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Article

Support for democracy, human rights, and good governance reforms in Africa has become a prominent objective in engagement by European Union (EU) institutions, EU member states, and the United States with African countries since the early 1990s. Western actors have gradually increased democracy aid, used sanctions, and developed a range of other instruments to support political reforms on the continent. Academic research has analyzed the “substance” and “content” of political reforms that Western actors seek to promote, what instruments they use, and how effective these instruments are in different political contexts. This body of work comes to mixed conclusions as to whether and under what conditions external support has contributed to democratic reforms in African countries between 1990 and 2015. Yet, evidence suggests that external democracy support has made some positive contributions and has been more effective in Africa compared to other regions. However, after a period of 25 years during which democracy support gradually became an important element in the United States’ and European cooperation with African countries, this agenda is now under considerable pressure. Domestic challenges to democracy within Europe and the United States, domestic dynamics in African countries, and the rise of China as an alternative political model make it difficult for European and other external actors to contribute to political reforms on the continent. In this new era of uncertainty, there are three main areas to which policymakers as well as academic research should pay more attention. First, more debate is needed how the contestation of democratic norms in Europe and the United States affects not only the legitimacy but also the decision-making processes on democracy support. Second, more research is needed how urbanization, demographic change and digitalization and their combined effects influence political reforms in Africa and what implications emerge for democracy support. Finally, how China’s more proactive and assertive foreign policy will affect democracy support in Africa is an area that policy-makers and researchers should follow closely.

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

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

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

The multifaceted nature of decentralization, democracy, and development renders relationships among them ambivalent and conditional. It is certainly possible to decentralize in ways that foster local democracy and improvements in socioeconomic well-being. The empirical record, however, is mixed, and not only because the phenomena of interest have multiple dimensions and are open to interpretation. Whatever its form, decentralization is inherently political. In the African context, the extent and form of decentralization has been influenced by international support, the challenges of extending state authority in relatively young multi-ethnic states, and, increasingly, electoral considerations. By the 1980s, the broad consensus in the constructive developmental role of a strong central state that had characterized the immediate postwar period gave way to a growing perception of statist approaches as impeding democracy and, especially, development. For some, decentralization implied an expansion of popular participation that promised greater sensitivity to local knowledge and more responsiveness to local concerns. Others saw decentralization as part of a broader agenda of scaling back the central state, reducing its role, its size, and its costs. Yet others saw decentralization as part of a strategy of achieving sustainable natural resource management or political stability in post-conflict societies. By the early 1990s, a wide variety of international organizations were promoting decentralization and providing both financial and technical support for decentralization reforms. In the African context, political decisions about whether and how to decentralize reflect the continued salience of ethno-regional identities and non-state authorities, especially traditional or customary leaders. Incumbents may decentralize because they hope to consolidate their political position by crowding out or co-opting rivals, depoliticizing conflicts, or deflecting blame to subnational actors. Indeed, reforms made in the name of decentralization often strengthen the political center, at least over the short to medium term. Whether it attempts to co-opt or sideline them, decentralization interacts with and may reinforce the salience of ethno-regional identities and traditional authorities. To the extent that democracy presumes the equality of all citizens, regardless of ascribed status or identity, the reinforcement of ethno-regional identities and unelected authorities threatens democracy. The international spread of decentralization reforms coincided with the increasing prevalence of multiparty elections. In countries that hold elections, electoral considerations inevitably influence political interests in decentralization. Central government incumbents may view decentralization as a way to keep voters happy by improving access to and the quality of public services, as a form of political insurance, or as strengthening rivals. Whether incumbents and challengers view decentralization as a threat or an opportunity depends on not only the form of decentralization under consideration, but also their estimations of their competitiveness in elections at various levels (national, regional, local) and the interaction between the spatial distribution of electoral support and the electoral system. Electoral dynamics and considerations also influence the implementation and consequences of decentralization, perhaps especially when political rivals control different levels of government. Whether decentralization promotes democracy and development hinges on not only the form of decentralization, but also how broader political dynamics condition decentralization in practice.

Article

Between 1990 and 2015, 184 multicandidate presidential elections and 207 multiparty legislative elections were held in some 46 countries of sub-Saharan Africa. What does the routinization of multiparty electoral politics mean for political life in Africa? Much that is unexceptional and recognizable about African elections is well worth documenting, since most international accounts of African elections focus on their more exotic side. In fact, candidates engage in standard political rhetoric in mass rallies and undertake campaign stops around the country. Many make use of social media to communicate with citizens. Voters reward office holders who have delivered good economic performance; they pay attention to the professional backgrounds and personal qualities of candidates and their policy promises. Opposition parties win legislative seats and subnational offices, as well as the presidency, albeit more rarely. While the routinization of high-quality elections has deepened democracy in some countries, there is tremendous cross-national variation in election quality across the continent. The relationship between elections and democratic deepening is mediated by national political circumstances that vary across the region. Even in cases where incumbents do not resort to oppressive tactics during campaigns, the patterns of presidential dominance typically create tremendous incumbency advantage at the executive level. Elections neither necessarily advance nor prevent further democratization. Instead, they should be conceptualized as “political moments,” which temporarily create greater uncertainty and heightened attention to politics, which can either lead to democratic gains or bring about regression. However, citizens across the continent are resolute in their commitment to elections. As opposition parties gain greater experience in office, as an older political elite transition out of politics, and as voters continue to access unprecedented information, the continent is likely to experience a democratic deepening in the longer term.

Article

On a continent where the majority of people are poor, do political parties represent class cleavages? Do parties have strong linkages to ordinary voters? Do economic policies address their needs? In the initial years following democratic transitions across the African continent in the 1990s, the answers to such questions were negative. Clientelism and patronage were the principal means by which parties interacted with their constituencies; elites and elite interests determined the objectives of political parties; voters in many African countries shifted parties frequently; and neoliberal economic policies largely reflected the preferences of foreign donors and international financial institutions. As parties and voters have adjusted to the institutional arrangements and political demands associated with democracy, a more heterogeneous political landscape has materialized since 2010. Party systems demonstrate distinct patterns of variation, from the more stable, institutionalized systems in Ghana and Botswana to fluid, inchoate configurations in Benin and Malawi. These variations in the degree to which party systems have institutionalized affect economic policy choices by parties and those who benefit from them. Furthermore, democratic politics has intensified pressures on ruling parties to provide goods such as electricity and education. Here too, patterns of goods provision show substantial variation over time and across countries, calling attention to the differences in the incentives and capacities of parties to respond to distributive demands by the electorate. To explore the political and economic heterogeneity of contemporary Africa, scholars have combined well-established qualitative and comparative approaches with new analytical tools. The use of cross-national public opinion surveys, field and survey experiments, satellite imagery, and geo-coded data have enabled more systematic, fine-grained study of the economic determinants of party system competition, economic voting, the distribution of goods, and the management of private sector development by ruling parties in recent years. These empirical approaches enrich understanding of the relationship between parties and political economy in Africa and facilitate more fruitful comparisons with other regions of the world.

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

Danielle Resnick

Although widely used in reference to the Americas and Europe, the concept of populism has been less frequently applied to political dynamics in sub-Saharan Africa. Populism is variously viewed as a political strategy aimed at fostering direct links between a leader and the masses, an ideational concept that relies on discourses that conjure a corrupt elite and the pure people, and a set of socio-cultural performances characterized by a leader’s charisma, theatrics, and transgression of accepted norms. A cumulative approach that combines all three perspectives allows for identifying episodes of populism in Africa. These include historical cases of populist regimes in the 1980s as well as more contemporary examples of party leaders in the region’s democracies who use populism in their electoral campaigns to mobilize subaltern groups, especially those living in urban areas. As found in other regions of the world, those African leaders who have ascended to the presidency on the back of populism typically exert anti-democratic practices once in office. This reaffirms that populism can allow for greater representation of the poor and marginalized in the electoral process, but that populists’ celebration of popular will and supposedly unmediated ties to the people become convenient justifications for bypassing established institutions and undermining the rule of law.

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 sovereignty of postcolonial African states is largely derived from their recognition by other states and by the United Nations, irrespective of their actual effectiveness. Such international legal sovereignty has been a resource to weak African states, allowing them to endure against the odds, and to their rulers who have instrumentalized it to foster their domestic authority and domination. Yet, African sovereignty has also been a curse. Being exogenous to domestic social and political relations, it tends to isolate and shield rulers from the ruled and predisposes state institutions toward predation. It also standardizes and homogenizes the continent’s institutional landscape in disregard to the wealth and promise of effective institutional arrangements on the ground, to which it denies legitimacy. Despite the equilibrium properties of the African sovereignty regime, there might be opportunities to tweak the system in ways that could unleash more effective and accountable state and nonstate institutions.

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

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

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.