May 6, 2013
(Ed’s note: The article below is the last part of the series on "African Political culture and democracy" which Hiwot exclusively wrote to NEVIS Review. We thank her for her scholarly articles and we hope we will see her in the near future with an article on a new theme on Ethiopian/African political analysis)
African Political culture and democracy- Part VII ( Last part)
By Hiwot Wendimagegn
The popular idiom “reality is stranger than fiction” best describes the politics of Africa which is bizarre, incongruous and unrelenting. It seems every perplexed observer has some suggestion on how to tackle the myriad of afflictions that haunt the nations of the continent. Yet, what eludes such arbitrary prescriptions is the highly complex nature of Africa’s quandaries. Irrationality, covetousness, xenophobia, and gross violation of human rights … etc, have persisted in this continent of unyielding calamities, irrespective of the passing of time and the change of regimes. So, the question that guides researches on African politics should be “what are the culprits behind Africa’s misfortune?” rather than enticing descriptions and propositions of uninformed solutions.
As Frantz Fanon astutely implied, “a normal child that is reared in a normal family surrounded by a normal environment will grow up to be a normal man” (Fanon, 1967:109). However disputable the term “normal” maybe, people who have endured colonialism, pervasive poverty, and deadly diseases and those that grew up having never known what it means to struggle daily for physical as well as economic survival, cannot share the same attitudinal as well as behavioral traits. Evidently, these two types of dissimilar personalities cannot be equally tolerant, moderate and civic minded.
Hence, the imperativeness of “political culture”, a concept that reveals the psychological causes behind people’s political behavior by explaining how certain values attitudes and norms get embedded in the very identity of a society. What makes the study of political cultures indispensable for understanding politics is their rootedness both in distinctive national histories and in the personalities of individuals (Pye, 1965:20). Moreover, their path dependency makes them remarkably durable and persistent. In this vein, what has been attempted in this series is unraveling the state of mind behind African politics.
In the years they spent under the grips of colonialism, Africans were made to despise everything they called their own; the color of their skin undermined, their language ridiculed, their religions considered evil and their intellect questioned. On top of everything else, ethnic groups were pitted against one another making Africans as conflicted externally as they were internally. Accordingly, as most traumatic psychological experiences leave permanent scars, so have the ones Africans endured during colonialism.
The incongruity in professing something while practicing the opposite is one of the most ruinous legacies Africans attained via colonial education and the teachings of the European missionaries. As firmly established in prior discussions, during their stay in Africa, the colonial powers did not exercise the great ideals they preached. While Africans were receiving The Christian teaching of “universal brotherhood”, they were being treated like animals. This instilled in African minds that being manipulative and deceitful, disregarding the ideals one claims to uphold, is the reality of the world (Khapoya, 1998:148). Resultantly, the attitudes of post colonial clientelist elites who seek to control states for prebendary gains and the use of state terror to repress opponents, has the damages of psychological colonialism written all over it.
Owing to this, this series emphasized on assessing the mentality behind the political elites of Africa in relation to their rapacious nature. The evaluation in turn led to the realization that the catastrophic bequests of psychological colonialism have played a vital role in shaping the cognitive, affective and evaluative orientations of the political elites. From the extensive discussions presented so far, it can be deduced that the cognitive orientations of African elites towards the state is that “it is a source of prestige and wealth”, this knowledge has led to the affective orientation that “if one wants to be wealthy and prestigious, accruing state power is the best alternative”. Finally, the knowledge coupled with the feeling has resulted in the evaluative orientation of devoutly committed elites who go to the extent of facing imprisonment or banishment to get to the throne. As it is to be expected, once they attain state power they consider it as a prized possession one should preserve by all means.
Ever since independence, the political culture of predatory rule has had far-reaching sociopolitical and economic consequences. This study focused on its effects on democracy. This was done by way of contrasting the values that sustain it to the ones that have been deemed quintessential for the success of democracy such as trust, tolerance and self expression values. Thus, Africa’s democracy was conceptualized through the principles of multiparty systems and regular elections. The heart rending discovery of this conceptualization is that political parties often lead an ephemeral existence and barely have an ideology or the semblance of a public policy to guide them. This attests to the fact that they exist only for power’s sake. As for the dramatic elections, they are characterized by censorship, corruption, vote rigging, intimidation and murder.
Besides making democracy an utter shenanigan, the “winner takes all” attitude has affected ruling elites, prospective elites and the entire society. Elites trying to buy off votes via clientelism, patronage and nepotism, has blurred the thin line dividing the personal from the formal. These practices have often been attributed to ethnic and clan politics in which a position of power is valued for the resources it procures for one’s family and kin. As a whole, leaders doing all they can to maintain power, oppositions doing everything to attain it, and the rest of society taking advantage of this rivalry by selling its loyalty, has destroyed the common good and made democracy a tomfoolery.
Like everything else, democratization is not something that one people does for another; people must do it for themselves. It has often been asked if political conditionality is necessary or desirable but the question should rather be is it workable? Palpably, Africa’s reactive stance, as opposed to proactive stance on democracy, has played its fair share in creating the prevalence of electoral authoritarianism or virtual democracies. This is because political elites perceive that they cannot avoid going through the mimicry of the democratic form in order to escape unprecedented international pressure which may result in the halting of donors’ money (the major source of loot) if they fail to comply.
The different strands of the argument can now be brought together and this discussion ends by highlighting two of its major findings. The first one entails that predatory rule is as dangerous as it is callous. This is not only because it takes resources away from the impoverished mass and into the pockets of the elites, but also because it inculcates materialist values into the fabric of society, ensuring its pertinence via its pervasiveness. Moreover, its intertwinement with the nitty-gritty of daily life makes democracy unattainable.
The second finding affirms that, as per the political culture argument, elites don’t do the things they do out of mere cruelty, evilness or capriciousness but due to the cultures/ psychological orientations they attained via the process of political socialization. As gloomy as it may seem, the truth of the matter is that people cling to their cultural ways not because of some vague feeling for their historical legacies and traditions but because their culture is path-dependent and it is part and parcel of their personalities. As many studies on psychoanalysis reveal, the hardest thing for man to do is to try to change his personality. Cultural change therefore involves true trauma and it becomes more difficult when attempted in an environment of ignorance and poverty.
To sum up, albeit recommendations such as “Africa needs a cultural revolution” and “Africa needs to go back to its pre-colonial roots” can be forwarded, they will just be futile as they will not be feasible. This is because, in order to have a society that is characterized by democratic values and a strong sense of civic mindedness, its populace should be reared from childhood geared towards fostering such behaviors and attitudes. This on the other hand requires the relentless efforts of the family, the educative policies of regimes, responsible politicians, and a cohesive society. Unfortunately , the fact that most nations of Africa languish in extreme poverty in an environment of economic as well as political instability, make such aims of molding young minds towards tolerance and efficacy impractical and unattainable. Hence, for Africa, forgoing survival values for self expression is going to be a daunting task.