The African middle class (AMC) is an elusive category with high political significance. In spite of its vagueness and its controversial nature, this so-called social category is consistently used by a number of individual actors and institutions alike, including IO, NGOs, business interests, and political leaders in Africa for political purposes. The words “African middle class” are suggestive enough to produce new images of African social structures and turn the “hopeless continent” into a “miracle,” a new “powerhouse.” They are strong enough to grant new legitimacy to failing political leaders and the well off and to let people and academics alike anticipate the rise of democratic, stable, uncorrupted institutions. However, people “of the middle of the diamond” in Africa do not exist as a social community or a class. They do not share a common political identity. They have no political role of their own. The diversity of social subgroups may occasionally mobilize together, but for a short period of time and on highly different grounds. The political role of the AMC is as elusive as their mere existence. New social groups of limited prosperity are on the rise. However, they are far from making a class and mobilizing for political purposes. The rise of middle classes in emerging countries became a research theme at the beginning of the 2000s. The discussion took root in sub-Saharan African countries in the 2010s without any in-depth debate about its relevance. It was as if the AMC or classes already existed before the examination of a still very confused and heterogeneous set of transformations of the social structure of African societies was conducted. As a result, the AMC concept appears in almost all analyses as elastic, elusive, cobbled together, and uncertain as to its boundaries, its characteristics, its components, or its homogeneity. This confusion does not prevent authors from anticipating the meaning and effects of the AMC for political stability and democratization. Before studying how the people grouped behind this label can affect and be affected by politics and policies, it is necessary to understand how politically loaded this middle-class label is.
Academic studies on the globalized dimension of African protests have complexified the understanding of “transnational social movements,” too often considered as the mechanical and adequate response to a newly globalized neoliberal economy. The long history of globalized protest in and about Africa, starting from the antislavery campaigns to the global justice movements, shows that these movements, often initiated outside the continent, have contributed to the “invention of Africa.” The notion of “extraversion” developed by Jean-François Bayart to explain African states’ relation to the outside world helps interrogating the material and symbolic asymmetrical relationships inside these networks but also the agency of African protesters in shaping their causes. Resources, legitimate knowledge, and audiences of protest are structurally located with Western actors, creating misunderstanding or conflicts in these globalized networks. But African activists do benefit from their internationalization, acting as a protection and a—sometimes contested—legitimation. Also, against the imposition of supposedly universal causes, African protesters have developed new concepts and narratives, especially on gender and sex rights, to assert an African way of framing these causes. Far from being completely constrained by Western agenda, funding, or audience, some local conflicts also benefit from often international ramifications born out of the development of transnational criminal economies. Lastly, reflections on the regional variations and the diffusion of protest inside the continent shows a differential density of international networks and the growing importance of social media in the globalization of protest.
International Relations theory has tended to overlook the role of Africa and Africans in the international system. Traditionally, the discipline’s most influential theorists have focused instead on relationships between and perspectives of “major powers.” A growing body of work, however, has challenged these more limited efforts to conceptualize African agency in international politics. This scholarship has emphasized the significant space available to, and carved-out by, African states in molding the agendas of international institutions, and the role of African governments and advocacy networks in influencing the trajectory of major international debates around issues such as aid, development, trade, climate change, and migration. The study of African agency in international politics continues to wrestle with two key debates: the meanings of “agency” and “African.” Much of the literature focuses primarily on the role and influence of African states rather than that of African citizens and communities. This focus provides, at best, only a partial and qualified view of the ways in which African agency is secured and exercised at the global level, particularly given the significant structural constraints imposed on Africa by global economic and political inequalities. The extent to which contemporary analysis captures the breadth of African engagement with the international system is also compromised by current state-centric approaches. It is thus necessary to examine a range of approaches adopted by scholars to deepen and nuance the study of African agency in international politics, including work on agenda-setting, mesolevel dynamics and microlevel dynamics.
Ransford Edward Van Gyampo and Nana Akua Anyidoho
The youth in Africa have been an important political force and performed a wide range of roles in the political field as voters, activists, party members, members of parliament, ministers, party “foot soldiers,” and apparatchiks. Although political parties, governments, and other political leaders often exploit young people’s political activity, their participation in both local and national level politics has been significant. In the academic literature and policy documents, youth are portrayed, on the one hand, as “the hope for the future” and, on the other, as a disadvantaged and vulnerable group. However, the spread of social media has created an alternative political space for young people. Active participation of young people in politics through social media channels suggests that they do not lack interest in politics, but that the political systems in Africa marginalize and exclude them from political dialogue, participation, decision-making, and policy implementation. The solution to the problem of the exclusion of young people from mainstream politics would involve encouraging their participation in constitutional politics and their greater interest and involvement in alternative sites, goals, and forms of youth political activism in contemporary Africa.
Political party systems are an important element of political systems in Africa and elsewhere. They form the central intermediate institution between the general population and the government. Party systems represent and aggregate diverse political views and group interests, and they form coalitions that then form governments with potentially important consequences of democracy and political stability. Unlike the case in the period directly after independence, African party systems have been overwhelmingly multiparty since the 1990s. As a result, the literature has grown significantly, although most works focus on political parties rather than party systems. Many efforts have been devoted to classification, referring to the legal context as well as, more specifically, the number of relevant parties, the levels of institutionalization, and, less often, the degree of ideological or other polarization. While levels of institutionalization and ideological differences are generally not pronounced, more than half of African party systems have been one-party dominant, of which most are authoritarian. In contrast, two-party and pluralist-party systems, which make up approximately one half of all multiparty systems, are generally more democratic. Besides determining classifications, most analytical work focuses on the determinants of African party systems using quantitative and qualitative as well as macro- and micro-level methodologies. Three determinants are debated: first, ethnicity, which has been cited as the main social cleavage behind African party systems; however, while ethnicity matters, its effects vary and are limited; second, political institutions, especially electoral systems for legislative elections, which only partly explain fragmentation or other features; third, the performance of political parties and rationalist approaches. Scholars largely agree that all of these elements need to be taken into account. While certain functions of party systems may facilitate democratization and political stability or other outcomes, little empirical work exists on the consequences of party systems. Some evidence suggests that highly institutionalized, moderately fragmented, and polarized systems promote democracy. Future research faces many challenges, in particular the development of integrated theory and more fine-grained data, as well as an increased focus on the consequences of party systems.
Sharath Srinivasan and Stephanie Diepeveen
From global amplifications of local protests on social media to disinformation campaigns and transformative state surveillance capabilities, digital communications are changing the ways in which politics works in Africa and how and with whom power accrues. Yet while digital information technology and media are relatively new, the role of communication in state power and resistance on the continent is not. The “digital revolution” provokes us to better account for this past to understand a rapidly changing present. From language and script, to print and broadcast, to mobile applications and digital databases, how information is circulated, processed, and stored is central to political power on the African continent. The story of political change in Africa cannot be told without attention to how power manifests with and through changes in the technologies that enable these communication practices. A communication technology perspective on the study of politics in Africa provides a more sober analysis of how power relations circumscribe the possibilities of political change than more normative approaches would. Even so, a communication approach allows for social and ideational factors to mix with material ones in explaining the possibilities of such change. Communication technologies have been central to what political actors in Africa from the precolonial past to the early 21st century can and cannot do, and to how political change comes about. Explorations across time, political era, and technological development in Africa allow us to unpack this relationship. In the precolonial period, across forms of centralized and decentralized political organization, oral communication modalities reflected and enabled fluid and radial logics of authority and power relations. Changes in moral and practical ideas for political organization occurred amid early encounters with traders and Islamic scholars and texts and the movement of people to, from, and within the continent. Colonialism, which heavily focused on narrow extractive aims, required alien central authorities to overcome the vulnerability of their rule through knowledge production and information control. Equally, the same communication technologies valued by colonial authority—intermediaries, print, radio—became means through which resistance ideas circulated and movements were mobilized. In independent Africa, political aims may have changed, but communication infrastructures and their vulnerabilities were inherited. The predicament facing postcolonial governments had a communications dimension. Later, their ability to forge rule through control and allegiance had to contend with a globalizing information economy and demands for media pluralism. A communications perspective on the history of power on the African continent therefore guides a fuller understanding of change and continuity in politics in a digital age by drawing attention to the means and meanings by which legitimacy, authority, and belonging have continued to be produced and negotiated. Transnational configurations of information flows, global political economy logics of accumulation and security, and communicative terrains for contesting authority and mobilizing alternatives have been shown to possess both distinctly new characteristics and enduring logics.