The drama of post-colonial governance in contemporary African politics


Today’s global discourses feature a large variety of thoughts relating to current governance in many places in the world. In an age of globalisation and concurrent modes of governance, statehood, administration, and society organisation have emerged. The African continent, despite its massive variety of political culture and governance modes, prominently shows up as a place of governance problems. Both in typical Eurocentric frameworks of criticism and among local voices, there is an increasing debate over issues such as popular participation in politics, the role of institutions (both in the Weberian sense and non-bureaucratic ones), and the notion of democracy and good governance.

Mostly, international discourse is framed by Western ideas of statehood and politics. According to Foreign Policy’s Failed State Index, UNDP’s Human Development Index, and other schematic attempts to measure governance, many African states are labelled as underperforming, unstable, or dysfunctional. Why is this?

To fully address this question, a whole bibliography would be necessary, consisting of existing work (see several of those in the “recommendations” section of this website) and hopefully future insightful analyses. A short article cannot respond to all questions in due detail, thus the following shall merely give some indications and summarise a few major aspects.

To start with, many post-colonial states have for different reasons had a difficult birth. Their naissance coincides with the formal retreat of a colonial administration. Despite differences in colonial rule (comparing the UK, France, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, and others) some traits are general: No colonial philosophy has lived up to its own expectations of a ‘mission civilisatrice’. On the one hand, this is because all have to various extent neglected civilisatory dynamics endogenous to the cultures subordinated to the colony. On the other hand, instead of establishing the colonial state in the sense of Max Weber, with a functioning bureaucracy, most colonial powers have not been able to do more than putting a skeleton state above previously existing modes of governance. We call this indirect rule with the English colonies, or divide et impera, and it existed to different degrees for all colonies. This has laid the fondation of what is best described by some sort of hybrid governance – colonies have tried to build up a façade of what they considered to be a political entity, skimming off the benefits but not making enough efforts to foster either a strict developmentalist agenda for a given colony or developing a workable synthesis of Western statehood and local governance strategies.

What we find today is the result of blending bureaucratic statehood with patrimonial or charismatic types of rule. Paraphrasing Max Weber, we can easily observe that uncoordinated mixes of governance types destroys the complementarities inherent to each type. In a strictly patrimonial setup, personalised patron-client relationships at different levels have both responded to a ruler’s need for support (loyalty, material gains, etc.) and the people’s need for security and guidance (notwithstanding the fact a bad ruler can jeopardise this arragement). In a strictly bureaucratic setup, unpersonalised relationships create a similar reliability of expectations through state-citizen relationships, loosely conceptualised by Rousseau’s social contract. Now, mixing up these schemes of state-society relation creates a situation whereby complementarities are undermined. Reliability of expectations lowers and free-riders are more likely to strive for their own interest. Not only the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but also other African countries such as the Sudans, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria have to different degrees experienced such dynamics.

The consequences in the post-colonial state are manifold. First of all, the example of establishing an incomplete and non-complementary type of rule during colonial times has been upheld by subsequent generations of political leadership, initially arising from small groups of educated classes among the colonised population. Mixed up with resentments against colonialism, it seem a mentality of ‘now it is our turn to eat’ (I here paraphrase a seminal book title of Michaele Wrong) has emerged and gave way to a blend of bureacratic, patrimonial, and charismatic rule. Bureaucratic because in the fashion of a ‘quasi-state’ (following the work of Robert Jackson), the external image of the state was pretty much similar to the typical Western state. Patrimonial because the state does not contain much more than a hollow bureaucratic surface, while behind this a ‘shadow state’ (following the work of William Reno) functions according to personalised, rhizom-like (following the work of Bayart) structures of loyalty and distribution. Charismatic, because state power is often represented by strongmen or ‘big-men networks’ (I here paraphrase a seminal book title of Mats Utas).

Such apparently messy, but intrinsically functional setups gave way to various consequences. For sure, as Chabal and Daloz call it in ‘Africa Works’, the resulting instrumentalisation of disorder – a concept often overlooked due to predominant narratives of state failure – has satisfied the needs of many influential individuals (Mobutu, Mugabe, Biya, Bongo, Bokassa and many more) and groups of persons (Kabila clique, Americo-Liberian establishment, Kibaki/Moi/Kenyatta families and many more), even entire administrations (la Françafrique or the US and USSR during the Cold War). But it has had dire effects for populations on local, national, and regional scales. Public services such as medical, educational, and economic assistance became uneven, discretionary, or simply vanished. Alternation did not take place, so grievances were created. The state-centred post-colonial system and their capture by a limited numbers of actors discredited the state as such. This is a huge incentive for non-state actors or sidelined groups to counter with alternative modes and arrangements of governance. Ideas of ‘governance without government’ (Raeymaekers, Vlassenroot, and Menkhaus) or ‘negotiating statehood’ (Hagmann and Péclard) well reflect these tendencies. In the extreme case the prevaling inequalities have sparked hunger (Ethiopia, Sudan, Somilia), disintegration (Sudan, Somalia, DRC), state terrorism (Nigeria, Zimbabwe), civil war (DRC, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, CAR, etc.), and many other adverse effects and catastrophes.

The international community, an ephemeral concept of all entities (states and international organisations, more recently civil society to a very limited extent and the global public albeit not yet observable in high politics so far…), has found a set of responses to such problems. Within the ever-relapsing tension field of sovereignty versus intervention, the following dogmas remain dominant parts of the discourse: Elections, peacekeeping, (development) aid.

The latter, both if acute (humanitarian action) or not (development aid) could cynically be seen as politics of containment (see publication section on this website for a case study of DRC). Certainly, it is impossible to draw a full picture of international aid given the multiplicity of contexts, actors, and actions. But beyond innovative ideas, specifically developed projects, and principled action, a bunch of the aid scenery is heavily politicised which leads to adverse effects: instead of empowerment, unequal structures are ossified on the intervention level and political strategies are underpinned on the macro-level.

Peacekeeping is said to monitor ceasefire, originally in inter-state dispute but nowadays almost exclusively in intra-state conflict. Mostly done by the UN or regional organisations, its guiding principles tend towards respecting and upholding state sovereignty, diminishing conflict-related distress (displacement, violence, and so on) and fostering peace agreements between belligerent. Several examples (UNAMID, MONUSCO, ONUCI, etc.) show that while peacekeeping often succeeds in preventing ‘the worse’ it seldom fulfils its task. Reasons for that are widespread, starting from logistic and administrative challenges, to operational lack of capability and political reasons. Some are shared by many missions, others are more specific.

Elections remain the international mantra of post-conflict recontruction and statebuilding. Two examples: In Mali, citizens have been asked to the ballots a week ago. After heavy turmoil including a coup d’état, a secession attempt, and islamic terror, the country experienced challenging times for more than a year. Humanitarian actors tried to keep up with the resulting needs while military intervention led by the African Union and the French army, now to be followed by UN peacekeeping, should put humpty-dumpty back together again. Now, in an almost unprecedented rush (in DRC this took 3 years) elections have been organised few months after things have more or less calmed down. Being largely peaceful, free and fair (without going into details here), many seem to be convinced this has been the way to follow. But as of now, none could predict if the electoral aftermath is going to be smooth, also in light of unsolved problems in the North, an upcoming run-off, and the stabilisation of the country as such. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe, the 89-year old anti-imperialist freedom fighter turned ransacking dictator grandpa has won elections two days ago. The previous elections had been hailed as a success, given that Mugabe’s challenger Tsvangirai has managed to force the decade-long autocrat into a coalition government, but now everything seems back to square one.

These examples and many more (on the DRC, bunches of analysis reaching into these topics are on this website) raise a set of major questions as to how we as societies and individuals should define our notions, wishes, and ideas for administration, rule, and polity frameworks we want to live in, or endorse, or advocate for. Each and every perspective additionally plays a role, since it provides for specific ideas. Elections certainly do not provoke the same conceptual thoughts or emotional feelings with a Austrian, a Vietnamese, a Zimbabwean, or an Ivorian citizen. The state, even if definitions are available online, remains a concept where different societies strongly diverge in their notions and imaginations. Governance is often mentioned in the frame of good governance, but what is good? There is few adjectives as subjective as good, at least in English and most indo-european languages. Governance should rather be discussed without attributes. It should be at the centre of larger debates as to how societies internally and in exchange with other societies shape their concepts and ideas but also build the frameworks they live in. Governance, rather than termed good or bad, should follow a functional logic: as a concept or a framework, the primacy of governance should be the strife for groups and individuals to be able to live according to their needs while subscribing to a set of common rules so that these needs are not infringing on those of other groups and individuals.

While these challenges are a reality for the whole world, this is most probably an increasingly salient phenomenon in times of globalisation hiving itself off. More specifically, however, it is a key aspects in many post-colonial entities. It includes a thought of democracy and human rights in a more basic sense of these concepts, less politicised than in the public Western discourses. In order to overcome at least part of Eurocentric thinking, it is necessary to understand that governance is amoral at first – meaning neither moral nor immoral. It depends on its shape and its context if it exists in a positive, or good, form. An idea of good governance as a group of European students live it in their shared flat can be diametrically opposed to what a council of elders in Ghana defines a their rules of cohabitation and village organisation. Obviously. Also, this comparisons could be continued ad infinitum. Most importantly, all the dogmas relating to governance, statehood, and society have to be questioned.

A balanced mix of (individual and societal) human rights, duty and freedom, participation and alignment, as well as principles of humanity and mutual respect of cultures seem to be basic ingredients to develop ideas of governance that are free from Eurocentric prejudice and non-Western malapropism (and vice versa). The guidance of Immanuel Kant on interpersonal and intergroup rules of action can be helpful here, always bearing in mind that each individual always knows relatively little. This is why we must always try to understand before we talk or act. This applies to the provocatively termed title of this article, as well as to many other things too.

2 Responses to “The drama of post-colonial governance in contemporary African politics”
  1. rwandareview says:

    Reblogged this on The Green Frog and commented:

  2. Gwladys Nicimbikije says:

    It looks like that the way of governance in Africa is heading, keeps it behind in development. Western countries that want to help, use an euphemism way of showing that more can be done to what has been doing, for example reinforce the capacities. You will then see many programs of organizations named ” reinforcement of capacities or help to professionalize or help struggle ( against)” in various kind of system that bring good governance/ human rights. Good, therefore, is added to say, YOU ARE LEADING but YOU CAN DO MORE, However, nothing can either let someone think that the Governance is not at all less heading. According to me, ” good” is needed otherwise aids and presence of the organizations would not be justified.

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