1280px-JOMO_KENYATTA.jpgElections & Institutions 

The Pervasiveness of Patronage Politics in Africa

by Jonathan Bissell

During his recent trip to eastern Africa, President Barack Obama highlighted a number of challenges that characterize bilateral relations between the United States and countries in the sub-Saharan region. The U.S. has both long-term economic and political interests, along with short-term security goals, in the resource-rich area. With the rise of regionally-based transnational security threats (Boko Haram and al-Shabbab) growing and China’s increasing influence over the continent, it is imperative the United States strengthen relations with its African partners. For these partnerships to be sustainable, the U.S. needs to apply its soft power, and encourage the strengthening of democratic institutions while mitigating the corrosive influence of existing patronage networks.

Understanding the role that patronage politics play in a number of African states is crucial to assessing contemporary problems and solutions. Generally speaking, much of African politics is based on personal loyalty paid to individual leaders. Common features of this form of governance include the use of coercive measures to retain power and careful management of intricate networks of diverse ethnic groups. Such systems are prevalent in most states of modern Africa where they impede the advancement of institutional capacities. Arguably, they are remnants of European colonialism.

Colonial powers needed indigenous Africans to manage their huge colonies because of differing cultures, diverse ethnicities, and the lack of previously united forms of national identity within their overseas territories. European administrations solved this problem by creating small, but elite classes of local leaders within their colonies. From the colonialists, the new African elites learned the importance of the relationship between wealth and politics. Following World War II, this bureaucratic bourgeois class began to clamor for independence. Nationalization movements materialized quickly, leading economically drained European powers to rapidly cede their colonies and hand-pick African elites to fill the power void.

The new leaders of Africa then sought to maintain power. Although the inherited nation-states were delineated by the dubious lines agreed to during the Berlin Conference of 1884/85, local leaders elected to retain existing boarders. Elites that had consolidated their hold on power subsequently weakened their political opponents’ potential to grow. They appear to have utilized what Dr. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita et al. now describe as the five rules for political survival. These rules are: keep your winning coalition as small as possible, keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible, control the flow of revenue, pay your key supporters just enough to maintain loyalty, and do not take money out of your supporters’ pockets to make the people’s lives better.

In addition to a culture of political strife, these techniques created a political atmosphere of factionalism in which the elites could thrive. Following the collapse of colonialism, high-profile, elite leaders were perceived to have won their nation’s independence from ruling white imperialists. These African leaders effectively rallied their new constituents around nationalistic ideals that cut across ethnic divides within their states.

For many reasons, including lack of mobility and poor infrastructure, African leaders are still able to govern with the support of diverse ethnic leaders in different geographical areas throughout their countries. Potential conflicts are managed by the careful management of patronage networks: leaders concede portions of their internal sovereignty to local chiefs, and in return, the chiefs support the national leader’s legitimacy as the head of state.

Leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta, Malawi’s Hastings Banda, Côte d’Ivoire’s Félix Houphouet-Boigny, and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere each ruled through this kind of patronage system. They represented a type of politics called “neo-patrimonialism” and were able to retain power for years. Although many of these original leaders have transitioned from power, their systems of patronage and centralized power are maintained by a new generation of leadership. The personal loyalty paid to national leaders in the sub-Saharan region was and is based on the effective methods of group rule established during the colonial period.

That patronage politics are still prominent in sub-Saharan Africa is illustrated by the 2013 election of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (Jomo’s son) and his early governance decisions. Such ‘neo-patrimonialism’ may remain stubbornly in place, but it demands centralization of power within the hands of select elites and weakens institutional capacity at the national level. This creates a challenge for the United States, which has strong political, economic, and security incentives to partner with stable countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have strong democratic institutions — a necessity if the U.S. is to fight the illicit networks of terrorism and illegal activity in the region. China’s growing influence with the United States’ potential partners further adds an additional element of urgency to the country’s efforts to secure its regional interests.

While most African states are fledgling democracies, they are still democracies. Subscribers to democratic peace theory in U.S. foreign policy channels recognize the importance to build upon the foundations of the existing democracies for both long-term economic investment and short-term security concerns. The key to success will be to simultaneously pressure and mutually cooperate with the African states to increasingly marginalize historical patterns of patronage politics for the ends of increased inclusivity. President Obama’s recent visit accentuates these goals, and his candid message of reform seemed to resonate loudly with African electorates. As the first U.S. president to address the African Union, time will tell if his direct approach will bear fruit.



Jonathan Bissell is a graduate student in the Master of International Policy and Practice Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs. He is a Foreign Area Officer in the U.S. Army with 25 years of service.

[Photo courtesy of Creative Commons]

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