Mediocre political leadership and the African states

As political scientists would argue, the leadership failure and poor quality of governance institutions in Africa cannot be discussed outside the historical context of modern African states.

From this perspective, the encounters between African societies and European colonialists constitute an essential factor in institution-building in sub-Saharan Africa. It fostered a leadership structure on which future attempts at institutional development would depend. Because Western imperialism was driven by the dual logic of exploitation and subjugation, the governance framework that underpinned it was as arbitrary as exclusionary and tyrannical. This means that the government structures were designed without considering the people’s interests.

In essence, the European colonial system adulterated and wholly obliterated, in some instances, traditional African institutions of governance while bequeathing artificial colonial states with frail identity or administrative capacity. Without the ability to exercise its authority over different groups in society, some of which seemed more powerful than the government and posed a severe threat to national unity, the post-colonial African leaders resorted to embracing the government philosophy of the colonial era.

Suffice it to say that this institutional framework has been sustained over the years at the expense of a thriving economy, a functional public administration, and democratic culture

In many African countries, the democratic ideology that propelled the struggle for self-rule and independence soon gave way to centralising logic of authoritarianism in the immediate post-independence era, driven by the imperative to preserve political power.

Consequently, the political culture of the new African rulers was strongly influenced by their belief in elitism, nationalism, and statism, which reflected the socialising influences of both the traditional African society and Western imperialism. African business and political leaders of the immediate post-colonial era began to see themselves as possessing a monopoly on legitimacy and wisdom.

They had been wired to see the African state and its bureaucracy as all there was to the society, and because of the artificialness of the states that they inherited, these African rulers greatly revered national unity and tended to see any form of political dissent as subversion.

This disposition towards political authority accounts for the prevalence of military regimes or one-party political systems in the immediate post-colonial era in Africa, all of which came at the expense of developing democratic institutions of governance.

For instance, it can be argued that the institutional shortcomings that characterized the democratization process in Nigeria in recent times stem partly from the long years of military rule to which the country was subjected. This probably explains why military values continue to permeate Nigeria’s political landscape, thus undermining the emergence of dynamic democratic institutions.

However, rather than a military dictatorship or one-party political system per se, the neo-patrimonial character of the modern African state has survived as the political legacy of Western colonialism and accounts for most African leadership crises across the countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

Neo-patrimonialism combines legal authority and patrimonial rule to produce a leadership system defined by clientelism, patronage and blurring of the private and public sectors. According to Engelbert and College, “neo-patrimonial policies are … the equilibrium outcome of illegitimate post-independence statehood, a condition which entails a dichotomization of power and state structures.” Neo-patrimonialism emerged as the dominant leadership structure in sub-Saharan Africa because of the superficial nature of the modern African state, which originated outside indigenous social relations and had limited foundations in traditional African society.

Therefore, neo-patrimonial policies constitute a political strategy deployed by the ruling elite to secure support for the state by entering informal alliances with dominant social forces, albeit at the expense of formal state institutions, which are then turned into resources to maintain extensive clientelist networks. Given the personalized nature of politics in neo-patrimonial systems, such systems generally feature low accountability, participation, predictability, and transparency.

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Thus, although external and internal pressures have forced many African countries to subscribe to the tenets of democracy, some countries have succeeded in developing relatively functional institutions. Yet, these political systems constructed to support democratization processes in many countries usually fall victim to the logic of neo-patrimonialism.

Zimbabwe is a glaring case of how an authoritarian logic derived from Western imperialism’s legacy has co-existed with a faltering governance experiment for decades, resulting in the emergence of a neo-patrimonial political system. From the historical leadership perspective, the struggle for self-rule in the ’60s and ’70s can be described as the critical junction in Zimbabwe’s history, establishing the pattern that would shape the country’s development process.

The liberation struggle produced a centralised party structure and the future leaders of Zimbabwe. It gave rise to a national ideology of anti-imperialism, which reveres war veterans and remains the country’s primary leadership pipeline.

Soon after taking the reins of power in 1980, former President Robert Mugabe and his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), embarked on a systematic consolidation process of power in Zimbabwe. This ambition was achieved by concentrating political power in the office and person of the president while subjecting state institutions to the control of ZANU-PF. To safeguard this political arrangement, an elaborate system of patronage in the form of an alliance between the party and the military was established to reward loyalists. In this system, the institutions of governance were subjected to the party’s authority and the president and rendered redundant to further the interests of the former.

A similar neo-patrimonial construct paints an ugly picture of what has been described as the evil triumvirate of non-governance, bad leadership, and excessive governance in many African countries such as Angola, Cameroon, Congo DR, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Nigeria. In Cameroon, government institutions are only public in name but are primarily personal and ineffective.

This is the outcome of years of dictatorial rule employed by Cameroon’s post-independence rulers to assert authority over a country that was once known for its cultural diversity and economic potential.

Since independence, the Cameroonian political system has been characterised by the concentration of political power in the president’s office, enabling Presidents Ahmadou Ahidjo and Paul Biya to build extensive patronage networks with state resources to secure the loyalty of powerful groups in the polity. Suffice it to say that this institutional framework has been sustained over the years at the expense of a thriving economy, a functional public administration, and democratic culture.

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