Monday, April 22, 2013

NEVIS Review 15, Section I, Ref# 15.1

NEVIS Review 15
Section I
Ref# 15.1
April 22, 2013

African political culture and democracy: Part VI
Amoral Familism and Predatory Rule
By Hiwot Wendimagegn

Two of the underlining principles behind amoral familism are unquestioned loyalty and inter-group mistrust. Since such loyalty is accorded whether it is deserved or not, it is usually indicative of reverence or group members who expect certain advantages in return for loyalty. As a result, the devout affiliates tend to be wary or antagonistic to out-group members. In this vein, the values and attitudes surrounding Africa’s predatory rule are ideal examples for a society manifesting amoral familism. The blind loyalty and inter-group mistrust that characterizes it has devastated the prospects for mutual trust and mutual well being.
For the most part, politics in Africa is anything but rational. It is so personalized around the person of the president. Schatzberg went as far as arguing power is not simply personalized but also paternalized: Government stands in the same relationship to its citizens in a way a father does to his children (Schatzberg, 2001:1). As opposed to its colonial counterpart, the post colonial polity demands not only obedience but also “affection”. Mere submission does not suffice; active participation in rituals of loyalty (support marches, assemblies to applaud touring dignitaries, purchase of party cards, display of the presidential portrait, participation in plebiscitary elections) is often mandatory (Young, 2004:34). These are all expressions of the paranoia of ruling elites and the extremities they go through to maintain the semblance of democracy.
The consequential centralization of power that results from ruling a state that is the source of affluence has affected not only the elites of Africa but the behavior of prospective elites and the rest of society as well. It has brought about insurgencies, ethnic based groupings a myriad of de jure political parties, whose aim is to rise to power by all means (Bayart, 2009, Bayart et al., 2009). These elites in turn try to manipulate and co-opt ordinary people into assisting them or voting for them via promising or delivering material incentives; this has intensified the politics of exclusion as well as the politics of plunder.
In brief, in tropical Africa as elsewhere it has been assumed that political parties must play a key role in democratic consolidation. Accordingly, since the political transitions of the early 1990’s multiparty politics with more or less regular elections have become the norm in sub-Saharan Africa. Even though, regular competitive multi party elections have earned most African nations the name “electoral democracies”, the day to day practices of the state are marked by abuse. Elaborately,
“Political freedoms and civil rights may be formally recognized but are imperfectly observed in practice, particularly in between electoral exercises when they are most likely to be flouted. Human rights abuses are not uncommon, even if the worst abuses are rarer than in the authoritarian past. A nominally free press is harassed in myriad ways and the government retains a radio monopoly. Certain groups, notably key members of the executive branch and the military, may in effect be above the law. The judicially is officially independent but it is poorly trained, overworked and easily compromised” (Stokke et al. 2001:13).

In light of these bewilderments, the discussions henceforth will show how amoral familism as manifested in the haphazard nature of party politics and clientelism elucidates the intolerance and arbitrariness surrounding the personalized politics of predatory rule.
Haphazard Party Politics

Just like Africa lacks democracy at the national level so do its incumbent political parties at the internal level. Ruling political parties in Africa operate much like private clubs with no effective public regulation of their internal governance and actions (Merideth, 2005: 218-225, Premph, 2008, 115-120). Loyalty to one’s party and its leadership is deemed obligatory and usually trumps all other considerations (ibid, Vicky and Svasand, 2002). Summary expulsion or suspension of dissenters is fairly routine and parties exert tight top-down control, especially over their legislators. In the case of majority ruling parties, “this hierarchical and oligarchic control is usually exercised for the president’s benefit if not at his behest” (Prempeh, 2008:117). Party candidates almost never commit to or discuss specific policies; in fact, most African parties lack internal organization or capacity even to generate or evaluate policy recommendations (Mohammed (ed), 2003, Stokke et al. 2001:13). “What unites and occasionally divides president and party in Africa then is not commitment to a common programmatic agenda but the desire to gain and maintain control of state resources” (Prempeh, 2008:117).
On the other hand, opposition political parties established in Africa have been marred by discord, lack of interest to collude in achieving common objectives or alliances being short lived (Mohammed (ed), 2003). Idealistic or programmatic parties are hard to find in Africa’s multiparty parliaments. In fact, beyond the platitudes of party manifestos, there is little programmatic difference among rival parties in most African political systems (van de Walle, 2003:304). “All offer vague campaign promises of better governance and better times to come while prophesying a dismal future should the people make the “mistake” of choosing the other party” (Prempeh, 2008:115). Most parties emerge largely during or immediately before the transition to compete for power All of which confirms the fact that parties exist to capture power for its own sake rather than for the noble cause of influencing policy.

The centrality of clientelism within multi-party politics across Africa is difficult to deny. African political parties predominantly rely on clientelism or at the least the promise of such assistance as the basis for mobilizing political support (Lynch and Crawford, 2011:288, Stokke et al., 2001:43-56, Vicente and Wantchekon, 2009). Clientelism in Africa broadly refers to political authority which is based on the giving and granting of favors “in an endless series of dyadic exchanges that go from the village level to the highest reaches of the central state” (van de Walle, 2001:51). Patron-client relations are primarily about providing material resources in exchange for political as well as personal loyalty; such practices as attending to individuals’ school fees, electricity and water bills, funeral and weeding expenses; or distributing cutlasses and other tools for agriculture, clearly manifest legitimacy is bought for its inability to be earned (Lindberg, 2003:123-4, Lindberg and Morrison, 2008:101).
Clientelism often interpreted as vote buying connotes: voters expect to gain in material terms for their vote. In his insightful book “Brokering Democracy in Africa: The Rise of Clientelist Democracy in Senegal” Linda Beck daringly claims African democracy should be named “clientelist democracy” as it is infused with clientelist relationships that serve as the basis for Political mobilization and accountability (Beck, 2008:4). Instead of popular participation for the sake of drafting and implementing public policies, clientelism has become the means by which peasant or migrant or otherwise excluded communalities are integrated into electoral political competition (Szeftel, 2000:430).
Clientelism does reinforce loyalties to kith and kin. The redistribution that is achieved or at least perceived to be achieved by such practices “serves to blunt class consciousness; “even when the exchange is largely symbolic, it links patron and client as a result, societies with pervasive clientelism are marked by the low salience of social class identities, despite their often glaring social inequalities” (Clapham, 1982:1-36). This certainty helps to explain the absence of programmatic political parties. Even more so, The difficulties of opposition parties to gain a sizeable share of the vote in some countries “ (…)are certainly compatible with a claim of voting instrumentality since they suggest that voters believe that voting for a loser will not be rewarded with access to state resources” (van de Walle, 2003:312).
Concluding Remarks

The very fact that African elite political cultures are marred by the centralization of power and marginalization of opposition defines democracy in negative as opposed to positive terms. At the very start, African leaders chose to take over the colonial system instead of transforming it. As hitherto outlined, obsessed with the perks of state power and “besieged by the hostile forces unleashed by their repression, they became totally absorbed in survival and relegated everything else including development to a very low priority” (Ake, 1991:32). Thus, politics began and ended with accruing state power for personal gains. Albeit the combination of term limits and regular elections has displaced the coup d’├ętat as the primary mode of regime change and leadership succession in contemporary Africa, politics still continues to be as haphazard as it was before. Political elites started buying off loyalty and punishing dissent making them neopatrimonial autocrats under the guises of legality.
Simply put, “personal politics is not public politics: it is not a sociological activity” (Jackson and Rosberg, 1984:424). When a nation is run by a group of elites that use personal whims instead of rationality and firmly established laws and demand unquestioned loyalty while marginalizing those who fail to comply, let alone democracy, mutual existence becomes impossible. Consequently, as manifested through the survival values and amoral familism surrounding predatory rule, democracy is largely a strategy for power not a vehicle for popular empowerment (Ake, 1993:240).

[Ed’s note: The article above is the continuation (sixth part) of the series on "African Political culture and democracy" which Hiwot exclusively writes to NEVIS Review. The fifth part appeared on April 8, 2013 in NEVIS Review No 14 section II, Ref# 14.2.
Hiwot Wendimagegn has a Masters in International Relations at Addis Ababa University, and earned her BA degree in Political Science and minored in Public Administration again at AAU. She has worked as a lecturer, and currently works as a private consultant and event organizer. We would like to thank Hiwot for her regular, well-thought out and well-researched articles, in addition to her constant devotion and unreserved effort as an editor in NEVIS]