Africa’s developed politics, the West’s underdeveloped interventions

* Spoiler alert: in the interests of brevity and clarity, I am going to make lots of huge generalisations throughout this blog *


West is best?

In Britain and the West more generally, there is a long-standing, entrenched, and powerful assumption that African politics is broken. One constantly comes across statements and arguments about African politics in which the core image is that it is fundamentally characterised as some combination of dysfunctional and lacking the right properties.

More than any other specific issue, this representation is articulated through discussions of corruption. Corruption, surely one of the most normatively-charged conceptualisations of politics, is seen as an essential part of African politics and a problem that needs to be addressed through intervention by more advanced governments. Civil war, genocide, riots, ‘tribalism’… add these other distinguishing tropes of Africa’s politics and you have a view that is shared both by a general population and many who specialise in African politics in some fashion. Africa’s politics is entirely engulfed in crisis and that crisis is a premise for discussions concerning what The West should do. The more Fabian/liberal professionals with an interest in Africa may tone down the essentialism and bring in more rights-speak but the foundational common-sense of an African political underdevelopment and a concomitant duty of more advanced external agencies to promote political change remains.

This dualism is a hardy perennial in the Western vision of global politics: Africa underdeveloped/West developed. It feeds into media reportage which veers between despair, horror, appeals to a revived civilising mission, or even frank argument for recolonisation. It feeds into aid strategy, in which the bulk of development assistance is dedicated to some kind of ‘good governance’, democracy support, institution-building, peacekeeping intervention, ‘responsibility to protect’, or support for civil society organisations. It also pervades the stories Western publics are told about Africa through film and television in which one would be forgiven for thinking that Africa is one vast zone of civil war and chaotic marketplaces through which Western heroes run to escape evil African cronies.

It is striking that this dualism has been unaffected by what is now a protracted anxiety about the health of Western politics. Let us briefly consider Britain. Until Corbyn, there has been an anxiety about depoliticisation and falling political engagement. There have been fairly regular worries about ‘cronyism’ and ‘sleaze’ within the political establishment and an associated general legitimacy crisis in Westminster politics in which cynicism and alienation about formal political procedures is seen to have risen. There is now a vexation about populism in British politics, a phenomenon supposedly emerging with Nigel Farage and UKIP from 2014, and now for some continued in a different ideological form by Corbyn. The quite open political patronage allocated to the DUP after perhaps the strategically most disastrous calling of an election election in post-war history has not helped. Nor has the Brexit referendum which has generated an institutional and political mode of crisis management in which it is entirely unclear what the future holds. And, this is before less high-profile issues such as the rise in the surveillance state, the influence of The City and finance on policymaking, the selling of citizenship to wealthy foreigners, the ‘revolving door’ between Parliament and big business and other more structural issues in British politics are considered.

Is this not odd? Britain, a country whose politics had been defined by considerable concerns with disengagement and cynicism, populism, sleaze, patronage, and major strategic misfiring, claiming in its relations with aid-recipient African countries to be well-placed to advise and support ‘good governance’? It surely means that, in some measure, the negative images of African politics, combined with a variety of morally-vexed discussions about what should be done about Africa serve to offer a little romantic narcissism about the nature of British politics. As if ‘we’ have something to offer the world in terms of how good governance is practised.


Modern, dynamic, sophisticated: African politics

My point here is that any reasonably comprehensive and realistic survey of British politics certainly takes the sheen off the Africa/West dualism described above. This is only exacerbated once one takes into account the various ways in which the British government projects its power into other parts of the world in thoroughly venal, violent, and secretive ways. It leaves the advanced or civilised self-image of British politics in the world as a partial and weak description of reality, bolstered through ideological force and historical embeddedness.

So much for Britain. But, the duality is also dubious in another sense: its portrayal of African politics is at least as equally selective, lazy, and ideologically-driven as is the portrayal of British politics. In fact, I am increasingly minded to start from the assumption that African politics every bit as advanced, modern, and sophisticated as British politics – possibly more so.

Within African publics, politics is vibrant, multiplex, and dynamic. Idioms, metaphors, and imagery generate sophisticated attitudes towards the state, globalisation, and justice that go well beyond the legally or constitutionally-bounded notions of citizenship. National identity, the state, and a sense that African countries are dominated by external forces comingle to produce political discourses and projects of national self-determination and popular sovereignty. All manner of evocations for justice, redistribution, and recognition are articulated through combinations of ethnic, nationalist, patriarchal, and socialist tropes.

African polities demonstrate high levels of awareness of their governments’ faults. Multiparty elections have not been seen as catch-all solutions to political ills – a view more sophisticated that the political science of some western academics. In late 1990s Mozambique, political parties were seen as either having ‘full pockets’ (access to the resources of state) or ‘empty pockets’ (marginal to the state and contesting elections to get closer), a figurative that has proven to be vastly more insightful than the Western liberal expectations of Mozambique’s democratic transition. Another political imaginary that has emerged in various forms throughout Africa is that of the civil servant as goat, tethered to a specific job and then ‘eating’ (purloining government resources and extracting money from those he/she can dominate) according to their position and the length of their tether. Again, this ‘eating’ dynamic has endured through a great raft of administrative reform programmes funded by Western lenders and donors. African publics also buzz with rumour and conspiracy about the secretive deals done between powerful politicians, big business, transnational corporations, global institutions, oligarchs, and powerful families. Every car accident involving a prominent public figure generates these narratives, as do high-profile business deals or cabinet reshuffles. Actual assassinations do this too, of course. These rumours have a ‘truthiness’ that feeds into critiques of power.

Critiques, satirisations, and challenges constantly emerge from protests, social media, charismatic political leaders, and the day-to-day talk amongst families and in bars. These political activities frame a complex mixture of realism, despair, and hope in ways that are not entirely coherent or stable. This is precisely how one might expect popular politics to look in states that have major governance problems. It makes public cultures politically tenacious and historically-appropriate, fit for the purpose of coping with political situations which show slender hope of resolving major security, stability, and mass poverty problems.

African polities are, then, modern, complex, and energetic. It is difficult to see them as ‘underdeveloped’ without considerable ideological filtering, taking one back to the West/Africa dualism sketched above. One can say the same of African states. African states manage immense and major political challenges and this requires institutional complexity, a range of political practices, and a constant endeavour to legitimise the rule of the state in the face of critical publics. It also involves coercion, surveillance, and imposition. African governance is sophisticated, contradictory, partially successful and creative.

Throughout the state, political leaders and public servants routinely combine the politics of policymaking, administration, and international relations with an assiduous attention to an ethnic or regional base of support. They also work to keep a position within a ruling party, and to finesse their governance practices to develop private economic enterprises. Doing all of this is hardly trivial; the dynamics of these political practices can profoundly affect the fortunes of states and even generate factionalism or violence as well as bonding elites within and through the state.

At the local level, or the state-citizen interface, individual politicians and administrators often play a series of mediations, between the villages or neighbourhoods and ‘The State’, presented as a distant monolith. They might generate ‘nativist’ discourses of the local whilst also managing socio-spatial inequalities, many of which are felt intimately within the dense socialisations of districts and villages. At the local level, politics is often more infused with performance, symbolism, personality, and deep values. Raising taxes, deciding how to allocate budgets, organising public meetings to disseminate political visions, entreating people to work or co-operate all make the local politics of governance as multiplex and dynamic as national governance.


African politics matters

There is an immense materiality to African politics and this makes politics matter a great deal. Governance is generally-understood to be profoundly concerned with the distribution of the rights to property, profit, accumulation, and enrichment; and conversely the allocation of dispossession, extraction, and marginalisation. This materiality is both public and occult, spoken about and kept secret or implied. It is a difficult political practice to maintain, a mixture of guile, intelligence, venality, public generosity, and hypocrisy.

When state projects to extract resources from the poorest become excessive or are unaccompanied by any claim to distribute downwards, those most marginalised might evade the state, undermine its authority in subtle ways, develop ‘Potemkin practices’ that ostensibly endorse the state whilst in substance undermining it. These political ‘weapons of the weak’ are deceitful: ways of disobeying without the state noticing. People in government may or may not know about these practices and may or may seek ways to address this subterfuge.

Indeed, one might suggest that some African countries suffer from too much politics, an overdeveloped politics in which the materiality and play of government and social mobilisation makes life tiring and sometimes tense. There is that sense – present in European intellectual traditions as well – that politics or ‘politicking’ can bring power plays into too much of life, destabilising the day-to-day, making too many things contentious.

One might consider the political ruses, corruption, grandiose displays of power, and partial authority over peoples as ‘underdeveloped’, but that would be a simple-minded, ahistorical, and prejudiced description of the most apparent aspects of African governance. Seen as a product of short and traumatic histories of state-building, African governments endeavour to manage major-order political challenges, often unsuccessfully or in ways that have normatively unpleasant outcomes. But, politically underdeveloped they are not.


Western primitivism

How does this understanding of African politics affect the Africa-West relationship? Most directly, it encourages us to see the West’s governance interventions not as advanced assistance from outside but rather as a way of changing existing sophisticated political practices. Much of the governance interventions that derive from the West aim to simplify African governance and to depoliticise it. Based in fundamental errors in understanding African politics, Western aid and advice proceeds to use crude mechanisms of intervention to make African governance simpler, less flexible, and more technical. In a brusque phrase: to undermine their fitness for purpose.

Of course, they do not succeed. In spite of the allocation of tens of millions of dollars in aid and loans, African governments take the money, perform to the objectives set in some degree, and carry on with the business of politics as usual. In this context, donors can look rather politically naïve: frequently surprised that reforms fail or that unexpected events occur. In reviews of one or other governance reform supported by Western agencies, very often the conclusion is: more time, more resource and more of the same. Selected African politicians and planners pose themselves agreeably.

Western governance reforms explicitly declare that they aim to introduce ‘good governance’ into Africa. But, in detail, the mechanisms through which they aspire to do this are remarkably simple in the way they understand African politics. There is a faith that showering a reform programme with money will help it work, that creating new institutions means those institutions will change political behaviours, that generally African individuals – within government and throughout society – think and act like simplified versions of the liberal and rational citizen that any POL101 course would suggest is a stereotype. Western donors struggle to understand that each African country is different in significant and relevant ways. They also tend to ignore much of what African governments do because much of this does not fit with the narrow and basic premises of governance reform. In some cases, I have interviewed Western good governance representatives who consider ‘country politics’ to be not their concern!

It is a shame that Western governments generally lack the wherewithal to realise how poorly-designed their interventions are. Learning from African governments, taking African politics seriously, and realising how crude their interventions are might means by which Western states ask themselves what – if anything – they are capable of doing.

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