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Article

Africa is a place of enormous variation and its countries have had very different postcolonial experiences. However, it is clear that since the 1940s peace has been elusive for many across the continent. A series of wars driven by poverty, identity, political economy, and failing states led to a widespread crisis of governance and extensive international intervention. Reductions in the security capabilities of states have also led to the growth of violent transnational groups, particularly those related to Islamic extremism in the Maghreb, Nigeria, and Somalia but also criminal networks involved with drug and people smuggling. This wide variety of conflicts also generated an equally wide range of responses as the international community began to develop ways of combating conflicts through reform of its own peacekeeping capacity. The optimism of the 1992 Agenda for Peace, which called for the UN to become the central instrument in the prevention and ending of conflicts, has given way to a more sanguine approach, as mixed results have led to diverse outcomes for African countries and Africa’s own peace and security architecture. In the end, despite the rapid development of important local and localized bottom-up peacebuilding initiatives, the state remains central to the overarching aims of peace and stability across the continent. It is here where the variations in performance can be found in conflict prevention, peacekeeping, and post-conflict reconstruction.

Article

The variety in climate, vegetation, and population density in Central Africa is enormous, but some of the main features of policymaking and informal rules of politics—at first sight at least—appear quite similar between N’Djaména and Kinshasa, between Libreville and Bangui, in a vast territory bigger than the European Union: clientelism, personalization of power, politicized ethnicity, the impact of external intervention, and a legacy of repeated political violence establish some constant features. On the other hand, the variable size of countries (from island states in the Gulf of Guinea to large territorial states) has also come with various challenges. Also, Central Africa features land-locked countries such as Chad and Central African Republic, which negatively impacts economic development, in contrast to countries located at the Gulf of Guinea with an easy access to maritime trade routes. At closer inspection all of the eight countries have a specific history, but this overview article rather stresses the commonalities. Featuring in this contribution are the countries of Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Equatorial-Guinea, Gabon, and São Tomé and Príncipe. The limited achievements of pro-democracy movements in Central Africa in the 1990s have enduring consequences on politics in Africa. Authoritarian regimes have consolidated their grip on power after surviving severe crises in most Central African states. Big man politics continue to prevail, only few opposition parties have upheld their initial strength and lack internal democracy. Enduring violent conflicts in DRC and CAR (and arguably to a somewhat lesser extent in Chad), have undermined conviviality between groups and state capacities in providing public goods with dramatic consequences on effectiveness and legitimacy of the state and its representatives. Prospects for a future allowing for more participation, truly competitive elections, and a peaceful change of government are therefore also grim. However, both violent and peaceful forms of contestation since about 2015 are also signs of renewed mobilization of citizens for political causes across Central Africa. New topics, including consumer defense and ecological issues, plus now-ubiquitous social media, may all be drivers for a new episode of engagement after two decades of frustration. The limited achievements of regional integration and the lack of dynamism of subregional organizations means that Central Africa is still a much less consolidated subregion compared to, for example, West Africa.

Article

Iginio Gagliardone

The analysis of the diffusion of social media in Africa and its relevance for politics has been caught in a paradox. On the one hand, social media have been saluted for their newness and for their ability, especially in connection with increasingly accessible portable tools such as mobile phones, to offer a level playing field for individuals to participate in politics and speak to power. On the other hand, this very enthusiasm has evoked relatively tired tropes used to frame the advent of other “new” technologies in the past, stressing what they could do to Africa, rather than exploring what they are doing in Africa. Early research on the relationship between social media and elections in Africa has tended to adopt normative frameworks adapted from the analysis of electoral contests in the Global North, presupposing unfettered citizens using social media to root for their leaders or demand accountability. A more recent wave of empirically grounded studies has embraced a greater conceptual and methodological pluralism, offering more space to analyze the contradictions in how social media are used and abused: how humor can be turned into a powerful tool to contest a type of power that appears overwhelming; or how armies of professional users have exploited people’s credulity of new media as “freer” from power to actually support partisan agenda. Interestingly, this latter approach has brought to light phenomena that have only recently caught global attention, such as the role of “fake news” and misinformation in electoral contests, but have played a determinant role in African politics for at least a decade.

Article

Burkina Faso’s military holds an important place in politics. It has intervened in Burkina Faso’s politics, temporarily taking power seven times, first in 1966 and most recently in 2015. Military officers have long held many of the most prominent political offices, and military coups d’état have been the most common method of transferring political power in Burkina Faso. Military interventions have typically addressed moments of political failure and widespread civil unrest. Political agitation from different groups in civil society has pressured every government that has come to power, and the government’s ability to manage these popular pressures has been a key feature in the military’s relationship with any given regime. This was particularly the case in the 1980s, when ideological divisions within the military resulted in four coups d’état, but it was also of consequential importance during Burkina Faso’s 2014–2015 political transition. The 27-year rule of Blaise Compaoré set in motion a process of institutional reform that expanded civilian authority over the administration of the military. However, it also saw the rise of preferential treatment for certain units of the military, in particular the presidential guard, which provided protection to the regime during moments of civil unrest until 2014. The gradual liberalization of the political system culminated in unprecedented civil unrest in 2014, and Compaoré was ousted from power in what is commonly referred to as a popular insurrection. The political transition following the events of 2014 led to the first peaceful transfer of power between civilian governments in Burkina Faso’s history and marked a potential shift in the military’s relationship with politics. The military’s political role in Burkina Faso often has been dictated by popular pressures on the political system, but gradual democratic reforms during the 1990s and 2000s helped to inculcate norms of civilian control over the military. While much remains to be seen about the future of Burkina Faso’s military in politics, the opportunity for the country’s political institutions to manage popular pressures on its government may indicate a new era of civilian governance and at least the possibility of reducing the military’s interference in politics.

Article

Coup-proofing—that is, measures aimed at preventing military coups and ensuring military loyalty—has been a key feature of civil–military relations in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) states. Just as the MENA region has been one of the most coup-prone regions in the world, coup-proofing has been an essential instrument of regime survival in Arab countries. The most commonly found coup-proofing strategies in the region include (a) so-called “communal coup-proofing,” involving the appointment of individuals to key positions within the military based on family, ethnic, or religious ties; (b) providing the military with corporate and/or private benefits in order to ensure its loyalty; (c) creating parallel military forces in addition to the regular military, so as to “counter-balance” the latter; (d) monitoring of the military through a vast internal security and intelligence apparatus; and (e) promoting professionalism, and thus political neutrality, within the military. The experiences of the “Arab Spring,” however, have shown that not all of these strategies are equally effective in ensuring military loyalty during times of popular upheavals and regime crises. A common finding in this context has been that communal coup-proofing (or militaries based on “patrimonialism”) creates the strongest bonds been the armed forces and their regimes, as evidenced by the forceful suppression of the popular uprising by the military in countries such as Syria, or by parts of the military in Libya and Yemen. By contrast, where coup-proofing has been based on the provision of material benefits to the military or on counterbalancing, as in Tunisia or Egypt, the armed forces have refrained from suppressing the popular uprising, ultimately leading to the downfall of these countries’ long-standing leaders. A further lesson that can be drawn from the Arab Spring in terms of coup-proofing is that students of both military coups and coup-proofing should dedicate (much) more attention to the increasingly important role played by the internal security apparatus in MENA countries.

Article

Benin and Togo’s postcolonial histories have been shaped by the actions of military personnel. In both cases, governments were either placed into power or toppled by the military. This trend ended in Benin after 1991, when the military returned to the barracks. In Togo, as of 2020, Faure Gnassingbé’s government still relies on the armed forces to remain in power. To understand this path divergence, it is necessary to look at the regimes that arose in 1967 in Togo and 1972 in Benin. After years of coup cycles and failed civilian or military governments, two leaders—Mathieu Kérékou in Benin and Étienne Gnassingbé Eyadéma in Togo—established stable military governments. In order to end coup cycles, both leaders put in place coup-proofing measures that profoundly influenced the composition of the armed forces of their respective countries. In Benin, the Kérékou government implemented a series of measures to heighten divisions among the armed forces and to preclude the coordination of rivals. In Togo, the Eyadéma government filled the army with those from the leader’s ethnic group and pushed out any rivals. While both strategies were effective, as no successful coups were staged in either country after the early 1970s, they also influenced each government’s ability to rely on their armed forces to defend the standing regime. In Benin, the Kérékou government fell, as it could not rely on the armed forces to quell a civic resistance campaign, while in Togo, the Eyadéma government could count on military personnel to crush a similar campaign. Consequently, the 2020 Togolese government is still ruled by the Eyadéma clan and relies on ethnically stacked armed forces to maintain its power. In Benin, a new civilian government has started the process of reprofessionalizing the armed forces.

Article

Electoral commissions are organizations responsible for the conduct of elections and referendums. Their performance level is of paramount importance for the development of electoral integrity and democracy on the continent. In Africa, electoral commissions largely belong to what is usually termed the independent model of electoral management, i.e., the electoral commissions are formally independent from the executive and other government structures. However, there are also examples of the so-called governmental model, where the election-conducting agencies are embedded in the executive, as well as the mixed model, where one finds a country-specific mixture of the two other elements. It has become commonplace to use the generic term election management bodies (EMBs) to cover all three models, as they to a very considerable degree have the same functions and responsibilities in relation to election management. African electoral commissions belonging to the independent model are a clear majority of electoral commissions on the continent and share important organizational features, i.e., a small policy-deciding commission, often filled with non-election experts, and a policy-implementing secretariat structured according to the tasks to be performed by the organization. However, the formal and structural similarities cover different realities on the ground, as African electoral commissions differ enormously in actual autonomy and performance. The usefulness of the traditional categorization of EMBs according to their formal independence and present data is unclear in light of the performance level of at least some African electoral commissions. African electoral commissions are assessed very differently by politicians, voters, and election observers.

Article

Liberation movements in Africa are nationalist movements that have resorted to armed struggle to overthrow colonialism, white minority rule, or oppressive postcolonial governments. Claiming to represent the national will, some are intolerant of opposition, others dubious of the legitimacy of multiparty democracy: this difference is a reflection of whether the military wing of the liberation movement dominates the political movement or whether the reverse situation applies. In the post–Cold War era, liberation movements espouse notions of the “developmental state,” continuing to ascribe the state a primary role in economic development event though they may simultaneously embrace the market. The extent to which they subordinate political considerations and freedoms to the pursuit of economic growth dictates whether they pursue paths of authoritarian development or developmental stagnation

Article

Dominant narratives and theories developed at the turn of the 21st century to account for the links between state formation and civil wars in Africa converged around two main ideas. First was the contention that the increase in civil wars across the continent—like that in many parts of the globe, including South Asia and Central Europe—was linked to state failure or decay. Violent conflict thus came to be seen as the expression of the weakness, disintegration, and collapse of political institutions in the postcolonial world. Second, guerrilla movements, once viewed as the ideological armed wings of Cold War contenders, then came to be seen as roving bandits interested in plundering the spoils left by decaying states, and their motives as primarily, if not only, economic or personal, rather than political. However, recent research has challenged the reductionism that underlay such accounts by looking into the day-to-day politics of civil war, thus moving beyond the search for the motives that bring rebels and rebel movements to wage war against the established order. Drawing on this literature, this article argues that violent conflict is part and parcel of historical processes of state formation. Thus, in order to understand how stable political institutions can be built in the aftermath of civil war, it is essential to study the institutions that regulate political life during conflict. This implies a need not only to look at how (and if) state institutions survive once war has broken out, but also to take into account the institutions put in place in areas beyond the control of the state.

Article

Power sharing is often offered as a strategy to resolve political crises. In contrast to power capture and power division, power sharing entails exercising power in cooperation with rival groups. The outcome of power sharing largely rests on the purpose and context of the agreement. Power sharing has proven effective at attenuating political violence and providing stability when enacted to guide a transition from white-minority to black-majority rule in former settler states (e.g., South Africa) or to bring persistent civil wars to an end (e.g., Sierra Leone and Burundi). However, in the context of an election dispute, power sharing fails to solve the underlying concerns that contribute to election-related conflict. Although power sharing may attenuate or end violence, the outcome is poor reconciling election winners and losers and deepening democratic practices (e.g., Kenya and Zimbabwe). Recognizing the failure of power sharing after election disputes, external mediators—particularly in West Africa (e.g., Côte d’Ivoire and The Gambia)—have tended to emphasize maintaining normal constitutional processes rather than power-sharing settlements.

Article

Although militias have received increasing scholarly attention, the concept itself remains contested by those who study it. Why? And how does this impact contemporary scholarship on political violence? To answer these questions, we can focus on the field of militia studies in post–Cold War sub-Saharan Africa, an area where militia studies have flourished in the past several decades. Virtually all scholars of militias in post–Cold War Africa describe militias as fluid and changing such that they defy easy definition. As a result, scholars offer complex descriptors that incorporate both descriptive and analytic elements, thereby offering nuanced explanations for the role of militias in violent conflict. Yet the ongoing tension between accurate description and analytic definition has also produced a body of literature that is diffuse and internally inconsistent, in which scholars employ conflicting definitions of militias, different data sources, and often incompatible methods of analysis. As a result, militia studies yield few externally valid comparative insights and have limited analytic power. The cumulative effect is a schizophrenic field in which one scholar’s militia is another’s rebel group, local police force, or common criminal. The resulting incoherence fragments scholarship on political violence and can have real-world policy implications. This is particularly true in high-stakes environments of armed conflict, where being labeled a “militia” can lead to financial support and backing in some circumstances or make one a target to be eliminated in others. To understand how militia studies has been sustained as a fragmented field, this article offers a new typology of definitional approaches. The typology shows that scholars use two main tools: offering a substantive claim as to what militias are or a negative claim based on what militias are not and piggy-backing on other concepts to either claim that militias are derivative of or distinct from them. These approaches illustrate how scholars combine descriptive and analytic approaches to produce definitions that sustain the field as fragmented and internally contradictory. Yet despite the contradictions that characterize the field, scholarship reveals a common commitment to using militias to understand the organization of (legitimate) violence. This article sketches a possible approach to organize the field of militia studies around the institutionalization of violence, such that militias would be understood as a product of the arrangement of violence. Such an approach would both allow studies of militias to place their ambiguity and fluidity at the center of analyses while offering a pathway forward for comparative studies.

Article

Joshua B. Rubongoya

Hegemonic political regimes in Africa reflect the continent’s political history, in particular, its colonial past and postcolonial present. Hegemony is primarily a reference to the nature and character of specific modes of power. Political hegemony denotes prolonged, unchecked dominance and control, often by a dominant political party that comprises a section of the ruling coalition. On the continent, regime hegemony is embedded in neo-patrimonial structures of power. It is the outcome of (a) African patrimonial logics and Western bureaucratic institutions and (b) complex networks of patron–client relationships along with resource allocations which form the basis of political legitimacy. As well, the struggles for independence bequeathed a “movement legacy” that continues to frame political organization. African discourses regarding the exercise of power address hegemony in the context of statist–corporatist regimes which, by definition, concentrate power in the state by closing political spaces and promulgating self-serving ideologies, both of which produce unchallenged social realities. Paradoxically, the state is deinstitutionalized, power is personalized, and informality underpins decision making. In deconstructing hegemony in Africa, emphasis is placed on how three key tensions that distinguish hegemony from democracy are resolved. Hegemonies diminish consent in favor of effectiveness, opt for consensus at the expense of participation and competition, and subordinate representation to governability. The consequence of all this is that African polities struggle in sustaining a governance realm that is rooted in consent, competition, and representation. Finally, the nature and character of political hegemony among African polities vary and mutate over time, from independence to the late second decade of the 21st century.

Article

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has generated considerable controversy since it came into force in 2002, principally because of its overriding focus on African conflict situations and suspects. This has led to accusations that the ICC is a neocolonial meddler in African affairs, wielding undue and unaccountable influence over the domestic political arena. Drawing on the author’s field research in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo since 2006 this article contends that the neocolonialism critique of the ICC exaggerates the power of the Court while underestimating the capacity of African states to use the ICC to their own ends. Delivering distanced justice from The Hague with limited expertise on African societies and spending scant time in the field, the ICC has failed to grapple sufficiently with complex political dynamics “on the ground.” Combined with the Court’s heavy reliance on state cooperation, these factors have enabled African governments to use the ICC to target their political and military enemies while protecting themselves from prosecution. This has also emboldened African states in continuing to commit atrocity crimes against civilians, especially during periods of mass conflict and fraught national elections. While claiming to hover above the political fray, the ICC has become heavily politicized and instrumentalized by African states, with lasting and damaging consequences for the practice of national politics across Africa. To avoid being willfully used by African governments, the ICC must bolster its political expertise and become politically savvier. Rather than claiming to be neutral while hovering above the domestic terrain, the ICC must embrace its inherently political nature and deliver justice in a way that improves rather than undermines the practice of national and community-level politics across Africa.

Article

The political history of Africa is a history defined by political exclusion. Groups of people and politicians have been excluded from political participation on the basis of religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and disability throughout the continent. Sometimes political exclusion is a result of a bigoted ideology of a group being inferior—as was the case during the colonial period. Other times, leaders use exclusion in order to maintain power, attempting to neutralize their rivals by removing them from the political system. That exclusion often creates destabiliziation, and sometimes violence. In some cases, notably in Côte d’Ivoire, for example, the debate over who is “legitimate” to include in politics and who is “illegitimate” has sparked civil wars and coups d’état. However, there is a strategic logic to political exclusion: it often tempts autocratic leaders as seemingly the “easiest” way of staying in power in the short term, even if it creates a higher risk of political violence in the long run. Nonetheless, political exclusion remains a widespread feature of most African states well into the 21st century. Until African politics become more inclusive, it is likely that the volatility associated with exclusionary politics will persist even if democratic institutions become stronger over time.

Article

Land-related disputes and land conflicts are sometimes politicized in elections in African countries, but this is usually not the case. Usually, land-related conflict is highly localized, managed at the micro-political level by neo-customary authorities, and not connected to electoral competition. Why do land conflicts sometimes become entangled in electoral politics, and sometimes “scale up” to become divisive issues in regional and national elections? A key determinant of why and how land disputes become politicized is the nature of the underlying land tenure regime, which varies across space (often by subnational district) within African countries. Under the neo-customary land tenure regimes that prevail in most regions of smallholder agriculture in most African countries, land disputes tend to be “bottled up” in neo-customary land-management processes at the local level. Under the statist land tenure regimes that exist in some districts of many African countries, government agents and officials are directly involved in land allocation and directly implicated in dispute resolution. Under “statist” land tenure institutions, the politicization of land conflict, especially around elections, becomes more likely. Land tenure institutions in African countries define landholders’ relations to each other, the state, and markets. Understanding these institutions, including how they come under pressure and change, goes far in explaining how and where land rights become politicized.

Article

The question of membership and belonging is widely recognized to have been at the root of many political crises in Africa since independence. The legal frameworks for citizenship were largely inherited from the colonial powers and still show strong affinities across colonial legal traditions. However, most African states have enacted significant amendments to citizenship laws since independence, as they have grappled with issues of membership, aiming to include or exclude certain groups. Substantive provisions have diverged significantly in several countries from the original template. African states have shared global trends toward gender equality and acceptance of dual citizenship. In relation to acquisition of citizenship based on birth in the territory (jus soli) or based on descent (jus sanguinis), there has been less convergence. In all countries, naturalization is inaccessible to all but a few. Manipulation of citizenship law for political purposes has been common, as political opponents have at times been accused of being non-citizens as a way of excluding them from office, or groups of people have been denied recognition of citizenship as a means of disenfranchisement. Moreover, even in states where a substantial proportion of residents lack identity documents, it seems that the rules on citizenship established by law have themselves had an impact on political developments. The citizenship status of many thousands of people living in different countries across Africa remains unclear, in a context where many citizens and non-citizens lack any identity documentation that records their citizenship. The content of the law is arguably therefore less influential than in some other regions. A rapid development in identification systems and the increasing requirement to show identity documents to access services, however, is likely to increase the importance of citizenship law. In response to these challenges, the African continental institutions have developed, through standard setting and in decisions on individual cases, a continental normative framework that both borrows from and leads international law in the same field.

Article

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.