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Activism of Political Parties in Africa

Summary and Keywords

Since the early 1990s, African states have been democratizing. Political parties now dominate the public spaces in many African democracies. The past 26 years have witnessed the growth and consolidation of “party democracy” in Africa. This is the longest period of uninterrupted growth of electoral politics in many countries on the continent. Recent Afrobarometer surveys show that almost two-thirds (63%) of Africans support pluralistic politics. Party identification in sub-Saharan Africa has also been on the rise. Across 16 states Afrobarometer surveyed, a majority of Africans (65%) claim they “feel close to” a political party in their country. The mass public who identified with a particular political party increased by 7 percentage points between 2002 and 2015.

Political parties are the vehicles for citizens to engage in party activism. The women and men who join a political party become the party activists. Party activists are the lifeblood of the party organization. And political party activism in sub-Saharan Africa is geared toward the election of the party and its candidates into office. Consequently, party activism is a continuum of high-intensity and low-intensity political activities. Party activists vary in their levels of involvement. Thus, it is a mixture of fanfare and aggressive participation. Political party activism is a multifaceted process where party members undertake any of the following political activities: display a poster, donate money, help with fund-raising, deliver election leaflets, help at a party function, attend party meetings, undertake door-to-door campaigning, and run for party office. The involvement of party members usually varies from active engagement to passive attachment to the party. There were several motives for party activists getting involved in “high-intensity participation.” Because of the crucial role party activists play in the intra- and inter-party competition, the parties provide some incentives to get members commitment. At the organizational level, party activists present themselves for election into party offices at the grassroots, regionally or nationally. They devote their time and financial resources in furtherance of the party agenda. In return, party activists expect the party to reward them with selective incentives when power is won. That said, more research is required at the country level to enable us to construct the profile of the African party activists.

Keywords: activism, political party, multiparty, elections, membership, two-party systems, dominant party system, African politics


Political party activists play an important role in the democratic process. Party members work in the party organization. Indeed, party activists are expected to build the organizational visibility of the party at the local and national levels by campaigning and presenting themselves for elections (Scarrow, 1996, pp. 145–146). Bogaards (2013a, p. 265) captured the centrality of political parties when he noted that “modern democracy is party democracy.” Party theorists have emphasized the crucial roles parties play in representative institutions (Aldrich, 2011; Mair, 1997; Scarrow, 2006, 2007; Strom, 1990; Stokes, 1999). Parties provide leadership for executive and legislative positions. The party governments “set the policy agenda and drive the policy process through the parliamentary system” (Dalton, Farrell, & McAllister, 2011, p. 4). Parties mobilize citizens to participate in the political process (Di Nunzio, 2014; LeVan, Page, & Ha, 2018; Osei, 2013). Consequently, parties are the “primary linkage” that connect the mass population and the government, thereby facilitating the representative process (Dalton et al., 2011, p. 5; Aldrich, 2011). Despite the important functions parties play in representative democracies, there are studies documenting the decline of party membership, and by extension a decline in political party activism (Aldrich, 2011; Coleman, 1996; Dalton & Wattenberg, 2002; Webb, Farrell, & Holliday, 2002; Whiteley, Seyd, & Billinghurst, 2006). The evidence backing the challenges parties face are based on a small activists base, declining electoral turnouts, the rise of voter volatility, falling levels of party identifications, and the decline in party membership numbers (Dalton & Wattenberg, 2002; Mair, 2005; Whiteley, 2011; Whiteley et al., 2006). In contrast, Dalton and his colleagues (2011) put forth a compelling argument that parties are not in decline. Rather, parties in advanced democracies are adapting to the ever-changing party environment.

In Africa, the party politics literature is based on small-N case studies. These empirical studies can be grouped into three broad periods. Earlier studies focused on the nature of the various democratic transitions; the second phase analyzed the conduct and nature of elections; and recent studies are continuing to examine internal party democracy, political behavior, party mobilization strategies, the nature of power alternations, and the quality of democracy on the continent. In several of these studies, party politics have occupied a central place.

Competitive multiparty systems, two-party dominant systems, and one-party dominant systems now characterize the electoral landscape of Africa. The past 26 years have witnessed the growth and consolidation of both genuine electoral democracies (e.g., Benin and Ghana) and “electoral dictatorships” (e.g., Uganda and Zimbabwe) in Africa. Indeed, this is the longest period of uninterrupted growth of party politics in many countries in the continent (Bob-Milliar & Paller, 2018; Bogaards, 2013b; Cheeseman, 2015; Daddieh, 2009, 2011; Lynch & Crawford, 2011). Recent public opinion surveys conducted by Afrobarometer show that almost two-thirds (63%) of Africans support multiparty competition. Popular support for electoral politics in Africa has increased by 11 percentage points (Afrobarometer, 2018). Yet political participation in Africa is now heavily concentrated in elections (Bogaards, 2013b; Cheeseman, 2010; Lindberg, 2006b). As a consequence, Africa’s democratization appears to be stuck in a “democratic recession” (Diamond, 2015). Indeed, across many states, authoritarianism is making a comeback in civilian regimes.

Few studies have examined the electoral behavior of party activists in Africa. Indeed, many of the studies have only mentioned party activists in passing (e.g., Cheeseman & Hinfelaar, 2010; Osei, 2013). We therefore lack knowledge on the profile of party members in terms of their political attitudes, beliefs, and social background. Furthermore, scholarship on the nature of party activism in competitive multiparty systems, two-party dominant systems, or one-party dominant systems is also lacking. Yet governing parties tend to have a larger following compared to opposition parties. Some party members become more politically active than others. The party members and supporters who become active or show commitment to the activities of the party are here referred to as party activists. And the totality of political activities undertaken to support office seekers or a party program in local or national elections is referred to as political party activism. Party members who run for office are said to be undertaking a “high-cost activity”; those who display an election poster are said to be engaged in “low-cost activity” (Whiteley et al., 2006, p. 91). Political party activism is the process whereby citizens who hold formal party membership or self-identify with a particular political party participate actively in the activities of the party. However, party members are likely to engage in high-intensity political activities that include attending branch meetings, fund-raising, running for office, and canvassing for votes. The low-intensity political activities that are likely to be undertaken by party supporters include donating money, displaying posters, and delivering campaign leaflets (Whiteley et al., 2006). When this is expressed in terms of costs, Whiteley et al. (2006, p. 92) claim that party “supporters undertake much less costly forms of participation than the activists.” African party activists and supporters play similar roles in electoral contests in democratic states. However, in terms of the cost elements associated with party activism, the context is important in Africa. For example, donating money to support a party or its candidates in local or national elections is a high-intensity activity in many African states. Increasingly, elections have become very expensive in Africa. A study by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy/CDD-Ghana (“Cost of politics,” 2017) found that the cost of running for elective office in Ghana increased by 59% between 2012 and 2016. The study notes: “On average [Ghanaian] candidates needed to raise GH₵389,803 (approx. US$85,000) to secure the party primary nomination and compete in the parliamentary election in their constituency” (p. 5). By all accounts money is valued more than any other high-intensity political activities in the electioneering process. Parties in Africa mobilize the mass population to support their agenda in national elections and in government (Di Nunzio, 2014; Osei, 2013). Party activists play crucial roles in intra-party and inter-party organs. At the organizational level, party activists engage in several activities, including canvassing for votes, mobilizing resources, and presenting themselves for election into party offices at the grassroots, regionally or nationally. They devote their energy, time, and financial resources to the party they support. In return, party activists expect the party to reward them when power is won (Bob-Milliar, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2018; Di Nunzio, 2014). This article examines political party activism in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Drawing on data from Afrobarometer surveys and other sources, it argues that political party activism is a multifaceted process whereby party activists and supporters either work for or support the party with their resources (including money, energy, and skills). This article is structured as follows: The section “Political Activism: Existing Theoretical Explanations” reviews the existing theoretical explanations of political party activism. Attention is paid to explanations that account for why some citizens participate in political activities while others do not. The nature of party activism in Africa is the focus “Explaining Party Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa.” The third section, “Party Identification and Party Membership in SSA” asks what membership means to the individual or the party? The motives for engaging in party activism in Africa’s electoral democracies is the focus of “Party Activism: Some Motives for Political Engagement.” The final section of the paper is the “Conclusion.”

Political Activism: Existing Theoretical Explanations

The centrality of party activists in party politics has resulted in several studies. Political scientists have tried to explain the motivations for active political participation, a process Whiteley and Seyd (2002) described as “high-intensity participation.” In seeking to answer why some rational citizens become active participants in the processes that produce collective goods, the democratization literature has focused on the motivational basis for active political engagement. Consequently, this section reviews the main theoretical explanations for active political participation.

Rational choice theorists have problematized political participation into what they called the “paradox of participation” (Granik, 2005; Olson, 1965). British academics, Whiteley and Seyd (2002) have attempted a comprehensive synthesis of the competing theoretical explanations in the extant literature. Five broad explanations resulted from the synthesis of Whiteley and Seyd. These explanations, it must added came out of the varied Western democratic experiences. Political party activism can be explained by engaging the following approaches: rational choice model (Aldrich, 1993; Downs, 1957; Jackman, 1993; Tsebelis, 1990); the civic voluntarism model (Verba & Nie, 1972; Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995); the social-psychological model (Finkel et al., 1989; Muller, 1979); the mobilization model (Verba et al., 1995); and the general incentives model (Seyd & Whiteley, 1992; Whitely & Seyd, 2002).

Rational choice theorists have explained political activism by invoking human rationality. Anthony Downs, a key proponent of this school of thought, frames his theory in human behavior. He assumes that human beings are rational and will act rationally when confronted with choices. According to Downs (1957, p. 6), the rational person “always makes the same decision each time he is confronted with the same alternatives.” Several writers have critiqued Downs’s theoretical assumptions. An important question that has arisen is why should a “rational man or woman” participate in the realization of common goods? The “paradox of participation” (Granik, 2005; Olson, 1965) is thus activated. The end product of political participation is the production of public goods for the consumption of all citizens. As a result, public goods by their nature are available to everyone irrespective of his or her contributions to the realization of those public goods. For example, whereas a road constructed with public funds can be used by all, a privately funded road network is likely to be tolled. The claim is that rational and self-interested individuals will not participate in the production of collective goods. Whiteley and Seyd (2002) and Granik (2005) introduced a precondition for active political engagement. For these authors, the rational man or woman will agree to participate in the production of collective goods when “selective incentives” are available. “Selective incentives” have the ability to compel rational beings to partake in the production of public goods. This explains why some Africans join a political party and become active.

The resources model is another explanation for political activism. This model was first developed in the work of Verba and Nie (1972). Building on their earlier work, Verba et al. (1995) proposed the Civic Voluntarism Model (CVM) to explain the “why” and “how” of citizens involvement in the political process. Three factors are at the heart of the theory: resources, engagement, and recruitment (Verba et al., 1995, p. 288). According to the theory, political activism is impossible without the availability of resources. The authors defined resources to include time, money, and civil skills (p. 271). The expectation is that wealthy individuals will support a political party with their resources. Resources in the form of education count when it comes to party activism (Whiteley et al., 2006, p. 96). Indeed, it was reported by Whiteley et al. (2006) that party members have more resources in terms of better educational attainments, higher incomes, and higher-status class characteristics than voters.

The social psychological model explains unconventional forms of political participation. Muller’s (1979) seminal work, titled Aggressive Political Participation, examined the factors that induce radical political engagement. Political protests and rebellion are the commonest forms of political participation that dominate the social psychological literature. This theory is preoccupied with explaining the correlation between attitudes and behavior (Whiteley & Seyd, 2002, p. 45).

The mobilization model explains political activism in relation to political opportunities within a particular environment and the “stimuli from other people” (Whiteley & Seyd, 2002, p. 48). “Some citizens participate because the opportunities for them to do so are greater than for other people and also because they are persuaded to get involved by other people” (Whiteley & Seyd, 2002, p. 48). The socioeconomic status (SES) of a citizen is very significant. Affluent citizens are likely to have access to political information more than lower-class citizens. The opportunities for participation are not available to everyone within the population. Therefore, the contact between resources and opportunities mobilizes some citizens to get involved in politics (Whiteley & Seyd, 2002). Similarly, societal pressures for political engagement are linked to the availability of resources. Consequently, high-status individuals are more likely to participate than those from a low-status background (Whiteley & Seyd, 2002).

The general incentives perspective is the final theory in the five categories (Whiteley & Seyd, 2002). This theory is a synthesis of the rational choice and the social psychological models. The authors advanced the theory to “explain the incidence of high-intensity types of participation” (p. 51). These include attending meetings, canvassing for votes, and running for elective office. The central claim of the theory is that citizens need “incentives to ensure that they participate in politics” (p. 51). The theory envisaged a wider spectrum of incentives beyond individual incentives. Three types of selective incentives were proposed: process, outcome, and ideological (p. 52). The motives for engaging in partisanship that result from the process of participation are referred to as the “process incentives” (Whiteley & Seyd, 2002). The motives concerned with attaining private goals in the political process are called selective outcome incentives (Whiteley & Seyd, 2002). For example, a party activist may have ambition to be a cabinet minister. “Thus outcome incentives measure the private returns from participation associated with developing a political career as an elected representative of the party” (p. 52). The final selective incentive is ideology. Ideological motivation is likely to influence the rank-and-file members of a party to be more radical. In sum, incentives are important for influencing the decision to join a political party.

Party activism, according to Whiteley et al. (2006, p. 90), “is not a dichotomous variable, with members either being active on the one hand or inactive on the other.” Some members are inactive at one point of the scale, and others are full-time activists at the opposite end of the scale. This observation makes party activism a continuous process (Whiteley et al., 2006). In between the continuum “lies a distribution of members who vary in their levels of activism.” Those party members who pay their membership dues and vote for the party in elections are at the inactive end of the scale. On the opposite end of the scale are party activists who run for elective offices within the party organization, regularly attend party meetings, and are visible in party election campaigns.

Two important conclusions are drawn from the Whiteley et al. review. The civic voluntarism and general incentives models could be used to explain why Africans join and become active in political parties. The civic voluntarism model emphasizes the importance of individual resources and the extent to which individuals are mobilized by others. On the other hand, the core assumption of the general incentives model is that individuals need incentives if they are to participate in high-intensity politics. Nonetheless, party activism can be explained by a combination of the individual’s psychological attachment, and his or her judgments about the costs and benefits of partisan attachment. Resources play a crucial role in political engagement, but it appears that incentives, above all else, are important in influencing an individual’s decision to be active in a party. Consequently, political party activism is driven by incentives of various kinds. In “Explaining Party Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa,” the article discusses party activism in contemporary Africa.

Explaining Party Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa

Generally, studies on political parties and party activism in Africa have been significantly influenced by Western European scholarship (Erdmann, 2004). Political parties as political organizations are expected to mobilize citizens to participate in the political process (see Ayee, 2008). At the organization level, the parties are expected to recruit and mentor potential leaders for political and public office. And the list of all possible political activities that party activists engage in includes general activities such as participating in political campaigns, displaying an election poster, donating money to the party, fundraising, and representing the party on internal and external bodies or election-related activities such as canvassing for votes and delivering campaign leaflets (Whiteley et al., 2006). All politically related activities have cost implication for the party activists. Some activities are “more costly in terms of time and effort, fewer party members got involved” (p. 90). Whiteley et al. (2006) points out that there are “different scales of participation” (p. 90). Although some party activists prefer the low-cost activities, others engage in high-cost activities. It must be added that there is no clear demarcation of party engagement. Many more members undertake both low- and high-cost activities in the course of election campaigns.

A greater majority of parties in Africa are structurally and ideologically weak (Lindberg, 2006a; Makara, 2010; Raker & van de Walle, 2009; Randall & Svasand, 2002; De Walle & Butler, 1999). Yet one defining character is that all parties seek votes to govern the state. The structures that give a political organization its identity are missing in many states. Consequently, many parties only functioned at the governmental level when they were in power. State resources available to the governing party’s politicians kept such parties well oiled. Opposition parties that have never governed and have no significant members in parliament usually put party activism into hibernation until the next election. The common nominator between the party in government and the party in opposition was their inability to maintain party structures at the grass roots. Beyond urban centers, party structures were not visible, and they remain inactive and dormant in between elections. The interest aggregation function of parties was sidelined in many countries. Increasingly, parties have become electoral machines (Cheeseman, 2010).

A dataset built from electronic sources shows that a total of 1,445 political parties have contested national elections in SSA since 1990.1 With the exception of Eritrea and Swaziland (recently renamed eSwatini), all states in Africa allow the existence and operation of political parties (Bogaards, 2013a). In some countries, parties have merged to form coalitions to contest national elections. Although a total of 338 parties contested elections in Central Africa, the West Africa region recorded the most party contests, 558 election contests. The East Africa zone recorded 381 parties contesting in national elections. Uganda embraced democracy without the involvement of political parties. Individuals were voted for based on merit (Makara, 2010). It was only in the 2005 elections that political parties were allowed to present candidates for elections. With its dominant party systems, the Southern Africa region recorded 161 parties contesting in elections. South Africa has more than 140 registered political parties. Comparatively, West Africa, despite its history of authoritarian rule, appeared to be the most fertile region for political parties to grow. The inter-country level analysis shows that Senegal has the most registered political parties. With a population of 15.5 million, Senegal has 60 registered parties. The regional and continental giant, Nigeria with a population of 186 million, has 68 registered parties. In the Central Africa zone, DR Congo leads with the number of registered political parties. With 135 parties, the DR Congo has four times the total number of registered parties in Gabon. Despite, its difficult terrain for opposition activists to operate, Ethiopia has the highest number of registered political parties in East Africa.

The multiparty systems that undergird the democratic systems in operation in SSA partly account for the large numbers of political parties in a single country. Additionally, electoral laws regulating the formation and operations of parties are not stringent enough to discourage fame seekers. For example, during the transition to civilian rule in 1993, Ghana had 13 registered political parties. The number has increased to 33 parties. Yet it is only the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP) that have alternated power in Ghana’s Fourth Republic. They have alternated parliamentary majorities for two and half decades. In this Ghanaian example, the “also-rans” have neither “blackmail potential” nor “coalition potential” (Nugent, 2001; Sartori, 1976). Therefore, we need to look beyond the Sartorian theory of relevance to make sense of the large number of opposition parties in each country. The “big-man” syndrome may explain the large number of irrelevant parties on the registers of electoral commissions. Leading a party in national elections has its symbolic and economic value for the party founder and other key figures. Party leaders are accorded courtesies and the business-inclined ones use the platform provided during the election campaign period to publicize their name and network and make relevant connections. The Ugandan opposition, for example, is unable to unseat the Museveni-led National Resistance Movement (NRM) because some leaders of minor parties mortgaged their parties to the NRM in the national election (see Abrahamsen & Bareebe, 2016).

Africans now enjoy some civil liberties and rights, more so than any period in the continent’s history. Political party activism has thus been Africanized in the sense that the motivation for active political engagement has varied between the various democratic regimes and intra-states in the continent. Accompanying party activism was the emergence of several varieties of party types and systems that influence party activism in different states. LeBas’s (2011) work has examined party politics in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Kenya. She has shown how fragmentation and organizational weakness has characterized opposition politics. The implication of LeBas’s work is that party activism is likely to be low within fragmented parties or parties with weak organizations. Similarly, the behavior of activists of parties that carried legacies of authoritarianism is likely to be different from the new parties that came into being after the political transitions (Arriola, 2013; Carbone, 2008; Elischer, 2013; Riedl, 2014). For example, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the NRM of Uganda transferred values and habits associated with undemocratic periods to the current liberal environment (Di Nunzio, 2014; Makara, 2017).

Different party system types have characterized different zones of the continent. The southern Africa region has many dominant parties. The BDP and the African National Congress (ANC) have won all national elections since 1965 and 1994, respectively. Yet survey reports show that the political opposition in these dominant party systems are gradually making inroads into the strongholds of the governing parties. For example, Botswana’s BDP, in power since 1966, has been able to maintain a majority of parliamentary seats, although its share of the popular vote declined to 46.7% in 2014 (Graham, 2012). According to the Afrobarometer Round 5 survey, the mass of the populations of five southern African countries with dominant parties supports the existence of opposition parties (Graham, 2012). Nevertheless, the distribution of power and resources in dominant party systems is skewed in favor of ruling parties. In one-party dominant systems, party activism is heavily influenced by the character of the governing party. For instance, the governing party tends to abuse its incumbency. State resources were deployed for the campaign efforts of the party, including using state resources to recruit party activists to support the party (Di Nunzio, 2014; Makara, 2010). Di Nunzio’s (2014) analysis of the 2010 Ethiopian general elections shows how the dominant party mobilized young voters using state resources. The EPRDF recruited young activists from several youth organizations, using small-scale entrepreneurship programs. Di Nunzio (2014, p. 412) points out that “with these programmes, the ruling party sought not only to tackle the predicaments of Addis Ababa’s marginalized youth, but also to mobilise them.”

In contrast, there is dynamism in party activism in regimes with competitive multiparty systems or two-party dominant systems. For example, in West Africa, Ghana’s two-party system is undergirded by two major parties of almost equal strength and popularity (Daddieh & Bob-Milliar, 2014; Osei, 2013). The two major parties in Ghana, the NDC and NPP, have each served eight years in government and in opposition. Osei (2013, p. 548) observes that “in Ghana, political parties are objects of passionate support.” Party activism is a mixture of traditional forms of campaigning and the use of social media. As the party system has institutionalized, each of the two main parties has devised means to maintain the commitment of party activists over the years. Similarly, with the coming into office of the Buhari-led All Progressive Congress (APC) in 2015, party politics in Nigeria is now dominated by two main parties: the APC and the main opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP). The APC successfully mobilizes working-class voters, using what LeVan et al. (2018) call the “talakawa effect,” to emerge victorious in the 2015 national elections.2 The victory of the APC clearly shows the role of the party members or supporters in influencing voting behavior in Nigeria’s 2015 general election. Who are the party members and what is their level of involvement in party activities? The next section examines party identification and party membership in SSA.

Party Identification and Party Membership in SSA

Party activists in Africa fall within the continuum of activism—active and inactive members. Political parties usually have scores of followers and sympathizers in many states (Di Nunzio, 2014; LeVan et al., 2018; Makara, 2017; Osei, 2013). Party loyalty is unquestionably very high in many countries. Parties and candidates mobilize citizens to support the party platform during elections and the party programs when governing. Although survey data show party identification, little is known about the profile of party members, including their social background. As a result, voter behavior may be the proxy to what we have as the profile of party activists or supporters. The majority of the electorate in many African states usually affiliates with the incumbent party: members switch sides when another party is governing. Party identification, affiliation, and party membership are difficult concepts in the African political behavior literature. Yet party identification is the most significant concept in the electoral behavior literature (Dalton, 2016). According to Dalton (2016, p. 1), “Party identification is an early-socialized, enduring, affective, psychological identification with a specific political party.” The importance of party identification is seen in election surveys. The practice of surveying the electorate to determine their partisan attachment began in the United States. The questions asked in many U.S. election surveys were modified and used in election surveys elsewhere in Western Europe (Dalton, 2016). However, partisan attachment is at an all-time low in many advanced democracies (Whiteley, 2011).

In several rounds of self-reported Afrobarometer surveys, African respondents were asked the questions: “Do you feel close to any particular political party?” and, if yes, “Which one?” The results show that party identification in Africa has been on the rise. Across 16 states tracked since 2002, a majority of Africans (65%) claimed they “feel close to” a political party in their country, although 29% of citizens are not close to any party in their country (Afrobarometer, 2018). The mass public who identified with a particular political party increased by 7 percentage points between 2002 and 2015 (Afrobarometer, 2018). The country-level surveys vary between politically stable and economically endowed states and poor ones. For instance, according to the Round 5 survey conducted between 2011 and 2013, party identification was very high for the ruling party in South Africa: 44% of respondents self-identified with the ANC, and 10% with the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) (Graham, 2012). Party identification also varied between urban and rural areas. As a result, many more citizens in Cape Town identified with the DA than the ANC.

Region or province and ethnic group identification is prominent in the electoral politics literature in Africa. Regions or provinces may identify with a particular party. The region’s attachment to the particular party is reflected in the votes or the number of seats the party wins in national or local elections. These areas are also called the party strongholds. Uganda’s ruling NRM popularity continues to decline in Kampala, the national capital: Kampala residents identify with the opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Similarly, in Ghana, the Upper East, Upper West, Northern, and Volta regions strongly identify with the NDC, whereas the Eastern and Ashanti regions identify with the NPP (Bob-Milliar, 2011). The ethnic group–party linkage is well explored in the empirical literature. In these studies, the loyalty or likeness of a prominent politician from an ethnic group is transferred to the party he or she leads in national elections (Cheeseman & Hinfelaar, 2010).

The party followers are not necessarily party members. Formal party membership imposes some conditions on members. Many parties encounter challenges in maintaining a clean register of members. The individual signing up for membership with an opposition party is frowned upon in “electoral dictatorships.” The continent’s history of authoritarian rule partly accounts for this behavior. In countries like Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Uganda, and Ethiopia, for example, the transition to multiparty politics was initiated by authoritarian regimes. The regime supporters were able to embark on mass membership registration drives in urban and rural areas. That was not the case for the opposition parties. Indeed, membership in an opposition party was interpreted as open dissent to the ruling parties. In Ghana, for example, the Rawlings-led Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC) government was able to mobilize its supporters to transfer their loyalty to the NDC, the new party he founded in 1992. The opposition, on the other hand, struggled to recruit members in the rural areas. Nevertheless, membership recruitment drives have improved across several states in Africa. Between elections, parties are able to embark upon recruitment drives.

There are three party membership categories in many political parties. Based on SES and attitudinal and behavioral traits, three profile categories of activists were suggested in an empirical study conducted in Ghana (see Bob-Milliar, 2012). At the party hierarchy is the first category of party activists, and this group is comprised of wealthy individuals from the professional and business class. This category of activists has resources. In Nigeria, former army generals, oil tycoons, and local chiefs who are politically active are called “party godfathers” (Hoffmann, 2010; Omotola, 2007). Persons in this category, who may be described as reluctant democrats, use their resources to sponsor candidates for office. The second category of party activists is called “platform activists.” This group is comprised of college and university graduates (see Bob-Milliar, 2012). The resources they bring to party activism are their educational attainment, organizational skills, and energy. This group dominates the youth wings of many political parties in Africa. For example, the ANC Youth League, one of the oldest youth organizations on the continent, mobilizes South African youth to support the party’s agenda. The final category of party activists is the party foot soldiers/grass-roots mobilizers (Bob-Milliar, 2012). They are the least educated in the three categories; however, they have the “can-do” mentality, and they play a major role in party organization, assisting political parties and candidates in both local and national elections.

In several African states recruitment into parties now start at the tertiary education level. The political party youth wings have established branches in many public colleges and universities. The ANC Youth League is active in South African universities. In Ghana, the two main parties have established youth wings in all tertiary institutions. The Tertiary Education Institutions Network (TEIN) was created by the NDC as a platform for students in Ghana’s tertiary institutions. Similarly, the NPP founded the Tertiary Students Confederacy (TESCON) on January 8, 2000. Both TEIN and TESCON have been at the forefront of student political activism in Ghana. The parties’ members now dominate student politics in the Student Representative Councils (SRCs). Furthermore, parties target other professional associations for recruitment into their fold. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) was the natural ally of social democratic parties. The relationship the TUC enjoyed with governing parties in the past no longer holds in contemporary times.

In Ethiopia, the governing EPRDF mobilized young women and men for the party’s campaign efforts in the 2010 elections. According to Di Nunzio (2014, p. 412), the unemployed youth based in urban Addis Ababa “were believed to be the main protagonists of demonstrations in support of the opposition.” Consequently, tackling youth unemployment was a key strategy of the government to increase its party membership. The Leagues and the Forums were two organizations established by the government. Di Nunzio (2014, p. 419) notes, “The Leagues are mass associations directly linked to the ruling party. They formally work as political wings of the EPRDF and expressly aim to spread support for the ruling party among young people and women.” On the other hand, Forums, also created by the government, were envisaged to perform a social function: “their duty mainly consists of bridging the gap between communities and the government by running meetings and passing on information about government policies” (Di Nunzio, 2014, p. 419). Nonetheless, the activities and memberships of the Leagues and Forum overlap. The EPRDF increased its membership from the Leagues and Forum, from 760,000 in 2005 to more than 4 million in 2008 (Di Nunzio, 2014, p. 419). In the 2010 election, EPRDF activists organized campaign rallies in the national capital and in many rural areas, including undertaking door-to-door campaigning. Di Nunzio’s study shows the role of the party members in influencing voting behavior in the 2010 Ethiopian general election. EPDEF local campaigns were important in influencing electoral behavior. In light of this discussion, we turn next to the task of explaining the motives for active political engagement in Africa.

Party Activism: Some Motives for Political Engagement

What factors influence some Africans to become active in political parties? And how do we measure their involvement in party activism? Furthermore, we need to understand how active participation varies among the party members in internal and external competitions. This section discusses the factors that influence “high-intensity participation” in contemporary Africa. As Scarrow rightly notes, “party members are at the heart of” of the democratic process. All social groups join parties, but some become very active. The nonavailability of party registers makes it difficult to tell the professional groups or gender mix of the parties. Political party activism has taken different forms in the various democratic states in Africa. In Africa, programmatic competition is still in the embryonic stage (Cheeseman et al., 2014), but election campaigns are both capital- and labor-intensive activities (see Abrahamsen & Bareebe, 2016; Bob-Milliar & Paller, 2018). Therefore, every party requires committed members to be able to win elections.

Several factors explain why some Africans join and become active in political parties. Some of the factors apply in all democratic states. Others may be specific because of the different democratic trajectories. For many African activists, altruistic issues have served as the main motive for political engagement. Afrobarometer (2018) reports that support for multiparty politics has remained stable, 66%, for the last three rounds of surveys (i.e., 2008–2009; 2011–2013; 2014–2015). The majority of respondents (46%) trust ruling parties more than opposition parties (36%). Party democracy is in vogue, and for many Africans the best way to get involved and contribute to national development is through active involvement with a party of their choice. Political parties have come to serve as the appropriate vehicles for popular participation.

Ideological leanings of parties are motives that attract some people to become active in the party. In the process, they donate money, deliver election leaflets, attend party meetings, and canvass votes for their party (Cheeseman & Hinfelaar, 2010; LeVan et al., 2018). Arguably, ideology is a contested concept in the current global order; political parties have become less ideologically inclined. Parties are more concerned with been accountable to their constituents than following strict ideological description on governance. Nevertheless, many youthful activists are ideologically inclined and may join and become active in a particular party because of their programmatic posturing or pronouncements.

From the theoretical perspectives, parties are enjoined to pursue the public interest. They are collective goods–producing organizations. A political party seeking office presents a program to the electorate and tries to convince them of the workability of the program. If the large majority of the electorate are convinced, they will vote for the particular party. Consequently, parties possess limited selective incentives for citizens. The survey data on party identification only measure how close citizens feel they are to a particular party. The data do not tell us how many people work for the party as activists or party officers. Nevertheless, through empirical studies on elections and the observation of the daily activities of parties during national campaigns, we can analyze the reasons why some Africans become very active in parties. To get activists to commit their resources—time, money, and skills—to a particular party, leadership gives some selective incentives. A large majority of party activists measure their activism against receiving a private good from the party. The persons seeking office usually promise some rewards for active engagement. Incentives are a mixture of material, purposive, and solidary goods. Material incentives are usually distributed during the electioneering season. The “godfathers” who sponsor candidates for office in Nigeria expect rewards from the party. In the run-up to the 2016 Ugandan elections, the NRM Youth League leadership was split between supporting President Museveni and sacked Prime Minister Mbabazi. The youth activists’ support for the two candidates was in expectation of being rewarded. Indeed, President Museveni distributed cash to some youth groups in Uganda to incentivize them to support his re-election campaigns. The nature of the political terrain in many African countries makes it extremely difficult for citizens to volunteer their services to a political party free of charge. The scores of unemployed youths who become party activists expect the particular party to provide them with livelihood opportunities when power is won (see Bob-Milliar, 2013, 2014, 2018).

Africa’s emerging middle class is shaping political party activism in a more positive way. A minority of professionals may choose to be activists with no precondition. For example, in 2014, some Accra-based professionals who were disgruntled with governance under the Mahama-led administration in Ghana formed the “Occupy Ghana” movement to demand better public services. Their political activism favored the opposition party, and it won the December 2016 elections.


In spite of the fact that African citizens have witnessed the enjoyment of some civil liberties, the continent’s democratization process still raises several empirical questions. The quality of electoral contest as measured through electoral integrity continues to decline in every round of elections. There has been a rollback in democratic gains in Central African Republic, Cameroon, Guinea Bissau, and Gabon, among others. Furthermore, it has been more than two decades since liberal democracy was introduced in Africa, yet several leaders from the 1980s generation are still in power (Museveni and Biya). Nevertheless, we need to pay particular attention to the nuances of the ongoing consolidation; liberal democracy is taking root in Africa. The party system is well institutionalized in some countries: there is popular support and participation in elections, and there is a vibrant civil society and free media (Osei, 2013). The majority of the electorate in Africa tends to vote based on issues (LeVan et al., 2018; Whitfield, 2009). Competitive elections have become one of the important benchmarks for assessing the maturity of Africa’s electoral democracies. Yet opposition parties are weak, and as a consequence opposition victories are rare in many countries (Cheeseman, 2010).

The explanation of why citizens engage in political party activism is captured in a number of theoretical perspectives. Political party activism is the process of active engagement with a particular party. Party members become activists when their resources—time, skill, and money—further the party’s agenda. High-intensity party activists devote their lives and resources in terms of time and money to the party they support. In this context, party activists are more radical than the party leadership. Party activists come from various backgrounds. However, those with a professional background are motivated by issues and causes. Party activists not only work to promote the party’s agenda, but they also give a party its identity. Across Africa, party activists play a major role in the campaign activities of parties. Election campaign activities are a mix of traditional (door-to-door) and modern (WhatsApp messaging) forms. The traditional forms of campaigning are used by African political parties, primarily because of the availability of activists to perform such functions.

Many citizens become active in political parties because they expect selective incentives from the party. The party in turn determines one’s level of engagement with it in order to reward them. Altruistic, sociocultural, ideological leanings and the programs of parties are some reasons why African citizens join parties.

Further research is needed to validate many of the issues discussed in this article. We need reliable data in order to be able to describe and construct the social profile of a typical party activist. Furthermore, we need data in order to analyze the determinants of party activism across political parties and democratic states.


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                                                                                                                                            (1.) These data were obtained from several sources, chief among them being African Elections Database, IFES African Elections Database, Election Guide, and Tom Lansford’s Political Handbook of the World (2015).

                                                                                                                                            (2.) In the Hausa language, it refers to “common people.”