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Article

The study of politics in the African Great Lakes region is not exempt from the epistemological hardships that often accompany the study of Africa more broadly: dehistoricization and simplification, analogies with the West, a decontextualized miserabilism, and poverty porn. Internal political processes, often visible from a bottom-up perspective, allow us to understand sociopolitical transformation and the meanings that local citizens give to them. In the case of the Great Lakes region, it is a question of understanding the complexity of politics through an articulation of the historical heritage in the longue durée, the strategies adopted by the elites in power, and the national, regional, and international strategies that influence them. It is necessary to abandon an analogic, exotic, culturalist, or romantic point of view that represents a way of understanding African dynamics that still bears the legacy of colonialism. Such an improved framework calls for a rigorous analysis comparing different ideological visions and theories of realities with the reality on the ground in the Great Lakes region.

Article

Oda van Cranenburgh

Democracy promotion in Africa became an increasingly important priority for Western donors in the late 1980s, with a growing normative consensus in support of democracy and human rights since that time. In practice, however, democracy promotion policies suffer from some flaws and inconsistencies and the nature of Africa’s hybrid and ambiguous regimes present severe challenges. The available evidence suggests that donor policies often reflect implicit concepts and theories that do not always reflect the reality on the ground. Moreover, since the turn of the millennium competing economic or strategic interests often trump the promotion of democracy and human rights. Significantly, donors do not always operate in the same way. More specifically, a review of recent activity suggests that donor governments tend to use a negative linkage strategy when they set conditions for economic aid and a positive linkage strategy when they support democratic institutions and processes. In both strategies, competitive elections occupy a central place. While this electoral focus entails limitations, the approach is marked by a clear focus and operationalization. By contrast, broader political approaches target human rights and the rule of law and strengthening of political institutions. These ambitious goals are difficult to achieve. Such policies work when they are based on adequate analysis of the specific institutional context, but they often run up against political challenges that are beyond the control of donors. The scholarship on democracy promotion agrees that positive change can be achieved where internal conditions are favorable and when policies take into account the specific political and institutional contexts in African countries. Broader long-term regime change, however, depends primarily on internal conditions, such as social and economic development, and requires donors to go beyond the “easy part” and address specific African contexts and specific institutional problems.

Article

During the anticolonial struggle and immediately after independence, African political leaders were preoccupied with the creation of a “nation-state.” As a result, many of postcolonial African leaders not only promoted national unity but also instituted centralized governance. Unity and centralization were considered important antidotes to the challenges of consolidating postcolonial states, which by and large were created by the partitioning of the continent by colonial powers. As a result, many of the postcolonial leaders were hostile to federalism in general and power-sharing in particular. This explains why many of the federal arrangements, which were created by departing colonial powers, were dismantled within the first few years after independence. In contrast to the earlier periods, the 1990s could be regarded as a turning point for federalism and devolution of power in the continent. Among African states, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and South Africa could be considered fully fledged federations, which have constitutionally devolved power to different tiers of governments. There is also an ongoing attempt to establish a federal system in war-torn Somalia. Some argue that, although federalism does not have a stellar record in postcolonial Africa, it is possible to contend that in the foreseeable future the importance of federalism will grow in the continent given the challenges that many African countries face in the management of their ethnolinguistic diversity. This is evidenced by the increasing application of the federalist principles of decentralization by several African countries.

Article

Since the late 1980s, historians have paid increasing attention to party politics and political movements in Africa. Recent work has emphasized the importance of World War II in transforming political constituencies, mobilizing opposition to colonial regimes, and encouraging new political imaginaries. Documenting these processes has also enabled a richer appreciation of the complexity of African publics, and the ongoing power demanded and asserted by women as well as men, non-elites as well as elites. In this way, the role of history has often been to tell important stories from the bottom up. Africanist historians’ interdisciplinary research methodologies, emphasizing local discourses and cultural frames, have also contributed to an increased understanding of the specificities of political participation and state practices in African countries. In turn, these insights represent a useful addition to—and in some cases revision of—existing accounts of “weak” African states and other notions of African dysfunction.

Article

In a seemingly virtual era, maritime commerce and shipping retain a central role in contemporary global capitalism. Approximately 90% of global imports and exports currently travel by sea on around 93,000 merchant vessels, carrying almost 6 billion tons of cargo. Oceanic mobility and long-distance networks of trade are made possible and sustained by the life and labor of over 1.25 million seafarers currently working at sea as well as regimes of global security and governance. Yet, this oceanic world and its role in shaping politics, sociality, and regulation remains, for the most part, obscured and hidden out of sight in everyday life. As one of the oldest perils at sea, maritime piracy is not only a daily threat to seafaring and global shipping but makes visible this oceanic world and the larger networks of security and regulation that govern maritime commerce. In recent years, coastal Africa, specifically the waters off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Guinea, has seen an unprecedented rise in incidents of maritime piracy. The geopolitical and global trade importance of these areas has led to numerous national, regional, and international military and legal responses to combat this problem. While often seen as a seaborne symptom of failed states or criminality, maritime piracy has a more complex relationship with land- and sea-based governance. Occurring primarily in spaces that are politically fragmented but reasonably stable maritime piracy is better understood as a practice of extraction and claim making on mobility that emerges from deeper historical contexts and is linked to land-based economies and politics. Emphasizing maritime piracy in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Guinea within these wider historical and geographic contexts highlights the imbrication of the political and economic in shaping the emergence and transformations of this practice. This is not to deny the violence that constitutes maritime piracy, but to locate piracy within larger processes of mobility, governance, and political economy on the African continent and beyond. In addition to impacting local communities, seafarers, and global shipping, maritime piracy is key to apprehending challenges to global governance from the vantage point of the world’s oceans.

Article

The African Union (AU), an international organization comprising all 54 independent states in Africa and Western Sahara, was established in May 2001 to, among other things, promote regional integration, interstate solidarity, peace, good governance and to enhance the African voice in the global system. Pan-African organization is like the proverbial forest that has bad trees dotted around its many good trees. The AU has been very successful in addressing the needs of the African political class but it is yet to make a significant difference in the lives of many ordinary Africans. The importance of the pan-African organization to African political elite is such that they would have created it today if it did not already exist. The AU has socialized African leaders to accept liberal values as the foundation of international cooperation in Africa; enhanced the agency of African political class on the world stage; and established progressive and innovative rules and norms for the African continent. It has also created many useful decision-making structures that have contributed to the prevention, management, and resolution of conflicts in Africa. The AU has, however, been less successful in connecting its activities and programs to many ordinary Africans; providing common public goods and services valued by commoners in Africa; giving voice to the majority of young people in Africa; promoting intra-Africa trade, good governance, and financial independence of the African continent as well as struggled to address the expressed material needs and quotidian concerns of ordinary Africans.

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

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

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

Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Chad are some of least researched countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Since independence from France in 1960 these four countries have experienced two distinct yet interrelated struggles: the struggle for statehood and the struggle for democracy. Each country has experienced violent conflict between the central authorities in the capitals and security challengers on the peripheries. Prominent examples are the Tuareg uprisings in Niger and Mali, the various rebel insurgencies in Chad, and the conflict between black Africans and Arabs in Mauritania. The emergence of jihadi-Salafi groups in the West African sub-region affects all four countries and poses a particularly strong security challenge to Mali. All these conflicts are unresolved. The liberalization of the political sphere in the late 1980s and early 1990s has led to considerable political diversity across the Sahel. In Niger and Mali meaningful multiparty competition and basic civil liberties have taken root despite many setbacks. Civil society is strong and in the past has successfully mobilized against autocratic tendencies. In Mauritania and Chad, democratic institutions exist on paper as autocratic rulers have managed to stay in office. The national armed forces remain the preeminent political actors. Civil society is not strong enough to achieve political change for the better. Stagnant living conditions, social immobility, the ongoing war against Islamic terrorism, and weak accountability mechanisms remain the most important political challenges for the Sahel.

Article

European colonialism in Africa was brief, lasting less than a century for most of the continent. Nevertheless, scholars have enumerated myriad long-term political effects of this brief period of colonial rule. First, Europeans determined the number, size, and shape of African states through their partition of the continent, with contemporary implications for state viability, strength, and legitimacy. Second, colonial rule influenced the nature of ethnic boundaries and their salience for politics through the use of indirect rule, language and labor policies, and the location of internal administrative boundaries. Third, colonial rule significantly shaped the nature of postcolonial state-society relations by divorcing the state from civil society during the colonial era and by engendering deep mistrust of the state as a benevolent actor. Fourth, many colonial institutions were preserved at independence, including the marriage of state institutions and customary rule, with deleterious effects. Fifth, differential colonial investments across communities and regions generated significant inequality, with continued political implications in the 21st century. The identification of these long-term effects has largely resulted from empirical comparisons across different forms of colonial rule, especially comparing territories administered by different colonial powers. Future research should move beyond this blunt approach, instead pursuing more disaggregated and nuanced measures of both colonial rule and its political legacies, as well as more scholarship on the long-term interaction between colonial and indigenous political institutions.

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

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

Survey evidence indicates that political corruption is more prevalent in Africa than in any other global region, though there is also evidence of considerable variation between countries in degrees of corruption and where it is most likely to be located. Traditional explanations for the frequency of corrupt political behavior emphasized the effects of conflicting values that were a consequence of the imposition of modern forms of bureaucratic government upon societies in which authority rested upon personalized relationships. Contemporary African corruption’s historic roots and its variation across the continent may be the effect of the disjuncture or “incongruency” between colonial and successor postcolonial states and the precolonial political settings upon which they were imposed. Modern neo-patrimonialism is a coping response by rulers and citizens to conditions fostered by economic scarcity and institutional incapacity. Since the 1990s, democratization and liberalization have supplied fresh incentives and opportunities for venal politicians and officials. And even among Africa’s more capable and resourceful states, the institutional fluidity generated by democratic transition and economic reform has opened up possibilities of systematically organized state capture. Consequences of corruption certainly further impoverish poor people, and it is likely that corruption also limits economic growth and distorts government efforts to promote development. It is arguable that in the past, corruption may have helped to facilitate political stability but this is less likely in 2018, as evidence emerges of its corrosive effects on public trust in institutions. African anti-corruption efforts are constrained by the extent to which political power is exercised through patronage but there are instances of successful action, sometimes the byproduct of factional struggles within the political elite. As of 2018, there is no clear evidence of trends in success or failure in the work of African anti-corruption agencies.

Article

Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni

The concept of the African Renaissance was popularized by Cheikh Anta Diop in the mid-1940s. But in 1906 Pixley ka Isaka Seme had introduced the idea of “regeneration” of Africa, while in 1937 Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria had engaged with the idea of a “renascent Africa,” both of which formed a strong background to the unfolding of the idea of African Renaissance. President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa made it the hallmark of his continental politics in the 1990s. Consequently, in 1998 South Africa became a host to an international conference on the African Renaissance and by October 11, 1999, Mbeki officially opened the African Renaissance Institute in Pretoria in South Africa. Scholars such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o picked up the theme and defined the African Renaissance as a “re-membering” of a continent and a people who have suffered from “dismembering” effects of colonialism and “coloniality.” “Coloniality” names the underside of Euro-North American-centric modernity, which enabled mercantilism accompanied by the enslavement of African people. The reduction of African people into tradable commodities (thingification and dehumanization) and their shipment as cargo across the Transatlantic Ocean formed the root cause of the underdevelopment of Africa. The rise of a capitalist world economic system involved the forcible integration of Africa into the evolving nexus of a structurally asymmetrical world system with its shifting global orders. The physical colonial conquest was accompanied by genocides (physical liquidation of colonized people), epistemicides (subjugation of indigenous knowledges), linguicides (displacement of indigenous African languages and imposition of colonial languages), culturecides (physical separation of African people from their gods and cultures and the imposition of foreign religions and cultures), alienations (exiling African people from their languages, cultures, knowledges, and even from themselves), as well as material dispossessions. The African Renaissance emerged as an anti-colonial phenomenon opposed to colonialism and coloniality. As a vision of the future, the African Renaissance encapsulated a wide range of African initiatives such as Ethiopianism, Garveyism, Negritude, pan-Africanism, African nationalism, African humanism, African socialism, Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), the demands for a New International Economic Order (NIEO), the various African economic blueprints including the Lagos Plan of Action (LPA) and New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) as well as the regional integration economic formations such as the Economic Community of West African Countries (ECOWAS) and the Southern Africa Economic Development Community (SADC), among many others. These liberatory initiatives have been framed by five waves of popular African movements/protests, namely: (a) the decolonization struggles of the 20th century that delivered “political decolonization”; (b) the struggles for economic decolonization that crystallized around the demands for NIEO; (c) the third wave of liberation of the 1980s and 1990s that deployed neoliberal democratic thought and discourses of human rights to fight against single-party and military dictatorships as well imposed austerity measures such as structural adjustment programs (SAPs); (d) the Afro-Arab Spring that commenced in 2011 in North Africa, leading to the fall some of the long-standing dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya; and finally (e) the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movements (Fallism discourse of liberation) that emerged in 2015 in South Africa, pushing forward the unfinished business of epistemological decolonization.

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

Globalization, or increased interconnectedness between world regions, is a dialectical and recursive phenomenon that consequently tends to deepen through time as one set of flows sets off other related or counterflows. This is evident in the history of the phenomenon in Africa, where transcontinental trade, and later investment, were initially small but have grown through different rounds including slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism, and the early 21st-century era of globalization. However, globalization on the continent, as in other places, is not unilinear and has generated a variety of “regional responses” in terms of the construction of organizations such as the African Union and other more popularly based associations. The phenomenon of globalization on the continent is deepening through the information technology “revolution,” which also creates new possibilities for regional forms of association.

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.