges it confers. Under this circumstance, the political process boils down to a quest for domination, even repression, not alternation in office.

This is the context within which the tug of war arena developed, and which in turn defines the nature and character of African politics. We can now identify and explain the salient features of African politics.

Features of African Politics

A.  Crises of Legitimacy

The first major feature of African politics is the problem of leadership legitimacy. Legitimacy simply connotes wide acceptability of the government in power by the entire citizens. According to S.M. (1963) Lip set in his book “Political Man”, legitimacy of a government is determined by three factors: how power is acquired, the performance or efficiency of government, and the level of freedom and welfare enjoyed by the citizens.

In Africa, rules governing electoral competition are not followed, elections, are not free and fair, the performance of most governments are poor, while the freedom and welfare of the people are not guaranteed. A government that lacks legitimacy is prone to have its policies misinterpreted, creates communication gaps between the government and the governed and may not enjoy the benefits of feedback on its policies that can assist in policy re-evaluation, and re-formulation.

In the extreme, an illegitimate government imposes a reign of terror on the citizens to force them into submission or acquiescence. The regimes of blood-thirsty Idi Amin Dada of Uganda typified this tendency in the past, and its contemporary equivalent is Robert Mugabe’s infamous rule in Zimbabwe. In the December 2007 General Elections in Kenya, incumbent President Muai Kibaki manipulated the electoral commission to deny the opposition candidate, Railia Odinga of Orange Democratic Coalition from emerging victorious. After months of violence Kibaki agreed to a power sharing formulae, which created and gave the post of Prime Minister to the opposition candidate. 

In March 2008, Robert Mugabe re-enacted the Kenya drama in Zimbabwe, and ensured that the opposition challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change did not secure the mandatory 50 plus one percentage of the votes, required to win the election in the first ballot. Before he resigned as President, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa successfully brokered a power sharing deal between the two feuding parties. Whatever the pretences by Kikabi and Mugabe, there is no doubt that they no longer enjoy credibility as leaders and their governments have also ceased to possess electoral legitimacy. The Kenya and Zimbabwe’s cases are, by no means, unique; they merely represent the latest, and the frightful dimensions the crisis of legitimacy is assuming in Africa.

 B. Corruption and Monetized Politics

Corruption has remained the bane of African politics. It has continued to

Undermine the effectiveness of political leadership. Awolowo (1966) defines corruption as abuse, misuse and disuse of power. Forms of corruption in African politics include bribery and manipulation of electoral process, nepotism in award of contracts and favoritism in dispensing patronage. While clientilism and patron-client relations are common in all societies, they define, and constitute the essence of African politics. Using Nigeria as a case study, Richard Joseph (2006) coined the word ‘prebendalism” to describe a situation “where an individual seeks a patron and leans on him in order to benefit from the privileges of the upper class” Joseph’s formulation is not too distinct from Karl Marx’s notion of “primitive accumulation” – acquiring wealth in excess of what is reasonably or economically justifiable. J.F. Bayart’s coinage of the term “politics of the belly” is understandable given the high level of poverty in most African states, but certainly was not intended to justify the massive corruption and looting of public treasury by some African leaders. Before their exit from power, some Africa leaders, notably Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now CDR) were infamously reputed to be richer than their states. The consequence of the pervasiveness of corruption in African politics is not only absence of development but also decline in state capacity; and ultimate state failure.

This problem is a major factor in the deepened economic stagnation and under-development of African states, arising from diversion of states resources meant for development to serve the private interests of political leadership.

In Nigeria, recent scandalous revelations about the diversion of PTDF funds, aviation intervention funds, National Integrated Power Project (NIPP), award of oil blocs and payment for signatures bonuses, are enough for us to conclude that in spite of public pretences to fight corruption, the menace appears to have been institutionalized in the nation’s body polity. When this is added to the God father’s syndrome, and the monetization of the political space, it is no surprise that the culture of impunity is gaining ground in the country.

The Nigerian case illustrates the trend in most African states where governments are rarely responsible because they run from accountability at the polls. The process of governance not only lacks transparency, the rule of law is weak, while the mass media and civil society groups that are to serve as watch dogs are either inept, or have been compromised. It is a fact that where there is power and discretion there is always the possibility of abuse, especially when the power and discretion have to be exercised within the context of scarcity. This problem therefore calls for appropriate policy response, process monitoring and system realignment.

C.  Personalized Leadership

As a result of the dominance of a few individuals in the politics of African states, politics has always been based on personalized leadership. Ali Mazrui (1997:7) identified five leadership styles among African leaders:

i.       Intimidatory leader, who relies primarily on fear and instrument of coercion to assert his authority, and specialized in the use and/ or threat of use of force to extract compliance from his fellow countrymen.

ii.      The patriarchal leader, basically one who commanded neo-filia reverence, a near father like figure like Jomo Kenyatta and Nelson Mandela.

iii.     The leader of Reconciliation, who relied for his effectiveness on qualities of tactical accommodation and capacity to discover areas of compromise between otherwise antagonistic view points; such leaders like Tafawa Balewa of Nigeria and Milton Obote of Uganda remained in control as long as he was successful in politics of compromise and synthesis;

iv.     Mobilization leader, whose main drive was ideology, with a dose of charismatic qualities, which helped in mobilizing the populace in the direction of a particular social action, as effectively employed by Nyerere in Tanzania, and perhaps, Nkrumah, in Ghana; Bureaucratic leader; the low-key type who relied on efficiency rather than evocation, procedure rather than passion.

Mazru’s typologies are closely related to David Apter’s views on political leadership in Africa, except that he laid emphasis on the integrative role of leaders in a plural African setting, in order to cope with the turbulence of political modernization. Hesitant to repress, but anxious to dominate the political scene, African political leadership, especially in the first decade of independence created a personality cult around themselves. Kwame Nkrumah, for instance, preferred to be called Osagefor (The saviour) while Nyerere also admired being called Nwalimu (The Great Teacher).

Rather than institutions driving the political process the personal attributes of African leaders, either to hold the state together, or cause crises, are more important than the form of government, or the institution of checks and balances. For Instance, the stability which Ivory Coast enjoyed under Felix Houphouet Boigny, disappeared after his death and exit from office. While laying claim to be democratic most African leaders behave in the manner of maximummilitary rulers, in effectively demonstrating J.J. Rousseaus view that “the strongest is never strong enough to be master unless he transforms might into right and obedience into duty”.

D. Sit-Tight Syndrome

Another feature of African politics is the sit-tight syndrome. This is the desire and consistent refusal of rulers and leaders in Africa to leave office at the end of their tenure; even when they had become unpopular. Whether elected into office, or they accede to power through a military coup such leaders begin to scheme and plot how to stay in power indefinitely. Obafemi Awolowo described this virus in African politics as “tenacity of office”, which in turn makes the opposition parties to develop the tactics of “pull him down syndrome”. For this reason in most African states the electorates have lost faith in the ballot box as the only legitimate means of changing a bad government. Until recently, military intervention is considered the only available option, lending credence to the axiom that “those who make peaceful change impossible makes violent change inevitable”. Beyond the lust for power, another cause of the sit-tight syndrome in Africa is corruption. There is the pervading fear that a succeeding government could call an ex-leader to account for his stewardship.

Therefore, there is the tendency by incumbents to tinker with the constitution in order to secure for them an extended or elongated tenure. To an average African politician the positive definition of jurisprudence that law is written unaffected by the desire of anyone is meaningless.

The list of sit-tight African leaders is endless.

In Gabon, Omar Albert- Bernard Bongo had been in power since 1967, and from 1971, he had been re-elected for about seven times. Mummar Gadaffi in Libya (1969), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe 1980, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt (1981), Paul Biya Cameroon (1982), Yoweri, Museveni in Uganda (1986), Blaise Campore of Burkina Faso (1987), Omar Al – Bashar of Sudan (1989) and Yahaya Jamel in Gambia 1994. 

In the recent past, the unduly long tenure of Nyerere in Tanzania, Kaunda in Zambia, Eyadema in Togo, Mobutu Seseseko in Zaire, Houphouet-Boigny in Ivory coast, Kerekou in Benin Republic, Banda in Malawi and Sekou Toure in Guinea, cannot be justified other than on account of lust for power.

This second category of African leaders either died in office, or was humiliated out of office. Uganda, in addition, had the odd record of producing Presidents Yusuf Lule and Goddfrey Binassa who both served for few days, both of which were symptomatic of the political instability in the country. South Africa is a singular positive exception where Nelson Mandela graciously bowed out of office after completing a single tenure of four years.

In Nigeria, General Abacha, as a serving military head of state was adopted by the then five registered political parties as their sole candidate; as a ploy to prolong his government (Babatope 2003).

Similarly, until the plan was frustrated by the National Assembly, it was no secret that President Olusegun Obasanjo nursed and pursued a self succession bid that would have entailed an amendment of the constitution to enable him contest for a third term in office.

 Recurring Political Instability

The combined effect of the problems we identified above is that political instability has become a recurring feature of African politics. Being plural societies, African states are divided along segmental cleavages.

These cleavages may be religious, ideological, linguistic, regional, cultural, racial or ethnic in nature; which are advanced in their primordial forms, or promoted, at times, extra-territorially. The fundamental assumption of the western model of democracy is that politics arises out of diversity of interests, which can be aggregated, reconciled and resolved, using established rules and mechanisms. But because in Africa there is absence of agreed traditions in politics, rival groups or claimants to political offices employ illegal or unconstitutional means, including enlisting the support of the military, to secure advantage. The consequence is recurring political instability.

In every political system, those who are in power face democratic opposition, who would normally replace them, either to change or modify existing policies. But in Africa the ruling party equate opposition with treason, or in the extreme are defined as “separatists” or “secessionists” Desperate to contain what is ideally a legitimate contribution to constructive dialogue, the sitting government often pushes the opposition groups underground, where they remain and continue as potent threats to political stability.

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