A cycle of frustration

Malawi: the rural vote

Malawi: the rural vote

People wait their turn to vote in Blantyre, Malawi Photo: Josephine Chinele

By Josephine Chinele

In Malawi, May is usually a cold month. The cold weather is at times coupled with chilly drizzle. In such weather, many Malawians would want to be indoors. But this year, on 21 May, the people will be voting for the politicians whose actions will determine the quality of their lives over the next five years.

And it is likely that the turnout will be influenced as much by the weather as by voters’ confidence that there is any point in electing representatives. May will see a national tripartite election, in which Malawians aged 18 years and older choose their president, members of parliament and ward councillors. Malawi Electoral Commission figures indicate that about 6.8 million voters registered to vote this year against a projected figure of 8.5 million eligible voters. That means about 20% of the adult population did not register, and that figure likely indicates  a level of frustration among Malawians regarding the quality of their political representation.

Rose Njazi of Kaphata village, in the Traditional Authority (TA) Chimombo in Nsanje, recalls the previous election in 2014, when she turned up at the voting station at 5:30 am and found that she was one of five people who had come early to vote. She felt positive: this time around, her vote would not be wasted. “I thought I was equipped with enough knowledge through civic education,” she recalls. “And it was time to decide. I was so hopeful.”

That day, Njazi voted for a councillor and parliamentarian who she felt would ensure that her area benefited from developments such as a health centre, a maternity waiting shelter, clean water and school buildings. But two years later, she found that the politicians she had entrusted with her support had “completely changed”.

“The candidates said that the voters should think of them as applying for a job. It was up to us to hire them,” she told Africa in Fact. “So, we ‘hired’ the candidates we thought were suitable – and now they are behaving as if they are our employers, and not the other way around.”

Samuel Kasakatila, of TA Ndamera in the same district, shares Njazi’s frustrations. He says once members of parliament are elected into office they abandon their promises to voters and go away to live in the city. “We don’t vote for them as individuals, we vote for them because of their manifestos,” he told Africa in Fact.

During electoral campaigns, MPs promise to represent voters in parliament, where they are in a position to lobby for developmental work in their areas, Kasakatila adds. “But it’s as if we gave them a coupon to enrich themselves. They rarely visit, or hold meetings about developing our district. There is no change.”

Residents of Nsanje are concerned. Members of parliament are required to be members of their local Area Development Committees (ADCs), but they often don’t attend committee meetings. Instead, they delegate that responsibility to others, sometimes even to their drivers, according to some residents.

One of the main roles of the ADCs is to identify development projects in their district and to allocate funds provided by the Local Development Fund (LDF) and the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) to these projects. The CDF is a type of decentralised government funding that is supposed to deliver goods and services directly to constituents by providing additional funds for local community development, outside line ministries. The LDF is a financial instrument meant to support the budgets of partner municipalities in their funding of development and poverty reduction in rural areas.

Both Njazi and Kasakatila say that members of their ADC sometimes don’t even know that construction is proceeding on a project in their district.

Radick Semba, the chairperson of the Village Development Committee (VDC) of TA Mbenje in Nsanje, blames the bad performance of Malawi’s politicians on poor civic education. MPs and ward councillors don’t understand their duties, he says. For example, ADC members often do not know how to select development projects or how money can be allocated to them.

“Duty bearers may be taking advantage of this knowledge gap to fail in fulfilling their promises,” Semba told Africa in Fact. He said that members of Malawi’s electoral communities ought to sign Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with their representatives that outline the development targets they are expected to achieve during their tenure in office.

But the voters are also to blame, Semba suggested. Constituents expect things of their representatives that have nothing to do with their public role. They want their MPs to help them when they need to get a sick relative to hospital, for instance, or they expect them to buy coffins and pay for funerals. This is one reason MPs often do not reside in their constituencies, he argued. “Some may do this out of selfishness, but others do it because their constituents give them unnecessary headaches,” he told Africa in Fact.

The problems noted by local residents with their ADCs are not only due to inadequate civic education or awareness, said Dr Boniface Dulani, a political analyst and senior partner and director of the Institute of Public Opinion and Research in Zomba, the country’s eastern region. “Many of our politicians might mean well when they make promises,” he said. “But once elected, they realise that the reality of delivering on those promises is more complicated and difficult than they thought.”

According to governance and development specialist Dr Henry Chingaipe of the Institute for Policy Research and Social Empowerment (IPRSE), an organisation based in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, the frustrations of voters are due mainly to Malawi’s “very weak” accountability mechanisms. “There is no system that translates manifestos into action, no system that holds parliamentarians accountable for the pledges they make during the election campaigns,” he told Africa in Fact. “The only mechanism we have is the elections themselves, which doesn’t address the situation.”

Some 70% of MPs are not re-elected after serving their terms in office, he says – often because of voters’ perceptions that they have failed to deliver. “A frustrated electorate just votes these MPs out, hoping that the next person will deliver. And the cycle of frustration continues,” said Chingaipe. He argues that a national planning commission should outline the country’s development needs and evaluate the positions of MPs and ADCs on that basis. Presently, he suggested, developmental goals are defined merely by “personal manifestos”.

MP for Nsanje South, Thomson Kamangira, a member of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is one parliamentarian who was re-elected into office in the 2014 elections. He believes that the people of his area like him. “They chose me to represent them again,” he told Africa in Fact. “This is an indication that I’m providing for their needs.”

Kamangira admits that he has a house in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital, about 130 km from his constituency. “Apart from being an MP, I’m also a businessman and I can only operate my businesses in Blantyre. In Nsanje, there are limited markets,” he said. He dismissed voters’ claims that MPs are just using the electorate to enrich themselves. “We are the people’s servants and it’s up to them to vote for us or not,” he said. Asked why parliamentarians did not attend ADC meetings, he said they often clashed with parliamentary meetings or other engagements.

According to Dr Eric Umar, a social psychologist at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, politicians often operate according to the “selfish gene” theory,  which implies individual human beings use other people to serve themselves. Thus, politicians have control of community resources, which they use for their own interests. In turn, voters often continue to support politicians because they expect to gain personally from doing so, or expect some specific change of policy. This is a far cry from the days of the 1994 general election, the country’s first multi-party election after years of one-party rule, when most Malawians just wanted to see a new party in power.

Like Changaipe, Umar argues that this leads to a cycle of frustration. “Many people who vote out of personal interest end up being frustrated or feeling used by politicians,” he told Africa in Fact. Voters can generally be divided into two groups, he added, those who feel an affinity with a particular party, and those who want to see change and are less concerned about which party offers it. The latter group, he suggested, often end up more disappointed.

Meanwhile, Rose Njazi still intends to vote on 21 May. This time, she says, she wants to see “things happening” in her district, to compensate for the hours that she will spend in the cold waiting to cast a vote. Otherwise, she says, “if things continue like this, they will have to give us back our votes”. Malawi’s National Assembly has 193 members of parliament who might want to keep wealth to themselves, she added, but 17 million citizens were eager to change their lives.


An aged woman casts her vote at Kapiri in Mzimba Central, nothern Malawi.JPG

An aged woman casts her vote at Kapiri in Mzimba Central, northern Malawi Photo: Josephine Chinele

A woman proudly chooses a leader of her choice.jpg

A woman proudly chooses a leader of her choice Photo: Josephine Chinele

Josephine Chinele is a multi-award winning journalist, currently a sub-editor at the Sunday Times newspaper, Johannesburg. A regular contributor for the Mail and Guardian, her special interests are the impact of HIV and AIDS in southern Africa, health and human rights. In 2015, she participated in a three-month investigative journalism fellowship with Amabhungane, and in 2018 in a US Department of State-funded Investigative journalism fellowship in the US for sub-Saharan journalists. Last year, she also won a fellowship to cover the international AIDS Conference held in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

An unhealthy and unhelpful preoccupation

African intellectuals: occident anxiety

African intellectuals: occident anxiety

Photo: iStock

By Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

A spectre is haunting Africa. It is the spectre of occident anxiety. Okay, I exaggerate: it is not haunting Africa but the imagination of its intellectuals. I call it “occident anxiety”.

I began to understand this in my graduate school days. A peer from Tanzania said to me that in my choosing to study philosophy and working to be a first-rate theorist regarding African phenomena, I was engaged in a war with white people that I could not hope to win. Why, you ask? Because, according to my friend, theory is white people’s turf and they exclusively determine the terms of engagement. The irony was completely lost on my friend that he was accepting the racist characterisation, via anthropology, of African societies and culture as simple artefacts shorn of any reflective or introspective dimensions. That is, he bought the story that the ideologists of global white supremacy love to tell: that Western genius was born of autarky and no one else witnessed that birth, much less played a role at its christening.

Yet those who know history know that the birth of European consciousness was midwifed by the native peoples of the New World; that its supposedly pure parentage manufactured in the 18th and 19th centuries for western civilisation was soiled indelibly by bastardy marked by the denial of Egyptian influence; and that Greece was a beneficiary of the ferment that was Mediterranean culture, to which it was one of several contributors in ancient times. By allowing himself to buy into the ideological history of the West, my friend turned a human inheritance into a local patrimony and removed from himself and other Africans their entitlement to put their mouth in the matter of reason, including its modern inflection, since our forebears were present, if not at its birth, at least at its christening.

By doing so, I realised, my friend was indulging – unconsciously, or at least unwittingly – an anxiety about Africa’s place in the world. Now, as far as I know, anxieties are not positive things. Often, they are mere irritants. Sometimes, though, they are quite debilitating. Depending on their severity, what start out as mere irritants can quickly escalate into debilitating disorders. Whether mere irritant or debilitating disorder, anxieties are psychical complexes and they go to the very heart of our attitudes; modes of representation, self and collective; responses to others, and just generally how we respond to our place in the world and others’ perception and/or understanding of same.

Before I outline the details of this anxiety, one final clarification is in order. I call the condition “occident anxiety” and not “occidental anxiety” because this is not an affliction that the occident, generally identified with the so-called West, suffers from. It is not an attitudinal orientation to be found among “westerners”. Rather, it is an anxiety about the occident, that is, the West.

How do we identify when African intellectuals, especially academics, are in the grip of this disorder? What are the symptoms of occident anxiety?

Occident anxiety, like other psychical complexes, sometimes breaks out as a phobia – hatred or fear of its object; at other times, it manifests as a mania — unreasoning enthusiasm for the other — or even a philia — a love of its object. It is a cathexis that has for its object “the West” and is best captured by the on-the-surface innocuous question: “What would X think of what I do?” X here refers to “the West and westerners” generally. This question pervades the African academic imaginary and it usually erupts in phobia, the irony of which is often lost on its sufferers. We will come back to this point presently.

When we have elections it is because the West wants us to have elections. When we fail to elect the right people, it is because the West will not let us choose those we want to rule over us. When we wish to change anything about our lives in the political and economic sphere, we are always anxious about how the choice would be viewed by the West. And whether and how far we are willing to cooperate in our own humiliation by the Chinese in the name of “helping” us “develop” our resources is a factor of how much we are able to bring ourselves to hate the West for daring to tell us how we conduct ourselves or how our governments should behave towards us, their citizens.

Such is this anxiety about what the West thinks, or will think, that it is difficult for our scholars to acknowledge that Africa – and it must always be Africa – suffers any lack when it comes to ideas, social and political structures, or ideational institutions and processes. It is as if to acknowledge any lack is to validate the claims of white supremacy. We are petrified into thinking, erroneously to be sure, that to acknowledge any borrowing from the so-called West would mean that the white supremacists are right; Africa is bereft of any original contribution to make to the world’s intellectual feast. It is just as bad when we find anything that we consider to be an African contribution: we must essay to show that it is quite unlike anything to be found in the West. For to find anything right with, or in the West, is to justify western imperiousness.

Such is our obsession with the West that it has become the sun around which the entire historiography of Africa revolves. This is manifested in the fact that colonialism is the pivot on which the periodisation of our history turns. Africa is the only place that I know where history has only three periods: pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial. This simplistic historiography has severe implications for knowledge production as well as our understanding of the evolution of societies, institutions, ideas, practices and processes across the continent. So dominant is this preoccupation with colonialism – yes, you guessed it, western colonialism – that it obscures our understanding of intra-African colonial subjugation and its histories.

Given that European colonialism did not last for any appreciable time – nowhere in the continent (except for the former Cape Colony) did any European colonialism last for up to two hundred years – it is scandalous that it has become the pivot of our historiography. Unfortunately, this preoccupation with European colonialism means that the further away we get from colonialism, the less interest African scholars evince in studying it. It is why we produce so few archaeologists, classicists, paleoanthropologists or paleobotanists. We are all too happy instead to mythify our history and refer to easily dateable events as if they happened in some remote past. Our dances have no history: they are eternal. Our cuisines have not evolved over time with specific entries and exits for particular dishes or ingredients. Our fashion has remained unchanged for millennia.

Ironically, the primary consumers of this upside-down narrative about Africa and its phenomena are the same people who triggered the anxiety: the West. Much of the production is driven by extraversion: made for export. Journals outside Africa need the exotica from Africa, not so much for their education but for their titillation and the reinforcement of the metaphysics of difference that absolutises African difference into a natural thing. There is hardly any internal discourse in the continent; not even within individual countries. Despite all the prattle about decolonising the mind and the disciplines within Africa, there is hardly any investment in local languages, very few outlets for the dissemination of knowledge locally, and there is more concern to place pieces in “international journals” even though, at a fundamental level, every international journal has a specific locale from which it originates and, to that extent, is local.

Occident anxiety reinforces our need to be certified by the West. Much of what we produce, how we think of what is worthy of study, and the like, is determined by which foundation, which scholarship, which institution in the West, is interested in putting up the funding for our proposed research. The biggest scandal lies in the fact that the language in which we articulate our anxiety and the sources from which we often draw evidence to refute racist notions about us come from the self-same anthropologistic problematic that defined us out of the human stream in the first place.

How can we tell that a scholar is in the throes of occident anxiety? There are many telltale signs. First, because it is more important that we not allow contamination from the bad West, it is less important that an idea be correct or adequate or an argument be valid or sound; it is more important that it has the right pedigree. So what if communalism in other climes has been implicated in limiting the ability of the individual to be different, or even eccentric? Our African proponents are more concerned to underscore its correctness and relevance to Africa because it is “African”! Related to this is a persistent desire to delegitimise those of us who seek to engage our inheritance in a critical way and locate it, as it should be, in dialogue with other human traditions and practices. If we do as much as let it slip that our alternatives might undermine the integrity of what is being peddled as African stuff, we are immediately accused of being stalking horses for the West, westernism, westernisation, or what have you. Any hint of western inspiration is, prima facie, a disqualification.

Consequently, African scholars are forever looking for homegrown equivalents of western concepts without bothering to develop the found terms into usable concepts. Occident anxiety is what leads us always to think that if we cannot show that it is “homegrown”, it cannot be authentic – as if being authentic is a synonym for being right or effective. African intellectuals think that authenticity must mean defining themselves against the West. Whatever it is they take the West to be, Africa must be the opposite or, minimally, unlike it. In particular, they identify the West with some sort of ownership over reason; therefore, almost by definition, Africa cannot be similarly identified. Occident anxiety abounds in ironies even as it remains oblivious of them.

Occident anxiety can be easily cured. First, abandon any racism-inflected metaphysics of difference that takes Africa out of the normal circuit of human doing and thinking. African problems are contingent iterations of human problems – no more, no less. To lack is human. Civilisations have always been characterised by hybridity. No lack is peculiarly African. Finally, stop talking about Africa and African phenomena as if they were simple; few things in life are simple. African phenomena must always be thought in their complexity and this is what generates theory, which is deployed to make sense of them. Africa deserves no less.



Photo: iStock

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò is a teacher, thinker and humanist, working out of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University in the US. His research interests include philosophy of law, social and political philosophy, Marxism, and African and Africana philosophy. His writings have been translated into French, Italian, German, and Portuguese. He has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria, Germany, South Korea, and Jamaica.

History repeats itself

Namibia: apartheid-era tactics

Namibia: apartheid-era tactics

Former UK Foreign Office Minister Henry Bellingham and Namibian President Hage Geingob Photo: Flickr

By Frederico Links

In April 2018, Namibia’s Central Intelligence Service (NCIS) attempted to block the publication of a report by the weekly The Patriot newspaper alleging widespread misuse of state assets and resources by the spy agency’s bosses. Strikingly, the NCIS cited the apartheid-era Protection of Information Act of 1982, which allows state security agencies to invoke an information and media blackout under the cloak of “national security”. The law itself has long since been scrapped in South Africa, after it was found to be unconstitutional in the post-1994 dispensation in that country.

But in Namibia, the Protection of Information Act remains firmly on the statute books –  a weapon that can and has now been used to try to censor the press and limit free expression. The Patriot took the matter to court and, in June 2018, won its challenge. “The provisions of the law can and should never be used for any illegal purpose or to cover up unlawful or potentially unlawful activity,” said High Court Judge Harald Geier in a stinging comment. This attempt to gag the media attracted fierce condemnation from both the public, mostly on social media platforms, as well as civil society organisations.

Several civil society organisations were strongly critical of the move. In April 2018, after the attempt to gag the newspaper became public, the Access to Information in Namibia (ACTION) Coalition said state security structures were resorting to apartheid-era laws “to undermine transparency and accountability and, in essence, the public interest in an independent Namibia (Disclaimer: this writer is the chairperson of the ACTION Coalition.).” The Editors’ Forum of Namibia (EFN) said the government was using an apartheid law “to silence the media and to promote secrecy”.

Members of the Namibian ruling party elite are increasingly displaying elements of a securocratic mindset and a governance approach strongly reminiscent of the pre-independence apartheid regime, under which South Africa governed the country as a provincial police state. The Swapo-led government was mainly doing easy things, such as changing street names and taking down statues, so as to seem to be conquering colonialism, Gwen Lister, a founder and former editor of Namibia’s largest newspaper, The Namibian, told Africa in Fact.

Lister herself was constantly harassed – even arrested and detained while pregnant –  during the dark apartheid days. South African state security operatives also bombed the newspaper’s offices in the late 1980s because of its reporting of apartheid regime  excesses in pre-independence Namibia. The current government is keeping “draconian”, apartheid-era legislation on the books, such as the Protection of Information Act “because they could – and have [already] – come in useful one day,” says Lister, now chairperson of the Namibia Media Trust (NMT). “There’s also a tendency to defend some practices and policies by saying, ‘if they did it, why can’t we?’.”

Lister recalls attending a tripartite meeting of government, labour and the private sector soon after independence, when she questioned Prime Minister Hage Geingob (now the Namibian president) on the purchase of luxury BMW vehicles for government officials. She put it to him that Swapo, the current ruling party, had promised to be different to the previous government. As she remembers the encounter, his reply was: “You didn’t make an issue when apartheid leaders did it, so why is it unacceptable now when done by a black government which fought for these same privileges?”

The Economic Association of Namibia (EAN) development economist and programme manager, Cons Karamata, told Africa in Fact that the country’s post-independence political elites have come to seem imitative of the former apartheid rulers because the structures of the apartheid-era political economy remain largely intact. “They basically took over the structures of the colonisers,” he says. “To a large extent, the [apartheid] model continued”.

Since independence in 1990, Namibia’s post-independence elites have, in a similar manner to apartheid-era elites, cornered and replicated educational and economic opportunities to benefit their offspring and associates, he argues. Their children, for instance, are afforded the best education and, once they graduate, are given preferential access to state-controlled employment and resources. The pattern is one of social exclusion for the country’s less-privileged, mirroring the mode of the previous regime. The “politics of the belly” have seen earlier ideals of a more egalitarian and meritocratic society left in the dust like a sweet paper thrown from a luxury SUV.

The Swapo-led government is “no exception” as compared to other former liberation movements-turned-political parties around Africa in displaying some of the more troubling characteristics of the former colonisers, says Ndumba Kamwanyah, a political columnist for The Namibian newspaper and the deputy director of the University of Namibia’s Centre for Professional Development, Teaching and Learning Improvement. This phenomenon is “deeply concerning” and “highly disappointing and unfortunate,” he told Africa in Fact. “It renders African people’s tireless efforts for decolonisation on the continent fruitless.”

One irony of the situation, Kamwanyah says, is that, as a liberation movement, Swapo itself fought tooth and nail against a colonial system but is now mimicking colonial approaches, practices and tactics in its administration of an independent Namibia. The NCIS-The Patriot affair mirrors other situations in which the Namibian state has taken a “colonial approach” based on apartheid-era municipal ordinances, he argues, including the demolition of shacks and eviction of squatters from informal settlements in urban areas and “a heavy-handed approach” to policing during a recent joint operation of the Namibian police and the military to fight crime.

As regards the latter, President Geingob launched Operation Hornkrantz on 21 December last year, in which police officers and soldiers conducted night patrols and road blocks in urban crime hotspots across the country. But, as reports of arbitrary police and military harassment, violence and intimidation flooded into newsrooms, the operation came under heavy criticism. People who were subjected to it were strongly reminded of the methods of the apartheid police state. “The coloniser [has] only changed colour … The more things change, the more they remain the same,” one Namibian commented on a Facebook post in relation to the operation, which ended in mid-January this year.

“This colonial mindset is more often reflected in the hierarchical nature of Namibian politics in which political leaders, especially the ruling party, Swapo, and government officials, demand loyalty and obedience from citizens,” Kamwanyah says. “Namibia’s politics and decision-making processes are highly centralised at the party and government level.” Namibian leaders, he adds, warn citizens not to discuss certain topics, claiming that doing so might endanger the country’s hard-won peace and stability. In so doing, they use fear to quash public debate about critical issues affecting the nation and impose a code of silence as a condition for peace and stability.

The Swapo-led government’s sensitivity to criticism has apparently only been sharpened by calls for the former liberation movement, now a political party, to account for its human rights violations during the liberation struggle. “There are those that are intent on opening old wounds,” President Geingob told a Heroes Day commemoration in August last year. He followed his comment with a veiled threat: “They shall open a Pandora’s box, notwithstanding the fact that many collaborators and perpetrators of gross crimes against the people of Namibia are still here.”

An editorial in The Namibian commented that when victims of Swapo’s human rights violations tried to speak of their ordeals, they were told to shut up. “Worse still, the victims are blackmailed with accusations that they are agitating for a return to the dark days of apartheid,” the editorial said.

In another incident, in September 2018, the speaker of the Namibian National Assembly, Peter Katjavivi, threatened to evict journalists from covering parliamentary debates after MPs complained of being “spied on”. This followed reports and photographs of many of them distractedly playing on their mobile phones and tablets while important debates were happening in the parliamentary chamber. Katjavivi described the journalists involved as “unprofessional individuals” and threatened to exclude them from parliament. And not long before, Katjavivi had admonished, and effectively censored, ruling party backbenchers for being critical of how the party’s government leaders were performing and governing.

“Someone didn’t get the memo,” Kamwanyah says of the prevailing attitudes of the Swapo elite. “Namibians are not colonial subjects.”

That the ruling political elite is mimicking some of the characteristics of the apartheid regime has also not escaped members of the general public, who make use of social media platforms to vent their frustration about government service-delivery failures and corruption. This year is an election year in Namibia, and many ordinary commentators on social-media platforms are once again calling for things to change.

“While apartheid’s roots have been deep and pervasive and continue to have their effect on Namibian society today, it is up to the government to live up to the promises of democracy and to do away with the lingering effects of apartheid, whether policies or practices,” says Lister. “Nearly three decades after the demise of the colonial era, our rulers must take full responsibility for their actions.”

But only a visionary leadership would try to achieve this, Karamata believes – and such leadership is nowhere in evidence.




Protestors at the 2nd National Land Conference in Windhoek in 2018 Photo: Frederico Links

Frederico Links is a Namibian journalist, editor, researcher, trainer and activist. Research associate of Namibia’s Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). He is primarily concerned with democracy and governance, particularly corruption and maladministration. He is chairperson of the Access to Information in Namibia (ACTION) Coalition of civil society, media and social activists.

Up close and personal

Africa’s leaders: psychology matters


Africa's leaders: psychology matters

Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame Photo: Wikimedia, Copyright World Economic Forum www.weforum.org / Eric Miller emiller@iafrica.com

By Francois Misser


“Africa doesn’t need strongmen. It needs strong institutions,” said former US president Barack Obama during a visit to Ghana in July 2009. Yet the work of building strong institutions is not easy on a continent where the weakness of institutions strengthens the role of all too many so-called “providential leaders”.

One didn’t necessarily have to physically meet with former Zairian ruler Mobutu Sese Seko, for instance, to feel his presence from miles away – and the fear which it inspired. In September 1981, I was on board a steamer sailing up the Congo River. Suddenly, the Belgian captain ordered the ship’s engines to stop. The river traffic was paralysed for two hours – steamers, pirogues and barge-pushers alike. The captain and the crew became increasingly tense, nervous and silent, until the “Supreme Guide”’s riverboat, the Kamanyola, appeared – complete with a helicopter on the rear deck. The relief when it disappeared was palpable. Once again, laughter was heard on the river.

At that time, even Mobutu’s staunchest critics accorded him extraordinary influence. Former Zairian prime minister Jean Nguza Karl-i-Bond once described him as the “incarnation of Zairian evil”. In the country that he dominated, Mobutu was everything, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. People believed that the “Great Leopard” was endowed with superpowers. Many Zairians believed that his superpowers had allowed him to escape death at the battle of Kamanyola by protecting him against bullets.

Those were times of giant figures, when the destiny of a nation could depend entirely on one man. I never felt this more strongly than in Angola, with regard to one man – Jonas Savimbi. In August 1990 it was an ordeal to arrive at his headquarters in the “lands of the end of the world”, as the area was called by the Portuguese. A three-hour night flight over Botswana and a two-hour drive on endless dust roads through the bush finally brought me to Jamba, UNITA’s “capital”. It took another week before I could meet o mais velho (the old man) in a vast military camp somewhere near Mavinga.

Everyone in Unitaland felt Savimbi’s presence. Many people in UNITA genuinely believed that he was endowed with magical superpowers. “Even self-confident worldly men trembled in Savimbi’s presence,” the Angolan academic Ricardo Soares de Oliveira writes in his 2015 book on the country. “It is widely acknowledged that the personality and choices of Jonas Savimbi … are more important for understanding UNITA than its loosely defined ideology or formal decision-making structure.”

His talent and charisma were enormous. The man was fluent in Umbundu and Kimbundu, as well as Portuguese, French and English. He delivered long, formidable Castro-like speeches, one of which I witnessed in Jamba during the so-called “last Congress in the Bush”, in March 1991. It was on that occasion that a former South African military officer and diplomat, Sean Cleary, described Savimbi as a Moses who would lead Angolans to the promised land of democracy. Savimbi’s ego had no limits. No dissent was tolerated. Over the years, a number of his deputies – among them UNITA foreign minister Tony da Costa and party general Miguel Nzau Puna, who both left UNITA – either defected or were murdered. This was probably the case with Tito Chigunji, who was UNITA representative in the US when I met him in 1988 and later became foreign secretary of the movement. He was shot in 1991 somewhere in the Angolan bush in obscure circumstances.

Sixteen years after the death of this would-be absolute king, many analysts believe that his ego was the main reason why the Angolan war resumed after the first round of the presidential election in 1992. By comparison, his successor, Isaias Samakuva, was little more than a polite leader of the opposition. Other factors surely also had an influence on UNITA’s capitulation, such as exhaustion, low morale, war fatigue and failing military tactics. But nobody then denied the role of Savimbi’s immense personality.

Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, by contrast, is a very different type of man. I met him for the first time in December 1994, in a suite at the Brussels Hilton, during his first visit to Belgium after the genocide. Extremely tall, in a grey suit and a tie. His voice was soft. Both the smile and the eyes behind the spectacles looked benevolent, perhaps because he had been briefed to talk positively to a French-speaking audience. Hutu extremists had painted a horrendous picture of him. Some media, influenced by Elysée Palace propaganda, had represented him as a Pol Pot of the Great Lakes.

Instead, I found in him someone who understood that the fact that I was French would not automatically mean that I shared the hostile attitude of the then-French government, that there would be a distinction between the attitude of a state and that of an individual citizen. Yet, at the same time, he was, I realised during the first hour of that one-on-one discussion, an iron fist in a velvet glove. He adopted a very directive tone when he received a call from the Rwandan ambassador in Brussels, Denis Polisi – a man who I knew was capable of delivering inflammatory speeches in his deep, low voice, but who was very submissive with the boss.

One month later in Kigali, when I again interviewed Kagame, I was plunged into a totally different atmosphere. His discrete and omnipresent secretary, Emmanuel Ndahiro, kept postponing meetings. When, finally, I got to see him, Kagame was no longer the statesman abroad on a diplomatic tour, but a leader besieged in his ministry of defence office by innumerable challenges, including incursions by genocidaires at the Congolese border and other attempts at destabilisation. Nevertheless, he took the time to offer another version of his story and of Rwanda’s history for consumption to the outside world.

I decided to ask this man, who had been so demonised, who he was and how he had become the man of the moment. The result was included in my book Towards a New Rwanda, an Interview with Paul Kagame, published a year and half after the genocide. His background was similar to that of other leaders of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), who like him grew up in refugee camps in Uganda. In 1961, when he was four, he and his family barely escaped their home on the hill of Nyarotuvu, in the Gitarama prefecture, during a previous genocidal wave. “[Attackers who] were burning houses, killing people, realised we were going to flee,” he told me. They were lucky to be evacuated. With his family, he became a refugee in Ugandan camps, where conditions were “horrible”, and many Rwandan refugees died of poverty or disease.

There is little doubt that such dire conditions helped to shape the personality of a man who became a guerrilla and then a professional soldier, by necessity rather than by choice. The complete refusal of the Hutu-led government of that time to allow the refugees to return left them with no option other than armed struggle. To make that possible, Uganda would have to be liberated, if it was to offer a springboard for an attack on Rwanda. At the age of 24, with his friend and comrade, Fred Rwigema, Kagame joined a group of 27 fighters led by Yoweri Museveni, who aimed to liberate Uganda from Milton Obote’s dictatorship. At the end of this liberation war, Kagame drew the lesson that Museveni’s victory in 1986 was closely associated with political work and particularly with support from grassroots people, as well as the tactics and strategy employed.

Kagame’s story is therefore one of adaptation to circumstances. It was not by choice that he became the boss of Uganda’s military intelligence, he told me. It was he who urged the first attack by the RPF in October 1990 against the late Juvenal Habyarimana’s supremacist Hutu regime. The attack had to be launched in haste. “Uganda had started becoming uneasy about complaints from Rwanda concerning the presence of refugees on its soil,” Kagame told me. “We had to move fast, before the Ugandan army threw us out.”

The attack was a disaster. The commander in chief, Rwigema, was killed in an ambush on the first day. Three weeks later, on the 23 October, 1990, the interim commanders, Peter Bayingana and Chris Bunyenyezi were killed in separate ambushes. Kagame was called back to the field from the US where he was attending a training course at Fort Leavenworth, Texas, and found “total disorganisation”, as he put it. He ordered a complete reorganisation of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA). This approach, combined with Kagame’s experience of the guerrilla war with the National Resistance Army (NRA),  led the RPA to it first military victory in 1993. Shortly after that, the Arusha peace agreement imposed a power-sharing deal on Habyarimana’s party and the opposition, including the RPF.

Kagame, the new commander in chief, led the fight from the field. A fellow soldier, Sergeant Jean Bosco, told me after the fall of Kigali in July 1994 that Kagame was regarded as the best shot, the fittest man – “the best of all of us”. A former Belgian paratrooper, Jacques Collet, told me that Kagame enjoyed enormous admiration from his fellow soldiers. He created a disciplined army that was capable of impressive economy in its use of ammunition and a high degree of accuracy in their deployment, while drinking alcohol was forbidden. By these measures, the strict and austere Kagame compensated for the RPA’s inferiority in numbers and in equipment. A particular quality of his struck me during my interviews with him: he was careful to refer to enemies with respect. He always referred to Habyarimana by his name and never used the many disparaging nicknames by which he was known.

Kagame became a successful leader because he was part of a group with strong social cohesion: during the struggle RPF militants sometimes referred to their organisation as umulihango(family). But to my mind, there is little doubt that his personal qualities contributed to creating that cohesion. At the end of the day, he brought the RPF army insintzi (victory), in July 1994.

There is also little doubt, however, that Kagame’s repression of opponents has been implacable. Many civilians were massacred during his campaign against the genocidaires in the DRC in 1997 and during the 1998-2003 war in the Congo. There are also suspicions about the deaths of opponents abroad. Former Rwandan Minister of the Interior and RPF member Seth Sendashonga was shot dead in his car in a Nairobi street by two unidentified gunmen on 16 May, 1988. Former director general of the Rwandan defence forces, Colonel Patrick Karegeya, was found dead in his hotel room in Johannesburg on 1 January, 2014. In both cases, friends and relatives of the victims accused the Rwandan intelligence of perpetrating the murders.

Yet some 25 years after the genocide, Rwanda has become one of Africa’s most vibrant economies. In 2005, Microsoft Africa’s CEO, Cheick Modibo Diarra, picked Rwanda as a test market for the group’s continental strategy, citing Kagame’s keen interest in e-governance and e-education. The sometime military strategist, tagged the “Bismarck of Africa”, has embarked on a battle for his country’s development, and with some success. By 2015, Rwanda had met almost all of its Millenium Development Goals targets. Kigale, a former war zone, is now celebrated as a buzzing capital.

Psychology matters. For me, another example of this was provided in neighbouring Burundi by Major Pierre Buyoya, whom I also interviewed several times in formal or less formal conditions, the first time in the presidential palace in 1989. I would later meet him at hotels, conference centres and even drink whiskey with him at his Bujumbura home in the posh neighbourhood of Kiriri (Kagame is rather the tea drinker type). Buyoya shared some characteristics with his cold-blooded and implacable predecessor, Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, whom he toppled in a bloodless coup in 1987. Like Bagaza, Buyoya was born in Burundi’s southern province of Bururi, in the same small town of Rutovu. Both belonged to the Hima Tutsi sub-group and both went to the Brussels Royal Military Academy. Yet their styles and personalities were completely different.

Bagaza, who overthrew his relative, Captain Michel Micombero, in a bloodless coup in 1976, never tolerated the slightest dissent. I met him, after he had been overthrown himself, in a small hotel in Brussels, a bitter and frustrated man. He had spent the previous 11 years repressing the Hutu majority, who were excluded from the army and key administration jobs. When communities with a Roman Catholic base criticised these government policies, Bagaza declared war on the church and began expelling missionaries.

Buyoya was more compromising. After a wave of inter-ethnic violence in August 1988 between members of the Ntega and Marangara groups, he tried to build bridges between Hutus and Tutsis and eventually embarked on a path of political reform and dialogue. His attitude was reminiscent of the character in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard, who says: “if you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. Buyoya added to this a touch of Machiavellian wisdom. To keep their privileges, he saw that the Tutsis would have to accept a pluralistic democracy. A Hutu prime minister was installed in October 1988 and again after the elections of 1993. But for the Hutus the accumulated frustrations were great. Rather than supporting Buyoya, they voted for Melchior Ndadaye’s Hutu-led Burundi Democratic Front, which won a landslide victory. Yet, that wasn’t the end of Buyoya’s career.

Evidence of his resilience was provided in 1996, with a coup waged in his favour by the then-defence minister, Colonel Firmin Sinzoyiheba. Buyoya re-emerged as the new president and remained in office until 2003. I remember him as a clever man who spoke softly with a sometimes crooked smile. He was almost predatory, like a cat conscious of its nine lives. I met with him many times between 1989 and 2014. During that time, I encountered a man who was at the top, then a has-been, then a man at the top again. Throughout it all, there was always a sense of seduction about him. I know that former US Assistant State Secretary for African Affairs Herman “Hank” Cohen held him in high esteem. It was not surprising to see Buyoya later embarking on an international career, as an election observer on behalf of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), as peace mission leader in Chad and, lately, as the African Union high representative for Sahel.

If anything demonstrates that personality is an important factor in African political events, it is the fact that close family members may act in totally opposite ways. This is shown by the careers of the late Étienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba and of his son, Félix, who was sworn in as president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on 24 January this year.

Over many decades, Étienne Tshisekedi, with other dissident MPs, was an important figure of resistance against Mobutu’s and Laurent Kabila’s dictatorships and, later, Joseph Kabila’s authoritarian rule. Stubbornness is the quality that comes to mind. I can still see the pictures of his bleeding head after he was beaten by Mobutu’s security, which I published in the French magazine Afrique Asie. Later, Étienne and his family, including the 19-year-old Felix, spent several years under house arrest in a village in Kasai province, without electricity or water. Even so, Étienne Tshisekedi was able to draw large crowds of supporters in Kinshasa, where he was hailed as a Moses who would bring the Congolese flock to the land of democracy.

His son, by contrast, the rather plump “Fatshi”, is a much more easy-going guy – a “good pal”, according to his friends, and so far does not appear to have inherited his father’s fighting spirit. In January 2018, Félix Tshisekedi escaped from a Kinshasa church, where a protest meeting was taking place, as the police were besieging the building. “You are abandoning us,” angry youths shouted in despair. Even before his election, other opposition leaders suspected that he had struck a deal with Joseph Kabila. Former companions in the opposition were not so surprised when the DRC’s independent national electoral commission declared Tshisekedi junior the winner – though even the AU expressed “serious doubts” about the conduct of the election. Now, Félix is mainly thought to be a collaborator with Joseph Kabila’s authoritarian regime. Same blood, different mind, different attitude.

When different leaders are confronted with similar circumstances and sometimes even the same adversary, the outcome of their actions may vary completely. Surely the influence of personality must play a role. We have seen the cases of the guerrilla leaders Savimbi and Kagame and the coup-makers Bagaza and Buyoya. This applies as much to civilian politicians such as the Tshisekedis, father and son. For me, one of the main differences is between those who will risk their lives and those who won’t. Another is the difference between those whose struggle is against injustice and those who are motivated by the opportunities of office or by a wish to retain their privileges – even if the price is oppression.

As a long-time correspondent, I have met and talked with many African leaders and politicians. You learn much from meeting them personally, and for the journalist this is indispensable. But you can also learn a lot from seeing them through the eyes of their supporters. Both Kagame and Savimbi enjoyed the genuine admiration of their followers, and both were cordially hated by their enemies. Yet the essence of Savimbi’s power, like that of Mobuto, was in the fear that he inspired in his subordinates.

Of them all, I would say that the most impressive is Kagame. He doesn’t fish for compliments. He admits freely that he isn’t particularly interested in other leaders. Yet, very pragmatically, he is still prepared to learn from them. As he told me, one can learn even from leaders one doesn’t like.


Jonas Savimbi Photo: Wikimedia, Ernmuhl

Francois Misser is a Brussels-based journalist. He has covered central Africa since 1981 and European-African relations since 1984 for the BBC, Afrique Asie magazine, African Energy, the Italian monthly magazine Nigrizia, and Germany’s Die Tageszeitung newspaper. He has written books on Rwanda and the DRC. His last book, on the Congo River dams, is La Saga d’Inga.

In the hands of a few

African elites: multiple pathways

African elites: multiple pathways

Frantz Fanon Photo: Wikimedia

By Anna Trapido

‘‘History is a graveyard of aristocracies,” the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto famously wrote. In fact, Pareto introduced the word “elite” to the social sciences. In the early twentieth century he argued that a minority will always rule without recourse to what he considered to be outdated notions of heredity or class.

In contemporary political discourse, attacking the elite is a popular pastime. Internationally, United States President Donald Trump ran a successful 2016 electoral campaign based on a rejection of the “establishment”. Closer to home, two years ago Julius Malema told his 1.24 million Twitter followers that the occasion of the ANC’s 105th birthday was an opportunity “for the politically connected black elite to show off their ill-gotten gains”. Inter-elite bashing, in which aspirant elites seek to advantage themselves by sending rivals to Pareto’s metaphorical graveyard, is a common occurrence.

Power-hungry populism can obscure the need for a more complex analysis of elite behaviour. For better or worse, in human societies control is almost invariably concentrated in the hands of the few rather than the many. Elites determine the direction societies take, even if there are always countervailing trends and challenges to power from below. Because of this, their conduct is critical to the development of countries all around the world.

Beyond political point-scoring, examining elites is complex. The mechanisms through which they exercise power are often obscure, as they cross both public and private spheres of social institutions. Some elite conduct must be inferred from the action and inaction of organs of state, and economic, political and social institutions.

Here, I discuss two samples of countries drawn from the Sustainable Economic Opportunity (SEO) category of the 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Government (IIAG). This category measures the extent to which governments enable their citizens to pursue economic goals and provide opportunities to prosper. These samples consist of four countries in the high category (Mauritius, Morocco, Rwanda, South Africa) and two median-ranked countries (Nigeria and Algeria) on the SEO index.

Development is, of course, always an unfolding process. Moreover, the top-ranked countries cannot be said to represent an “ideal” type for development. Nevertheless, examining these two groups will help to gain some understanding of the traits of elites that can be associated with more, or less, successful economic development. In the high category, Rwanda and Morocco stand out as countries that have significantly improved their economic opportunity score over the decade that the IIAG index has been compiled. In contrast, median-ranked countries show little or negative change over time. Looking at this group gives more insights than examining bottom-ranked countries with profound governance breakdowns. In situations of total breakdown so many systems are broken that it is almost impossible to compare them to the more viable states.

In 1968, Mauritius was granted independence under the leadership of its first prime minister, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. Faced with a multi-ethnic democratic state, the existing Franco-Mauritian elite could no longer sustain the hegemony it had held for two centuries. Political dominance shifted to the Hindu elite, backed by the more numerous Hindu community. More than five decades later, Franco-Mauritians – who currently number about 10,000 out of a population of 1.2 million – can still be considered an integral aspect of the Mauritian economic elite. As Richard Sandbrook and his colleagues argued in a 2007 study, Franco-Mauritians “accepted an implicit bargain by yielding political dominance and accepting some redistribution in exchange for the legitimacy that a modest social democracy would generate – provided reforms excluded exorbitant taxes or asset redistribution.”

In line with C. Wright Mills’ 1956 account of the fusion of elite power, Carl Stone argued in a 1983 study about the Caribbean that in many instances a power elite emerged which constituted a tightly knit network of political and business elites. Mauritius, however, has two functional elites in the political and economic spheres, which can be said to offer some stability. Such a scenario is closer to Suzanne Keller’s pluralist model of elites in society, in which specialised elites lead multiple competitive groups, fortifying plurality of power and legitimising the existence of opposing factions.

Within this framework, Mauritius has transitioned from a low-income agricultural dependent economy into a diversified, upper middle-income economy. Inter-elite competition is combined with sufficient consensus to facilitate development. Since the 1980s that consensus has been enhanced by growing economic prosperity, which has seen Mauritius becoming one of the most democratically stable African states. Major contributors to the GDP include agriculture (4%), industry (22%) and services (74%), the latter dominated by finance and tourism. Mauritius provides off-shore banking services as an Indian Ocean hub. Aiming to become a high-income country in the next decade, and positioning itself as a gateway to East Africa, the government adopted a growth strategy of public investments in education, infrastructure, ICT and improvements in the business climate.

Following the 1994 genocide, Rwanda’s economic direction has been shaped by a technocratically oriented political elite. Government development strategies have channelled public investment to improve human capital, infrastructure and the ease of doing business, facilitating an average annual GDP growth of between 6% and 8% since 2003.

Rwanda is a densely populated, predominantly agrarian country and its economic elite is still small, with an estimated 600 dollar millionaires in 2017, according to a 2017 study by estate agents Knight Frank. By comparison, Kenya has a population four times larger and some 16 times more millionaires. The relatively small size of Rwanda’s economic elite is partly due to its lack of natural resources from which rents can be extracted, but this also means that it does not suffer from the “resource curse” that is conspicuously evident in Algeria and Nigeria.

In a 2011 book, Francis Fukuyama argues that state building requires the replacement of patrimonial affiliations by a meritocratic bureaucracy operating under the rule of law and with accountability. The explicit aim of the “Rwandan model” for development has been to weaken the conflict-ridden ethnic power dynamics of the previous order. For instance, the constitution prohibits the formation of political parties on grounds that they can give rise to discrimination. Commentators have argued that this allows Rwanda’s ruling elite – largely drawn from the Tutsi minority – to suppress opposing views, and that the country’s economic development is being achieved at the expense of civil rights.

In Morocco, elite power has traditionally relied on close ties to the monarchy. The monarchy is deeply involved in the economic life of the kingdom as its largest landowner and investor, with dominant positions in agribusiness, financial services and mining enterprises. However, structural adjustments during the 1980s saw neo-liberal reforms, which transferred state enterprises to business elites, according to a 2018 study by political scientist Merouan Mekouar.

In recent years, the monarchy has adopted a realpolitik approach, defending its power by attempting to limit reforms. In 2011, for instance, King Mohammed VI pre-empted opposition to the elite concentration of power during the so-called Arab Spring that saw uprisings in countries across North Africa by raising social security payments and devolving more power to parliament. More recently, the king has called for a new social contract for Morocco, according to a July 30, 2018 report by the North African Post.

Even though fairly limited, Morocco’s reforms have resulted in an increasingly outward-looking approach, with the government aiming to enhance the country’s attractiveness as a regional business hub. Currently, Morocco is successfully exploiting its geographic location and lower labour costs to develop secondary industries for the European market. After a 33-year absence, it rejoined the African Union In 2017.

South Africa’s economic elite historically harnessed the country’s mineral endowment to build infrastructure and industrialise under a racially segregated political system, which was enabled by a close and often corrupt relation to the state. Since the establishment of democracy in 1994, black citizens’ access to public services has expanded significantly, public finances stabilised, and the country has regained access to international debt markets. The ruling ANC’s development policy aims for economic diversification, extensions of infrastructure, enabling higher value chains and opening access to the economy to the previously excluded black majority. A progressive tax system helps to finance social security for the poor, which has reduced poverty levels.

Despite these advances, South Africa has achieved “an incomplete transition”, as a 2018 World Bank study puts it. Broadly speaking, the 1994 negotiated settlement saw the white elite conceding political power while retaining economic power. Moreover, the economy remains highly concentrated, with the existence of a small number of large dominant firms and state-owned enterprises (SOEs), increasing overall labour and input costs. Structurally, a high-cost, skills-intensive formal sector creates barriers to entry, while the country has a large pool of unemployed people lacking the skills in demand.

New, politically connected elites have grown up around government and SOEs, while the efficiency of the key public services of health, education and security has declined as the new elites increasingly self-provide and fail to hold public institutions accountable. These factors have blunted the ruling party’s stated intention of raising quality of life. Economic growth has slowed due to declining competitiveness, skills shortages and network infrastructure constraints. Meanwhile, recent revelations of the extent of state capture (the operation of the state for private gain) have seen declining business confidence.

Moreover, South Africa’s ruling party is increasingly split into factions that either aid state capture or seek to restore the integrity of state institutions. Even so, the latter group appears unable or unwilling to commit itself on key economic policy issues, such as property rights. The resulting policy uncertainty has seen the economy stagnate, with investors unwilling to commit the capital necessary for growth.

In his philosophical classic, The Wretched of the Earth (1961), which offers a critique of colonial society and its influence on the post-colonial experience, Frantz Fanon foresaw that the project of national liberation might be betrayed when new ruling classes annexed state power. In particular, Fanon was scornful of nationalisation, which he saw not as a genuine mechanism to build an economy but as a pitiless form of individual enrichment.  Fanon died in 1961, having devoted himself to the cause of an Algerian independence that he did not live to see. But even in his lifetime, Fanon’s ideas became an embarrassment to that country’s revolutionary elite, and more than half a century after his death his comments read like prophesy of the Algerian situation.

The People’s National Army is still a key power elite in the country. In a 2009 study, Isabelle Werenfels described the privileged status of the famille révolutionnaire and the kind of social exclusion seen in the discrepancy between the “Arabisation” of the school system and the de facto dominance of French in the upper echelons of society, which “prevents contesting actors from moving into the elite”. As Fanon put it: “The business of obscuring language is a mask behind which stands the much greater business of plunder.”

Nationalised oil and gas dominate the Algerian economy, making up almost a third of GDP, 60% of budget revenue and 95% of export earnings. High oil prices from 2010 to 2014 facilitated selective economic liberalisation through privatised state-owned industries, which benefit politically connected individuals. “[A]ll economically relevant sectors – especially defence and hydrocarbons – have been transformed by the country’s politico-military elites into sources of political patronage,” writes Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck in a 2018 study. However, since 2014, lower oil prices have reduced the elite’s ability to distribute rents and fund public subsidies, which is driving the government to become increasingly protectionist by cutting imports and promoting import substitution.

Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and most populous country, is heavily reliant on oil and gas for foreign exchange earnings and government revenue. The conspicuous gap between its resource endowment and level of development has spawned many explanations, which centre around classifying the country as a neo-patrimonial, prebendalist state in which officials accrue state resources to themselves. Nigeria’s elites have their genesis in colonial rule, which enlisted local pro-colonial traditional leadership structures to serve as proxies within colonial boundaries.

According to Fukuyama, an arrested state-building process occurs when countries set up democracies before they have functioning states that are governed by the rule of law and administered through autonomous, meritocratic bureaucracies. Without these factors, politicians easily hijack  state institutions. Moreover, Nigerian state institutions are riven by bifurcated norms: formally professed legal rules and other practical norms of conduct are co-opted by self-serving incumbents. In a 2009 study, Richard Joseph describes this as a “toll-gate culture … [which] has a fundamentally deleterious economic impact. It can become economically rational for individuals to impede the flow of commerce rather than facilitate it.”

As Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie pointed out in a 2011 interview, the result is that Nigerian politics is, paradoxically, largely non-ideological. “Rather than a battle of ideas,” she said, “it is about who can pump in the most money and buy the most access. Cash is handed out to local leaders, bags of rice are given to women’s groups, and promises are made about fixing roads that nobody really believes will be fixed.”

This survey of two groups of African countries shows that there are multiple pathways to sustainable development, but such success almost invariably requires sustained economic development, that is, investment in human capital within a stable, outwardly-orientated, diversified and business-friendly environment. Elites in successful economies are not personally more virtuous than their counterparts in countries with restricted economic opportunities. What distinguishes them from their more predatory counterparts is that they understand that they exist within wider contexts, and that it is beneficial to them to invest at least some of the fruits of their advantage in the wider population.

Superficial elite-bashing tends to focus on the perceived personal morality and material status of powerful people. It does not address the structural shortcomings that can allow incompetent or predatory elites to damage the wellbeing of the majorities within their countries. In this regard, it is important to understand the difference between “elite” and “elitist”. The former values excellence throughout society, while the latter enables social exclusion and material plunder. The more elites are not elitist, the more successful their countries will be.



King Mohammed VI of Morocco Photo: Wikimedia


The first prime minister of Mauritius, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Photo: Wikimedia

Dr Anna Trapido is an anthropologist and a chef. She trained as an anthropologist at King’s College, Cambridge, completing her PhD in the department of community health at Wits University, Johannesburg. She qualified as a chef at the Prue Leith Chef’s Academy in Pretoria, and uses both disciplines in her work. She has won gold at the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards three times (for To the Banqueting House – African cuisine an Epic Journey, Hunger for Freedom – the story of food in the life of Nelson Mandela, and Eat Ting – lose weight, gain health, find yourself).

A salutary lesson in historical scholarship

Book review

By Yunus Momoniat

Mahmood Mamdani’s seminal book, published in 1996, represented an important turning point in African Studies. In it, he challenged many beliefs long-held by Africanist scholars and made bold proposals that at the time cast a new light on the nature of colonialism and its effects on, and consequences for, Africa. The Ugandan scholar has now published a 2018 edition with a new preface that answers some criticisms of the earlier edition, and also considers the state of the continent two decades after his initial analysis.

The product of extensive engagement with the field of African Studies, the 1996 book presented a new type of argument about the way African colonies were controlled by European colonisers. Left-wing writers in particular had employed concepts derived from Marxist political economy, such as class, class formation and state power, and had emphasised the centrality of extra-economic coercion and forced labour. Mamdani’s analysis, without abandoning Marxism, focused on explaining how colonial powers needed an acceptable, economic and effective mode of control of colonial subjects, and thus he arrived at the idea of “indirect control”.

After slavery had been abolished, direct control was seen as racist, with white colonisers oppressing black subjects. Such a relation was too stark and too evidently transgressed an emerging language of rights and the rule of law. Imperial or colonial rule had to be made palatable and its true effects had to be disguised. It was cheaper and more practical to create indirect rule, which involved the transformation of custom into customary law and the reification of “tribes” and “tribal leaders” who would be backed by the state. Colonial states would thus become decentralised despotisms, using indirect rule to administer subjects from whom the rights of civil society were withheld.

A central element of the book, indicated in its title, is its consideration of the manner in which colonial authorities distinguished between citizens and subjects. The former were those ruled by a western-style civil – and apparently “civilised” – state; the latter were subjects of tribal “native authorities”. Citizens, mostly white colonisers and a few enfranchised Africans, had greater powers and status than those designated as subjects. This polarity is the basis for Mamdani’s concept of the bifurcated state, which essentially contrasted the position of urban people with that of rural people. This urban-rural bifurcation would later haunt post-independence leaders.

Mamdani’s use of the concept “subject” is close to the use of the term by Michel Foucault, who rejected the active sense of the term that implied agency. Rather, he saw the subject as an object – a pawn that could be engineered by structural forces. Like Foucault, too, Mamdani is concerned to show how power operates.

The tribes of the colonial period were tribes on steroids, backed as they were by state power. While tribes had previously been loose groupings that could gain or lose an individual’s loyalty and adherence, this was ruled out by the new customary law, which abolished the individual’s capacity to negotiate with the chief. Challenges to chiefly power, which had previously been allowed and even institutionalised, became impossible. A tribe now had a fixed identity, with strict rules presided over by the chief, and transgressions were criminalised.

The colonisers therefore invested tribal authorities with powers they had not held in the pre-colonial period. The new tribal authorities were hybrid forms and tribal leaders wielded the powers of incipient states, presiding not over a body of citizens but over a population of subjects with few, if any, rights. Colonial courts and institutionalised customary laws enforced this all-embracing power, reaching into every household and every individual fate.

Chiefs were thus the colonial powers’ instruments of indirect rule. The installation of chiefs and the rigidification of the groups they controlled solved the coloniser’s problem of how to rule large numbers of people with few personnel. It also solved another problem for colonial powers: how to subject a population through a recognisable form of rule rather than an alien one. Tribes without chiefs were promptly assigned a chief. Says Mamdani: “If there did not exist a clearly demarcated tribe with a distinct central authority, then one had to be created in the interest of order.”

The colonialist system of indirect rule through chiefs backed by state power effectively eroded kin-based and other forms of traditional or existing authority. South Africa, with its apartheid dismembering of the population into tribes with tribal authorities, or homelands, is often seen as exceptional, but Mamdani argues that it represented, rather, the typical model of colonial rule. Customary law was used to force subjects into the market economy. Transgressions such as failing to pay tax, trespassing and breach of labour contracts were all criminalised. The market eroded tribal and kin-based authority and freed individuals from servile relationships – but entry into market relations was through forced labour, taxation and extra-economic pressures.

Mamdani presents a scathing account of forced labour throughout Africa. He notes: “From considering force an African custom, it was but a short step to considering Africans as accustomed to force –  as, say, a European may be to reason. So prevalent was this notion that at times even a doctor, whose job it was to reduce human pain, took to force to secure compliance from patients, in the process consoling himself of its morality.”

Despite his notion of the “subject” as discussed above, Mamdani does not rob peasants of agency. He shows how colonised peoples mounted resistance to colonialism. Indeed, the book is evenly divided: the first half consists of his analysis of colonialist power relations, while the second is a study of colonised peoples’ resistance to them, both rural and urban.

Forms of governance deployed during colonialism were not abolished with the advent of independence because they had shaped the societies they had exploited far too effectively to be consigned to history. Thus it was that post-colonial leaders found themselves also having to reckon with the determinations of the bifurcated state. Ethnic blocs and chiefs with established power bases could not simply be legislated out of existence, and rights could not simply be accorded to all by a civil state. After independence, the bifurcation identified by Mamdani persisted.

While deracialisation occurred, democratisation stuttered. Measures to reform the state, to democratise, were now necessarily urban-centred. “The tribal logic of native authorities easily overwhelmed the democratic logic of civil society,” the author writes. The capacity to appoint chiefs entailed power. Civil society remained an urban phenomenon, while in rural areas despotism was still in place, threatening democratisation in urban areas. Urban people thus faced “deracialisation from within and retribalisation from without”. Even radical new African states became prey to this logic – the despotism of the native authorities was centred on a rejection of the rule of law.

Some states made attempts to abolish chieftainship, but indirect rule persisted or was adopted at a later stage – by Uganda and Ethiopia, among other countries, for instance. In post-colonial Africa, populations could only be managed through their continued fragmentation into ethnic groups. In the case of Ethiopia, an ethnic federalism now obtains. Ethnicity has been politicised. As a consequence, throughout Africa, enfranchised majorities now rule while disenfranchised minorities struggle to exist. All this, Mamdani argues, is the result of indirect rule.

In the preface to the 2018 edition, Mamdani reflects on the reception of his influential book and deals with various objections raised by critics. Some of his major critics came from the left, who accused him of abandoning the key Marxist concepts of political economy noted above. But, as he argues, the use of these concepts simply failed to account for the role of tribalism in colonial African history – or “ethnicity”, as this concept has recently been euphemistically renamed. In South Africa, for example, the tribal and customary had become invisible to political economists. He felt compelled to look at the issue of the peasantry as a political question. More generally, he wanted to understand how the nature of custom changed from the pre-modern to the colonial modern, how it was instrumentalised by colonisers.

As we have seen, Mamdani’s argument is that in pre-colonial history ethnic groups or tribes were assimilationist, while in the colonial period tribes took on a fixed character, like that of “race”. Before colonialism, conquest saw the conquered brought into the tribe, which gained power by growing. Under colonialism, tribes became exclusive, backed by state power. “If the pre-modern was informed by an assimilationist logic, the modern colonial was informed by a segregationist logic,” says Mamdani. He also clarifies the nature of anti-colonial resistance, which he says is determined by the nature of existing power relations. In his argument, this crucially involved the difference between urban and rural resistance.

Reflecting on these and other critical responses to his book, he calls for greater specificity in the understanding of identity. As he was one of the first to show, in the case of Africa, modes of identification change as history unfolds and these are determined to an extent by the nature and history of the state, which has not been the same in each African country.

A second major objection to the book revolved around his conception of indirect rule, questioning its originality as well as its efficacy: critics asked whether indirect rule was specific to colonial rule.  Some said that Mamdani’s formulation was nothing new, that Machiavelli had, five centuries before, suggested that indirect rule was preferable in colonies. Other critics went a step further, arguing that indirect rule was “the very essence of modern power”, both at home and in the colonies, casting doubt on the differences between colonial rule and governance in the metropole.

Mamdani’s point, I think, was to emphasise that Africans were ruled in a manner that grew out of a deeply entrenched racism that took steps to present itself as pragmatic, mindful of local customs and therefore free of racism. He was also concerned to demonstrate this by highlighting the differences between how people are governed in the colonies and in the metropoles. In the latter, forms of domination are mediated by institutions that shape the subjectivity of citizens, ensuring that schools instil discipline and prisons punish those who lack the appropriate, albeit right-enabled, submission. This was a form of brute force that did not show itself in the colonies. There, the indirectness of despotism took another form, and brute force had a structural role, with enforcement delegated to state-appointed chiefs. Mamdani’s point is that indirect rule is different in developing and developed countries, the former metropoles.

Mamdani thus replies to the second objection by insisting that the transformation of custom into customary law in Africa lay at the heart of indirect rule in the colonies, shaping the subjectivity of the colonised, unlike the mode of indirect rule through disciplinary institutions (schools, asylums, prisons) in the metropole, as theorised by Foucault. This law was practised in Africa and elsewhere, in India for instance, though in Africa it took on a very specific, racist approach. Thus, Mamdani sets indirect rule in Africa apart from other forms of it, calling for specificity.

This debate around the second objection is itself an unresolved problematic that bears on the nature of domination in developed and developing societies, but it is testimony to Mamdani’s theoretical prowess – and his tendency to raise questions that need to be explored. Some theorists and historians have argued that colonial rule was a precursor to modern power, and that this indirect mode of governance was perfected in the colonies before it was applied at home. This is an ongoing debate.

Mamdani’s book is evidently about more than modes of colonial domination. Among other things, it also includes a critique of methodologies used in African Studies. In brief, he argues for the constitution of the continent as an object of a specific discipline that is not distorted by reference to fields and methods used in the study of other regions, and also for more rigorous comparative research. Africa’s place in the globe is unique, and methods that cannot but see the continent teleologically – that is, as “backward”, compared to Europe – lead to misunderstanding and disastrous policies.

For me, the main force of Mamdani’s book lies in its challenge to the research approaches of scholars of Africa, and also the assumptions of post-colonial state officials and activists. He questions, for example, the prejudices that the national is not always superior to the tribal. Indeed, he argues that neither is always good or always bad. The same applies to social categories such as “peasant”, “chief”, “rural” and “urban”. His work lays the basis for a cogent account of how colonialism was transformed into what some have called neo-colonialism: the gradual measures – legal and other – through which the West established its domination over the continent, and was able to maintain it. It is a salutary lesson in historical scholarship.

Yunus Momoniat is a researcher and writer at South African History Online and an occasional political commentator.