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date: 17 August 2019

Abstract and Keywords

Politicians mobilize people to vote by devising messages and imparting them to those people. Many studies examine African electioneering through a framework that distinguishes between programmatic, clientelist and charismatic appeals. Some, but not all, African politicians appeal to people by adopting particular policy positions, the strict sense of “programmatic appeals.” However, almost all solicit peoples’ support by stressing their sincere intentions and their abilities to pursue uncontroversial aspects of public policy, otherwise known as “valence appeals.” Parties’ historic records and their locations in government or opposition affect which issues they can claim to own and which they stress in their campaigns.

While appeals over public policy are commonplace in African electoral politics, so too is clientelism. Many politicians give voters gifts, in the form of favorable distributions of public service delivery, in-kind goods, and cash. However, few of these gifts constitute contingent exchanges of goods for votes. Instead, political largesse is used to flatter, to impress and to convince voters of politicians’ virtue. In this respect, public policy and clientelism frequently appear in African elections side-by-side.

“Political appeals” is employed by many as an organizing concept which orders the study of political messages. It sheds light on how electoral politics affects public policy. However, it also obscures. A separate canon of work studies political discourses in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the most studied subjects in this strain of the literature is populism. African populisms have been conceived of by some as discourses that unite disparate groups against an elite, and as an electoral strategy that draws together particular constituencies by others. Whichever definition one takes, African populists are rare. Only a handful have been identified.

Nationalists are much more common in sub-Saharan Africa. Politicians and parties have constructed national missions that act as master discourses, which subsume and order all manner of political issues. Some politicians that employ nationalist discourses stress their liberation credentials as qualifications to govern and delegitimize opponents who did not participate in the struggle. National revolutions or liberations are portrayed as ongoing projects with indefinite points of completion which give nationalism its regenerative qualities. Other nationalisms stress threats from rival groups, whether strangers within the nation’s borders, or nefarious forces abroad.

Likewise, ethnic discourses are commonplace in sub-Saharan Africa, but their rhetorical contents differ. Some valorize an ethnic people. Other express an ethnic group’s victimhood, or grievances, or fear of rival group threats. Equally, the goals that they espouse differ. Some propose compensation, others reconciliation, others still the capture of the central state, the devolution of state power, or the creation of a separate state of their own. Equally, they are contested and used by a variety of actors. Ethnicities are created from both above and below. They are used not only to mobilize people for mass actions to but make normative claims on politicians.

More broadly, politicians strive to develop conceptions of political morality. They present themselves as moral leaders and recharacterize various political issues as questions of morality or moral character. Putting these common discursive frames aside, African politicians employ any number of esoteric discursive frames which are not found elsewhere. Grand discourses aside, African politicians employ numerous rhetorical and symbolic techniques to suggest, reframe, perform and charm.

While messages win people’s support, those messages must be imparted, through mass media or face-to-face contact. Political parties mobilize enormous resources to expose people to their messages on the ground. The ground campaign has received little attention to date, but a scattering of studies show that parties strive to gain local presence. Some establish branches and others recruit local actors. They rely on these local actors to organize their ground campaigns and employ a variety of targeting strategies.

Keywords: Africa, electioneering, campaigning, clientelism, ethnicity, populism, nationalism, public policy, discourse, African politics

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