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.
Russell H. Kaschula and Michael M. Kretzer
Language policies in sub-Saharan African nations emerge out of specific political, historical, socioeconomic, and linguistic conditions. Education plays a crucial role for all spheres of language policy. Policies either upgrade or downgrade indigenous languages through their application at various educational institutions. The most significant example is the selection of the language(s) used as languages of learning and teaching at higher-education institutions. The region’s colonial history also influences the language policies of the independent African states. Language policy in Senegal is an example of a francophone country focusing on a linguistic assimilation policy in which minor reforms in favor of indigenous languages have taken place. Rwanda’s language policy is unique as the former francophone nation now uses English as an exoglossic language in a type of hybrid language policy. Botswana is an example of an anglophone country that follows a language policy that is dominated by a very close connection to the notion of nation-building through its concentration on a single language, Setswana, alongside English. Tanzania is an anglophone African country whose policy focuses on Kiswahili, which is one of the very few indigenous and endoglossic languages. Kiswahili is broadly used in Tanzanian educational institutions until the tertiary level, but its use as medium of instruction focuses on the primary level. South Africa demonstrates the very close relationship between general political decisions and language policy and vice versa. Language policy decisions are never neutral and are influenced by the politics of a specific country. As a result, individual and societal language attitudes influence language policies. In addition to this, the overt and official language policy on a macro level may differ from the implementation of such policies on a micro level. At the micro level, practice can include covert language practices by various stakeholders.
Africa is a place of low social trust. This fact is significant for understanding the politics and economics of the region, whether for questions of national unity or economic coordination and growth. One of the central ways in which trust and social relations have come to be examined within the social sciences is through the notion of social capital, defined as the norms and networks that enable collective action. Use of the concept of social capital has mushroomed in popularity within academia since the 1980s and has been used within African studies to interpret the developmental effects of social relations. It is important to review how researchers have been synthesizing the study of African societies with the social capital approach, and offer suggestions on how this can be better achieved. Specifically, there is contradiction between the view that social capital is useful for economic development and the view that social capital means a community can decide its own economic goals. Students of social capital in Africa must accept that the cultural and normative diversity of the continent necessitates appreciation of the diverse aims of social networks. This means a rejection both of modernist theories of development and postmodern reduction of human relations to forms of power exchange. Future research on trust and social capital in Africa must give weight to community articulations of motivations to trust, what activities count as communal, and what new economic cultures are being formed as a result of present communal varieties.
In recent decades, the efflorescence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) movements has created powerful inroads for sexual rights in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. While conditions for LGBTI people vary considerably between and within countries, activists across the region are reshaping political, legal, and social understandings of gender and sexuality through their advocacy, both by seizing opportunities and navigating periods of backlash and repression. Over the years, activists have established domestic movements and have expanded their reach to articulate demands in regional and international forums. Their work has challenged the universality of models developed in other parts of the globe and has generated new tactics to respond to religious, familial, and state-sponsored prejudice. At the same time, questions of representativeness, accountability, and strategy have been raised by constituencies and longtime activists alike, inviting critical assessments of movement politics in the region.
Catherine van de Ruit
Sub-Saharan Africa has the world largest proportion of adults and children living with AIDS. To mitigate the multiple consequences of the epidemic, novel forms of governance arose as international organizations usurped the roles traditionally played by states; new funding streams emerged that led to asymmetries in biomedical resource allocation; and diverse partnerships among international agencies, nation-states, and local and international nongovernmental organizations emerged. Global health actors attempted to define AIDS policy and programming as an apolitical biomedical intervention. However, political dynamics were evident in the negotiations between international donors and African state bureaucracies in setting AIDS policy agendas and the contestations between African and international social movements and global health agencies over AIDS treatment drug prices and access to treatment interventions across the continent. During the first two decades of the African AIDS epidemic (1980–2005) the dominant approach to AIDS disease mitigation was the focus on AIDS prevention, and across sub-Saharan Africa standardized prevention interventions were introduced. These interventions were founded upon limited evidence and ultimately these programs failed to stem rates of new HIV infections. Social movements comprising coalitions of local and international activists and scientists brought extensive pressure on global health institutions and nation-states to reform their approach to AIDS and introduce antiretroviral therapy. Yet the path toward universal provision of antiretroviral treatment has been slow and politically contentious. By the second decade of the 21st century, antiretroviral therapy interventions together with AIDS prevention became the dominant policy approach. The introduction of these initiatives led to a significant decline in AIDS-related mortality and slowed rates of transmission. However, health disparities in treatment access remain, highlighting ongoing shortcomings in the political strategies of global health agencies and the public health bureaucracies of African states.
Cristina Bodea and Christian Houle
A coup d’état is an all-around consequential event, and coups remain frequent in sub-Saharan Africa. Historically, ethnic inequality—the measure of income disparities at the level of ethnic groups—has been paid little attention as a potential cause of coups and other types of regime breakdown. More work exists on the relationship between ethnicity broadly construed and coup d’état, and in particular the role of unequal access to the military for different ethnic groups and the role of ethnic exclusion from political power. Our own work presents a theory that links “between” and “within” ethnic group income inequality to coup d’état initiated by ethnic groups. The argument is that high income and wealth inequality between ethnic groups, coupled with within-group homogeneity, increases the salience of ethnicity and solidifies within-group preferences vis-à-vis the preferences of other ethnic groups, increasing the appeal and feasibility of a coup. Empirical findings from sub-Saharan Africa support the main theoretical claim linking ethnic inequality to coup d’état. Additional evidence from sub-Saharan Africa and a larger global sample are consistent with the causal mechanisms. More remains to be researched in this area, however. Directions for future research include looking at the access of ethnic groups to the military, the intervening role of natural resources in the calculus of ethnic groups, and the role of ethnic inequality in incumbent takeovers.
Political party systems are an important element of political systems in Africa and elsewhere. They form the central intermediate institution between the general population and the government. Party systems represent and aggregate diverse political views and group interests, and they form coalitions that then form governments with potentially important consequences of democracy and political stability. Unlike the case in the period directly after independence, African party systems have been overwhelmingly multiparty since the 1990s. As a result, the literature has grown significantly, although most works focus on political parties rather than party systems. Many efforts have been devoted to classification, referring to the legal context as well as, more specifically, the number of relevant parties, the levels of institutionalization, and, less often, the degree of ideological or other polarization. While levels of institutionalization and ideological differences are generally not pronounced, more than half of African party systems have been one-party dominant, of which most are authoritarian. In contrast, two-party and pluralist-party systems, which make up approximately one half of all multiparty systems, are generally more democratic. Besides determining classifications, most analytical work focuses on the determinants of African party systems using quantitative and qualitative as well as macro- and micro-level methodologies. Three determinants are debated: first, ethnicity, which has been cited as the main social cleavage behind African party systems; however, while ethnicity matters, its effects vary and are limited; second, political institutions, especially electoral systems for legislative elections, which only partly explain fragmentation or other features; third, the performance of political parties and rationalist approaches. Scholars largely agree that all of these elements need to be taken into account. While certain functions of party systems may facilitate democratization and political stability or other outcomes, little empirical work exists on the consequences of party systems. Some evidence suggests that highly institutionalized, moderately fragmented, and polarized systems promote democracy. Future research faces many challenges, in particular the development of integrated theory and more fine-grained data, as well as an increased focus on the consequences of party systems.
Economic development involves increasing agricultural productivity, building technological capabilities among domestic firms, export diversification, and industrialization. In the 21st century of fragmented production processes dispersed globally, it also entails positioning domestic firms in global production networks in order to create wealth and employment as well as increasing production for a growing domestic market. Despite two decades of high levels of growth between the mid-1990s and mid-2010s, very few African countries have created manufacturing industries that are internationally competitive and have diversified their exports away from dependence on a few primary commodities, and most African countries still import the majority of their manufactured goods. Economic transformation does not emerge from the interplay of free market forces but rather requires proactive, targeted government policies. Such industrial policies include providing infrastructure, access to credit, and training labor but also incentivizing and assisting locally owned firms to build their technological capabilities in order to become internationally competitive. Well-conceived industrial policies are only successful if they are implemented, and that is much more difficult. African governments have been relatively less successful with implementing industrial policies, in the past and the present. They pursued ambitious industrial policies in the immediate post-independence period in the form of import-substitution industrialization strategies. At that time, industrial policies relied on the creation of state-owned enterprises, as in other regions of the world, but unlike in other developing countries, these strategies did not support private firms as well. This trend is explained by the political settlements in the newly independent African countries, which were generally characterized by a small domestic capitalist class with low capabilities. The experience accumulated during the import-substitution period was undermined by rapid trade liberalization and privatization in the 1980s and 1990s. Liberalization and privatization opened up new economic opportunities and shifted the locus of capital accumulation from the state sector to the private sector, while democratization and elections created pressure on political leaders to find more political financing with which to maintain their ruling coalitions and to find it through avenues outside of the state, including starting their own businesses. Ruling elites’ strategies for political survival inevitably became intertwined with government strategies to promote economic development. Whether or not contemporary African governments pursue industrial policies and are able to implement them depends on how ruling coalitions are formed within the distribution of power in a particular society. No set of ruling elites is ever completely autonomous. What matters is how coalitional pressures shape the political costs of certain policies and the ability to implement them, given the resistance or support from powerful groups within and outside the ruling coalition. This is because industrial policies require decisions about resource allocation and institutional changes that usually are contested by some group in society and because they entail creating, allocating, and managing economic rents.
In a liberal conception of democracy, courts play an important role in facilitating the rule of law by controlling the abidance to rules and by holding the political branches of government accountable. The power of constitutional review is a crucial element for exercising horizontal accountability. Courts across Africa are vested with the power of constitutional review, and, generally speaking, their independence has substantially increased since the beginning of the 1990s—although African courts enjoy overall less independence than the global average for courts’ independence. Within the African region, the level of judicial independence varies widely, between contexts that rarely allow judicial independence and contexts where courts have more power to challenge the government. Furthermore, across the continent, African courts experience undue interference—which frequently takes place informally. Informal interference can occur through the biased appointments of judges, verbal and physical threats, violent attacks, the payment of bribes, or the ouster of sitting judges. Informal networks—held together by ties based on shared educational trajectories, common leisure activities, religion, kinship relations, or political affiliations—are the channels through which such pressure can be transmitted. Yet judges also can actively build informal networks: namely, with the legal community, civil society, and international donors, so as to insulate themselves against undue interference and to increase institutional legitimacy. Research has shown that the agency of judges and courts in signaling impartial decision-making, as well as in reaching out to society, is crucial to constructing legitimacy in the African context. In contrast, the explanatory power of electoral competition as an incentive for power holders to support judicial independence is not straightforward in the context of Africa’s political regimes, where the prospect of losing office is associated with financial, and in some cases even physical, insecurity. However, research on judicial politics in Africa is still only preliminary, because the field requires more comparative studies in order to fully reveal the political repercussions on Africa’s judiciaries as well as to delineate the scope conditions of the prominent theories explaining judicial independence.