Africa: an artificial patchwork?
Understanding the dynamics of ethnic conflicts in Africa means appreciating the role of ethnic identity
In 2011 Peter S. Larson, a professor at the University of Nagasaki, Japan, published an attempt to chart the interplay between ethnicity and African conflict. Larson used the 1959 map of 835 “ethnic regions” of Africa produced by anthropologist George Murdock. While admitting that Murdock’s map is “perhaps naïve”, Larson states that it remains an important source to Africanists. He then drew on the University of Sussex’s Armed Conflict and Event Location Database to plot current conflict events onto Murdock’s ethnographic map. Mapping conflict by national borders painted huge chunks of the African map red with danger, Larson found, but plotting the Sussex data onto the Murdock map altered the patterns. In particular, conflicts became identifiable as regional rather than as national or international. Moreover, he wrote, “one can see that conflict events largely occur within Murdock’s ethnic boundaries”. Yet he argued against the conclusion that African conflicts were mainly ethnicity-driven. As one example, Larson’s map revealed that the Algerian conflict is really a conflict between the government and the Amazigh, a Berber group of the Kabyle region of the Atlas Mountains who have a tradition of independence: Amazigh means “Free People”. By contrast, the map plots the ethnic element behind the secessionist war in Angola’s Cabinda enclave, where the Bakongo majority has developed a unique culture distinct from that of other Bakongo in the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Similar convergences of conflict and ethnicity can be seen in Ogoni and Ijaw militancy in the Niger Delta, the Tuareg insurrection of northern Mali, and other regions. Larson’s map was published just before the Arab Spring rolled out across the Maghreb. The latest Sussex map, published in 2015, shows the spread of conflict into Libya, especially to Benghazi.
Conflicts in Africa by ethnic region
Source: Peter S. Larson’s blog: https://peterslarson.com/2011/01/19/african-conflict-and-ethnic-distribution/
In Egypt it has moved into Sinai, where most people speak Bedawi Arabic, unlike Cairo’s Egyptian Arabic majority. In the former Somalia, conflict is centred in Mogadishu. Other conflicts are mapped in north-western Nigeria (Boko Haram), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic (CAR). The map shows that violence against civilians had declined in Zimbabwe, especially in Matabeleland. Meanwhile, civil protests continued in South Africa, as well as in many West African and Maghreb capitals after the lull following the Arab Spring. Perhaps more telling is Sussex’s 2015 map of the agents of violent conflict in Africa. Searching only for “communal militia” reveals a widespread tendency to armed communal violence, in distinct regions, that likely involves an element of ethnicity. For example, in Libya communal militia-driven conflict occurs in remote and coastal areas that are homogeneously Arab or Toubou. But the civil war is not only ethnicity-based; it is also a politico-confessional conflict between former Gaddafi supporters and Salafist and democratic forces.
Spread of main languages in Africa
Source: Peter S. Larson’s blog: https://peterslarson.com/2011/01/19/african-conflict-and-ethnic-distribution/
Militia conflict in south-central Nigeria occurs in the Christian Igbo heartland, far away from Boko Haram’s strongholds. The conflict on the CAR/Congo border is primarily confessional, between Muslim Séléka and Christian Anti-Balaka militia. The conflict in Darfur, in the Sudan, involves a number of ethnicities, as well as ethnicised environmental drivers. In South Kivu, in the DRC, the conflict involves several ethnicities, as well as ethnicised drivers deriving from the long aftermath of the Rwandan genocide—complicated by relations with endogenous political militia sometimes supported by foreign governments. Community conflict in highland Kenya is regional and ethnic, and relatively isolated from the multiculturalism of Nairobi. The emergence of communal militia in South Sudan is mostly a result of the breakdown of the Dinka-Nuer ethnic compact, but is also driven by the fragility of the new state and a tendency by all parties to resort to military “solutions”. Communal armed conflict in former Somalia involves a power struggle between six major Somali clans, plus Al-Shabaab, and only a smattering of “outsiders”. This brief overview is an indication of the difficulty of accurately charting the role of ethnic identity in African conflicts. Each involves many facets, including the influence of ethnicity, which is itself complicated by history. Even distinctly ethnic civil conflicts such as the 2007/08 pogroms in Kenya and the wave of violence in 2008 in South Africa involved a blend of other factors and influences. In Kenya, where perhaps 1,500 were killed and perhaps 600,000 displaced, the crisis was rooted in political unrest following the contested election of President Mwai Kibaki. Opposition supporters of his opponent, Raila Odinga, went on the warpath, killing members of Kibaki’s ethnic group, the Kikuyu. This ethnicised the conflict, with Kikuyu striking back at the Luo and Kalejin ethnic groups. In South Africa 62 people were killed and 100,000 displaced in violence supposedly directed only at foreigners. But the media’s “xenophobic” tag was inaccurate; only two thirds of those killed were foreigners, among them Somalis and Mozambicans. Resource contestation and business jealousy were the root causes, while the violence also had elements of sheer criminality and the settling of personal scores. This was also the case in Kenya where land, hunger, poverty and criminality skewed ethnic tensions. More coherently, ethnic conflicts include those where a particular, identifiable group seeks to establish a secessionist movement. For instance, the ethnic Alliance of the Bakongo political party, established in 1955, wanted a Kongo Kingdom covering parts of the DRC, Congo, Angola and Cabinda, with the long-term aim of restoring the pre-colonial Kongo Kingdom of 1390-1857. But other than South Sudan and Eritrea, both of which had distinct ethno-nationalist foundations, secessionist wars have always failed in Africa.
Zimbabwe, Harare, 1 August 2018. Running battles in Harare between disgruntled MDC supporters and the police /army. Fires we lit throughout the city.
Liberation movements: after the war
More than any other continent, Africa boasts an abundance of former national liberation movements serving in government. Understanding the history of these organisations, particularly the manner in which they attained power, is crucial to comprehending their thinking and behaviour.
Two distinct types of resistance movement came into being on the continent. Across much of southern Africa, liberation struggles were linked to stalled decolonisation or delayed transitions from white minority government to black majority rule. Elsewhere, armed struggles were analogous to civil war between indigenous populations.
In both situations, the origins of revolutionary struggle lay in state repression and coercion. An intolerance of popular debate blocked avenues for political participation, while the excessive use of force normalised the conduct of violence. This combination encouraged opponents to take up arms with the objective of overthrowing the government by force. “Violence was now officially accepted as the legitimate tool of liberation,” Zimbabwean academic Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni wrote in a 2015 book on his country’s politics, “just like it was officially accepted by the colonialists as the tool of colonial conquest and maintenance of white settler colonial power.”
The combination of revolutionary objectives and limited resources generally encouraged opponents to launch low-level insurgencies in remote areas. Accordingly, liberation movements such as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) – both of which I studied in detail for my PhD – opted for guerrilla tactics rather than conventional warfare.
The pressures of managing clandestine operations prompted fighters to forge extremely close-knit relationships. Combatants expected struggle loyalties to trump family ties, recalls Faye Chung, who joined ZANU in exile and published a book in 2006 on the armed campaign against the white minority government. “It was part of the ethics of the liberation struggle that there was no family loyalty greater than the loyalties formed in the struggle,” she writes. Moreover, the armed objective of liberation movements necessitated the establishment of militaristic hierarchies and secretive decision-making, as Sara Rich Dorman argues in a 2006 article on post-liberation politics in Africa.
Revolutionary movements developed a culture of suspicion of outsiders, a preference for long-winded debates and a tendency to close ranks under pressure. These became entrenched practices, which are still visible in Zimbabwe’s ruling party to this day. Decisions taken by the ZANU-PF politburo either determine or overrule those taken by cabinet. One notable victim of this practice is Zimbabwe’s “technocratic” finance minister, Mthuli Ncube, who has repeatedly failed to exert influence over his own brief, owing largely to his status as a political outsider. Ncube attends cabinet but not the politburo meeting that usually precedes it.
Meanwhile, the TPLF leadership continues to employ a Maoist self-criticism and evaluation strategy known as gim gemma (assessment or evaluation). During the armed struggle this mechanism ensured cadre discipline; however, following the outbreak of war with Eritrea in 1998, it was used to purge opponents of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
In Ethiopia more than in Zimbabwe, Vladimir Lenin’s principle of “democratic centralism” has taken root. In his 1902 polemic, What Is To Be Done?, Lenin encouraged wide-ranging political debates provided they were followed by a vote that was binding on all members. In revolutionary politics, subordination of minority views to party unity was a necessity amid the pressures of the struggle, but this aversion to dissent replicated the authoritarian practices of the state the liberation movement sought to overthrow. Raymond Suttner, a former African National Congress (ANC) operative, feared that this practice encouraged a perspective whereby the movement “sees itself as the only legitimate source of power, which includes intolerance towards any form of political opposition”, as he writes in a 2008 book on the ANC’s underground structures during the struggle against apartheid.
In the case of South Africa, it could be said that this inherent righteousness was constrained by the need for the ANC to negotiate with its former opponents and draw up a new constitution. Nelson Mandela repeatedly stressed the ANC’s inability to “dictate terms” during the initial transition, noting the need to forge consensus over the new rules of the game, according to a 2017 book by Mandla Langa on the struggle icon’s years as president. ZANU faced a similar constraint in Zimbabwe. Its failure to achieve an outright military victory forced the liberation movement to participate in talks about a new constitution at Lancaster House in London, during sessions facilitated by external mediators.
Unlike ZANU, the TPLF and its allies defeated the Derg regime on the battlefield, and so attained power unencumbered (The Derg [committee] was the Marxist military regime that governed Ethiopia following the 1974 revolution). This served to magnify the convictions and self-belief of the victors, who channelled a popular legitimacy from their military triumph. Initially, an inclusive transitional government was formed, but it collapsed when political rivals questioned the victors’ blueprint for Ethiopia. The TPLF and its allies felt no need to pander to the whims of others, who they regarded as playing lessor roles in the armed struggle.
ZANU and the TPLF again differed in their experience of occupying territory prior to assuming power. Facing the strength of the Rhodesian security forces, ZANU struggled to operate inside the country during daylight hours, but found that this did not rule out work on the ground. Instead, ZANU guerrillas enlisted the assistance of local power brokers, spirit mediums and traditional chiefs, to live in villages undercover, according to David Lan’s 1985 study of the war. To avoid provoking suspicion by day, revolutionaries attempted the political education of local people at night rallies known as pungwe.
Interviewing peasants affected by the struggle, researcher Norma Kriger found that ZANU operatives resorted to coercion to enlist villagers to attend political meetings, as she noted in her 1991 book on the Zimbabwean campaign. In so doing, the guerrillas ignored Maoist teachings included in the movement’s code of conduct – and its central war song, Nzira ye MaSoja(Soldier’s Guide). Mao and his followers had argued against the use of force because it was ineffectual in peasant mobilisation. The failure of ZANU guerrillas to adhere to these principles has left its legacy, establishing norms of violence at odds with the notion of participatory governance. Coercion is entrenched in the party’s DNA, according to Ibbo Mandaza, a former ZANU operative I interviewed in Harare in 2018: “ZANU needs to unleash violence to control.”
The TPLF, by contrast, occupied large swathes of highland Ethiopia, developing strong party structures and forging bonds with host populations. Peasants were offered political education, encouraged to participate in administrative committees known as baitos, and provided with a wide range of services, according to a 1997 study by John Young. This was consistent with Mao’s notion of establishing a “mass line,” as outlined in his treatise On Guerrilla Warfare (1937). The opportunity for leaders to learn the pitfalls of governing peasant populations first-hand undeniably shaped the TPLF’s approach to this problem when it came to power. Ethiopia’s ruling coalition invested heavily in the capacity of kebele (ward) committees in the first decade of office. It later bolstered urban party structures through the establishment of “one-to-five” cells following a highly-contested election in 2005.
Common to both liberation movements, however, is a failure to successfully demobilise. In an interview with me in 2016, Welshman Ncube, a former minister of industry in Zimbabwe’s government of national unity, recounted how South Africa’s acting president, Kgalema Motlanthe, warned him that ZANU-PF was “not a civilian political party”. Similarly, Douglas Mwonzora, the secretary-general of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, regards ZANU-PF as “a military institution”, as he told me in a 2016 interview.
In Ethiopia, the TPLF is no longer the dominant player in the ruling coalition, having been displaced by the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) following the ascent to power of Abiy Ahmed in April 2018. The ODP does not share the history of the TPLF. Its predecessor party was only formed in the final years of the struggle, and it never had to establish a strong connection with the local population. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Abiy is a former intelligence officer who served in the national defence force from 1993-2010. Abiy worked alongside former TPLF guerrillas, learning to speak fluent Tigrinya. He saw action as a peacekeeper following the Rwandan genocide, and as an intelligence operative during the Ethio-Eritrean war.
The centrality of combat to the armed struggle has bequeathed unhealthy civil-military relations across much of the continent. In both Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, ex-combatants were offered posts in integrated armies, and the new incumbents often maintained close ties with their former struggle leaders. This encouraged the new officer class to exploit business opportunities and influence politics, largely with impunity. Zimbabwe’s involvement in the DRC was driven by the desire of military officers to control Congolese mines, rather than any need to defend an ally against aggression. Similarly, war veterans seized commercial farms without facing sanction. In Ethiopia, the recent change of government has prompted the exposure of corrupt practices in the military-owned conglomerate, MetEC.
The November 2017 “military-assisted transition” in Zimbabwe highlights what can happen when powerful securocrats assert their authority over an ailing leader. Despite initial hope and goodwill, the brutality exhibited by the armed forces in Harare on 1 August, 2018 and across the country in late January 2019 is the worst Zimbabwe has seen in a decade. President Emmerson Mnangagwa appears unable or unwilling to reform the Zimbabwean polity – at least as long as his deputy, former general Constantino Chiwenga, remains in his post. Whether Mnangagwa or Chiwenga is truly in charge of Zimbabwe remains a constant preoccupation of the Harare commentariat.
In this regard, ZANU-PF appears to be an outlier. Angola’s head of state, João Lourenço, has upended the system established by José Eduardo dos Santos, who had governed since 1979, inspiring growth in the languishing petro-state. In South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa is attempting a similar renaissance, having narrowly ousted allies of Jacob Zuma to secure the leadership of the ANC. Former liberation movements in Mozambique and Namibia emulate the ANC’s practice of respecting constitutional safeguards and limiting top leadership to two terms.
Thus, beyond Zimbabwe, national liberation movements in power appear to have adopted the norm of changing leaders ahead of elections – convincing voters that the new leader will bring reform. While it may be a facile form of electioneering, such an injection of new blood is essential to avoiding the bunker mentality that predominated during the struggle era. Presidents constrained by term limits have less recourse to retreat into secrecy and misrule, since they know that one day they will leave office and may have to account for their actions.
Kenya’s street names get an overhaul for independence in December 1963 Photo: AFP
There is a notable lack of specifically psychological studies of African leadership
Among contemporary black leaders in Africa there is a “widely shared belief … that it is time for Africa to produce leaders with the requisite capacity for high performance and moral impact to ensure that the people of the continent secure their fair share of opportunities in the twenty first century”, according to an undated Foundational Report on the concept of leadership prepared at some stage after 1994 for senior leaders of the ANC, South Africa’s ruling party. Remarkably, the report set out to “identify among South Africa’s multi-ethnic communities, the group or groups with a leadership model or system that comes closest to representing the ideal effectiveness ‘x-factor’”.
Given the failures of so many African governments in the earlier post-colonial period, the Foundational Report suggests that future rulers will need to “restore the credibility and integrity of African traditional leadership”. At the time it was written, though, it concluded that “whatever leadership writing has gone before, this is largely in the realm of anthropological studies, which by definition and approach tend to concern themselves with ‘primitive societies’”. However, a 2017 article by three academics from the University of Pretoria of peer-reviewed studies of leadership in Africa published between 1950 and 2009 reveals considerable growth of interest in the topic. During the 2000s, the main themes that African authors were interested in were: leadership and management, leadership and gender, leadership styles, leadership and African values and political leadership. Meaningful research on the psychological aspects of African leadership is, at present, virtually non-existent.
A psychological understanding of African politics can at present, then, only be arrived at indirectly in the glimpses of it we have in the work of other disciplines, such as history, anthropology and political studies. For example, African statesmen have often argued that they have to contend with a (post) colonial inheritance. Most African countries consist of distinct geographical areas and diverse populations that were artificially yoked together by colonial projects, they say. This has rendered the constituencies which they represent easily fragmented, making divisive politics, with all its underlying ulterior motives, impossible to avoid. This view accords remarkably well with dependency theory, according to which Europe’s underdevelopment of Africa left a structural inheritance of inequality that is impossible to escape.
Zimbabwe is a case in point. ZANU-PF, its ruling party, is now largely regarded as a project of Shona domination, with most of the party’s senior officials belonging to that grouping, according to Clifford Mabhena in a 2014 article in the Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences. Moreover, competition for power within the ruling party is often a matter of affiliations to Shona clan affiliations, as Owen Gagare argues in Africa in Fact 39 . On the other hand – although far more rarely – an inheritance of group dynamics can be the occasion for an ideological denial of their existence. Infamously, Rwanda’s politics have been shaped by hostilities between its Tutsi minority and Hutu majority, culminating in the genocide of 1994. Yet its ruling party, the RFP, is widely regarded as Tutsi-dominated, though Paul Kagame’s government officially denies the existence of ethnic groups, as Marie Béatrice Umutesi argues in a 2006 article in the Journal of International Affairs.
Zimabwe represents an extreme case of the more common pattern throughout sub-Saharan Africa: the lack of a specific vision of what a state should look like in a country comprising several, or many identities. This impedes efforts to create wealth and restore dignity to previously colonised populations. Post-colonial African governments’ evident disdain for their constituencies, except at election time, expresses a fairly common pattern, too, across the sub-Saharan region. Between elections, governments appear to govern mainly by various strategies of rent extraction, supported by tactics of containing their citizens and distracting critics.
“Containment” of citizens relates, in the first place, to policies that result in underdevelopment, which hinders citizens’ capacities both to engage with their polities and to pursue life choices that benefit society, such as opening businesses. Development, of course, involves many factors, which include the rule of law, improving education, widening access to health services, building infrastructure and providing efficient governmental services. Despite many continental agreements and expressions of intent, meanwhile, African governments’ achievements during the post-colonial period have been patchy at best.
For example, while African countries’ spending on education improved from just above 3.5% of GDP in 1999 to about 4.5% of GDP in 2015, that relative improvement was only marginally larger than the world as a whole for the same period (4.18% to 4.814%), according to a 2014 report by the African Center for Economic Transformation. Meanwhile, according to a 2015 study by the Africa-America Institute, The State of Education in Africa, sub-Saharan countries spent about $1.5 trillion on public education, while North America spent $32 trillion and Europe some $24 trillion annually. It follows that sub-Saharan countries would have to invest proportions of their GDP some orders higher than their counterparts in other regions to begin the process of clawing back their educational deficits.
Seen like this, the challenges of development might look virtually insurmountable. Yet as noted in the above 2014 report, other developing countries, the “earlier transformers” – Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam – began their trajectories with similar deficits and have succeeded in eradicating them or are in the process of doing so. Policies inevitably involve choices among priorities. As Egbe Ojong Tandu and Mary Anyie Tandu argue in a 2017 paper on Africa’s underdevelopment, the “bazaar mentality of African leaders ha[s] starved the continent of the necessary funds for development”. Whether conscious or not, the lack of serious attempts to narrow developmental deficits results in populations that are less threatening to political elites and therefore can be contained.
A second major tactic frequently employed by African governments is that of distracting critics from the realities of their governance. This is not a new phenomenon. As the Ghanaian-born academic George Ayittey pointed out in a 2005 article, the “externalist doctrine” which “totally absolve[s] the leadership of any responsibility for the mess in Africa” has been around since the 1960s, soon after the independence of many African countries. One of Africa’s longest-reigning dictators, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, often blamed the results of his own failed policies on external factors, among them “greedy western powers, the IMF, the Asian financial crisis and the drought”, as Ayittey puts it. Within Africa, most of his support came from a coterie of political mavericks who had normalised the unacceptable through the frequent use of force against their own citizens.
By the end of the twentieth century, Ayittey argues, African citizens’ attitudes to their leaders had reached a new nadir. He quotes an unemployed Kenyan, speaking in 2002: “All these people [African leaders and elites] do is talk, talk, talk. Then if they do get any money from the wazungu [white men], they just steal it for themselves. And what about us? We have no food. We have no schools. We have no future. We are just left to die.” Ayitteh detected a growing gap between African leaders and the people they governed, with the “leaders increasingly insecure, sensitive, repressive and less responsive to the wishes of society” and the people increasingly regarding the state “with fear, suspicion and cynicism”, and as “no longer legitimate or relevant in their lives”.
The “externalist” pattern of locating responsibility elsewhere was designed to appeal to the collective sentiments, irrespective of their rationality. This phenomenon is far from unique and not exclusively African, but on this continent it is part of a specific recipe for holding onto power: a chauvinist tribalism mixed with a dogmatic rejection of “imperialist and colonialist” influences. The privileges of the new elites are defended by a disingenuous political correctness that publicly claims hostility to the West while privately enjoying its services and consumer goods. Platforms for the acknowledgement of past dignity deprivations and compensatory development are denied to outsider groups.
African leaders often complain about an uneven economic playing field that shuts them out of the mainstream global economy. In outline, this is a version of dependency theory. Yet, just as often, their governments are quite prepared to exploit the world trade system for their own purposes. A good example is Lesotho’s use of its status as a Least Developed Country (LDC), which entitles that country to pay zero duties in its importing markets. In fact, Lesotho’s textiles are produced entirely by Chinese capital, labour and equipment. This defeats the purpose of LDC protection and sends the profits out of Africa. Basothos, meanwhile, are denied the real jobs and investment that the LDC provisions are meant to promote. The only locals who benefit are connected members of the elite, and that in the form of kickbacks, which are, relatively, small change.
Approaches to governance based on the “externalist” justification can look like a mixture of indolence, ignorance and ineptitude, and probably these factors do play a role in Africa’s failures of governance. But looked at more closely, the “externalist” deflection is often used as a rhetorical and psychological tool that helps African elites in their use of their public roles to pursue their private interests. Ideology often plays a merely instrumental role in African leaders’ strategies of power hoarding – the ever-popular anti-western stance, for example. Though it might appear lazy and superficial, it plays on a deep understanding of political landscapes, collective insecurities, historical inheritances, socio-economic aspirations, emotional biases and cultural sensitivities.
Africans’ approval of their leaders – even when they are to all intents and purposes apex predators of their societies – appears to have slightly increased over the past 20 years, as reflected in figures provided by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research network. In a 1991/2000 survey in 11 countries, some 29.1% of the Africans surveyed said they “trusted the president a lot”, while in a 2018 survey of 31 countries (including the previous 11), some 35.3% affirmed the same view. This represents an apparent 6.2 percentage point increase in approval for the continent’s presidents over the period.
However, these averages conceal wide disparities. Africans’ approval of their presidents varies widely between countries. In the 2018 survey, it was 21.8% in South Africa (a new, contested democracy), as compared to 61.8% in Tanzania (effectively, a one-party state). Moreover, even the increased figure compares unfavourably with the 42% of citizens of OECD countries who said they trusted their governments in 2016, according to a 2017 OECD report – a figure which itself represented a decline of some three percentage points after the 2008 global financial crisis.
So to some extent, the “externalist” deflection works. However, it is likely to face serious challenges. Most African countries have moved to a form of democracy (either formal or real), and this is creating expectations of better governance. Africa’s middle class is growing and with it the economic and social requirements of people who see themselves as contributors to the common wealth through production, job creation and taxes. Moreover, technological advances, specifically the Internet, are allowing people to access more information and combine in more effective interest groups than ever before. Greater urbanisation is also providing citizens with more networking opportunities and contributing to their greater awareness of the more abstract values central to national governance.
Yet these developments are also exposing cracks in leadership capabilities, the quality of public administration, inconsistencies in the rule of law and breaches of basic liberties. These problems, in turn, are revealing the need for a transformation of the implicit social contract that has been operative in African nations. They are compelling African citizens to observe and evaluate their leaders and their governance structures more critically, and, in particular, to ask questions about the motives behind the behaviour of their public servants. A kleptocratic state in which the greed of a small elite creates economic mayhem and generates armed conflict is less sustainable in the current Africa than it was just a few decades ago, when a country like Sierra Leone was brought to its knees by the malice of its leaders.
The word “malice” might look too strong here, but some sort of evaluation of this sort must spring to mind when the ideological and policy claims of many African leaders are put alongside their actions and achievements and those of their governments.
It is at this point that Ayitteh’s argument that the externalist arguments about the causes of Africa’s governance crises are largely a quasi-ideological smokescreen and that an “internalist” critique, according to which the most important causes lie mostly within the nature of African governments and how they run their countries’ affairs, becomes important. As he puts it: “This school of thought maintains that while it is true western colonialism and imperialism did harm Africa and continues to do so, Africa’s condition has been made immeasurably worse by such internal factors as misguided leadership, misgovernance, systemic corruption, capital flight, economic mismanagement, declining investment, collapsed infrastructure, decayed institutions, senseless civil wars, political tyranny, flagrant violations of human rights, and military vandalism.” Explanations for some of these aspects at least have generated a vast literature over the decades, including studies in dependency theory and Marxist or Marx-inspired studies. More latterly, studies in development theory and postmodernism have urged the importance of nuance with regard to previous structural accounts that appeared to deny agency to African political actors. But, as earlier noted, there is a notable lack of specifically psychological studies of African leadership.
One reason for this lack can be located in an ongoing debate about the place of psychology in the context of African, or more generally black history. In a 2018 article, for instance, Kevin Cokley and Ramya Garba review developments in black psychology, which they identify as a discipline that challenges “the hegemonic paradigms and racist beliefs perpetuated by Eurocentric approaches to psychology”. In a parallel attempt to outline a specifically African psychology, Augustine Nwoye in a 2015 article argues that an African psychology would represent “a psychology of rehabilitation … that will derive anchor, not in comparing Africans and Europeans, but rather in people’s everyday needs, epistemologies, and world view”. He goes on to argue that an African psychology would, in particular, take account of Africans’ fundamentally communitarian world view, as opposed to the individualistic world view of western or Eurocentric psychology.
Ongoing attempts to re-orient the discipline have, then, resulted in forms of academic protest and “engaged scholarship” that pitch themselves against supposedly “western” psychology. However, rather problematically, this enterprise can be, and often is, framed in ways that do little justice to the object of criticism. Nwoye, for example, holds that Eurocentric psychology is dominated by a “mechanistic or machine-model of human mental life” and that it is based on obsession with quantification. This ignores the very real contributions of figures such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Jean Piaget, among many others. Moreover, there are serious questions about whether an approach to the discipline is aided by such approaches to identity-based theory. “Some psychologists don’t want to talk about ‘groups’ because it brings back apartheid-era discourses of difference,” says Dr Wahbie Long, a lectuer in psychology at the University of Cape Town. “On the other hand, decolonisation discourse within psychology is obsessed with difference. So there’s a paradox if ever there were one.”
Substantive and specifically African studies of the psychology of leadership on the continent must therefore await the outcome of theoretical and ideological debates. For glimpses of the psychological aspects of this subject, we must still turn to studies in other areas. In a 2008 study, Tom Kelsall, argues, for example, that the frustrations of western donors and international agencies with Africa’s poor record of governance are, in part, a result of their own failure to understand “the grain of African ways of doing things”. His study is an example of a new trend among non-African academics to re-orient African studies along lines that take the continent’s long history much more seriously and, in particular, to understand emerging African governance styles as, in part, a continuance of deep traditions. On this view, the so-called Big Man phenomenon can be understood as a rigidification of long-standing traditions of governance by colonial rule that have been exploited by post-colonial elites, as argued by Mahmood Mamdani in a pioneering 1996 study, recently updated (and reviewed in this journal).
The postmodern approach is exemplified in another path-breaking 2000 study by Jean-François Bayart that argued that Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world has been informed by modes of agency (“formalities of action”) that have been used to exploit an often very unequal situation. These modes he identifies as “coercion; trickery; flight; mediation; appropriation and its opposite, rejection”. By deploying some of these types of action, African leaders and their governments have acted in ways that demonstrate an agency that was long discounted by thinkers in a long Hegelian tradition that saw the continent as a whole excluded from, and peripheral to, world history. But for our purposes, the most significant aspect of his study is its (implicit) use of notions that can be accorded a specifically psychological interpretation.
Firstly, Bayart analyses the history of Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world in terms of its “extraversion”, as he puts it, by which he means a tendency to seek external support for internal struggles, by whatever means available. The term is in fact borrowed from Jungian psychology, where it means, very broadly, a tendency to seek validation and satisfaction from sources external to the self. Secondly, his presentation of one of his formalities of action, trickery, derives from similar sources. Trickery, he says is a quality which allows a person to “manipulate hostile forces which are too powerful to be confronted directly, but which can be turned to good account in spite of their hostile nature”. He goes on to point out that the character of the trickster features prominently in African folklore, and to suggest, in passing, that “the truly hybrid character of so many [African] presidents represents the most up-to-date version of such a type”. In this suggestion we have, perhaps for the first time, an indication of a specifically psychological understanding of the personalities of many of Africa’s “Big Man” leaders.
We return to the word “malice”. With regard to the example of Lesotho mentioned above, we might wonder what specifically psychological characteristics would allow a civil servant to seek rents on top of the salary they earn in a country of high unemployment. In the same way, we can ask what kind of personal mentality is involved in the massive, so-called “grand” corruption that has plagued the continent, and which has held back its development. The historical, anthropological and political aspects of this problem have been studied at length. The psychological aspects, however, still await serious study. Bayart’s image of the Big Man as “trickster” is, perhaps, a good start. Like other archetypes, the figure has tremendous potential as an explicator and exemplar of a certain type of human personality on the continent.
As he points out, this figure, as others, has deep roots both in African traditions and contemporary society. Familiar tricksters include “those picaresque individuals who are the true pioneers of modern Africa … smugglers, diamond diggers, currency changers, fraudsters and simple migrants … who find ways of evading laws, frontiers, and official exchange rates.” Others, again, include “practitioners of illegal immigration, the drug trade and fraud on a larger scale”. The figure of the trickster is not always controversial in these senses. Sometimes, indeed, some of our most revered statesmen have themselves been tricksters of a kind. The Senegalese leader Léopold Senghor, for instance, features in that country’s national imagery as “the prototype of the astute politician … the political version of the léek, the hare of Wolof folklore whose cunning is legendary”.
The Foundational Report compiled for the ANC was a perhaps unparalleled effort of an African political party to get to grips with a formidable, age-old problem and to locate it in the broad stretch of human cultures and history: the question of what constitutes effective leadership, and how to recognise or educate good leaders. Yet the effort was largely in vain. As it turned out, Jacob Zuma was the epitome of the trickster, Big Man problem the party thinkers were trying to solve. Such people, it would appear, are simply not amenable to the intellectualisations of “clever” people, whether black or not. For them the issue, if there is one, is simple. Representatives of the “common people”, comedians, have been pointing this out for aeons.
In an ancient Greek play, for instance, a slave questions a politician about his job. “I’m supervisor general of all things here, public and private too.” The slave says: “A great profession, that. What did you do to qualify for it?” The politician answers: “I wanted it.” Fast forward two and half thousand years, and we find Victorian dramatist WS Gilbert reflecting a similar view when he has a duke celebrating his own elevated station in life: “The work is light, and I may add, it’s most remunerative.” And moving forward another hundred years or so, we find Nigerian protesters using humour to express their dissatisfaction with Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida’s military dictatorship. “IBB = 419”, their slogan went, indicating that his claim to democratisation was nothing less than another Nigerian fraud.
In this Africa in Fact edition dedicated to culture, Fred Khumalo paraphrases our mutual friend Mondli Makhanya who, in the midst of a debate with a right-of-centre interlocutor, asserted that, “I am a South African and that’s where it ends”. Much as this position is apt within a national discourse on identity politics, if we zoom out to the continent, Africanness has to be our departure point; for in one simple sense, culture is the outwardly radiating manifestation of our being in the world.
To elaborate, Max, a cab driver in DC who hails from Ghana, shares the following insight, “African culture teaches us from the earliest days to have respect for other people; you would think that with money and technology we would be happy and content but we have lost that culture. There is no respect for other people.” Culture often portrays more than a colourful aesthetic or funky tone, instead promoting a value base to what we represent, what we do, and who we are in the world. Hence the lament when culture loses its charge.
As our readers will appreciate from our zesty cover, however, the manifestation of culture on the African continent, as we have presented it, is all-embracing and flies effortlessly across the spectrum from food to fashion, soccer to the sounds of Afrobeat, religion to the Congolese rumba and beyond. Challenges may abound, but it’s an exciting time to be African.
Recent work events confirm the current fuss over all things African. At the Africa Transformation Forum in Accra, dazzling shades of Kente cloth were proudly worn by overseas delegates, while a more recent event at Ikoyi in St James, London, verified the hype associated with this West African inspired menu of plantains, jollof rice, efo, suya and other culinary treats, with cuisine fit for a lady and a lord; literally. South African wines are increasingly fêted in North America, as confirmed by Cape Classic wines recently wining a prestigious award in the US.
In short, there is increasing traction for Africa’s cultural sharing and export. With this comes the tension of protecting local intellectual property rights and balancing this with an expanding global market of incremental consumers. Nicky B highlights this in a poignant piece on African music, with respect to songs such as Wimoweh and Soul Makossa. Charmain Naidoo picks up on the issue of cultural contestation in her presentation on African fashion, while Anna Trapido suggests that on the foodie savoir-faire front, pitted against the EU’s 837 Geographical Indicator (GI) protected goods, Africa has only four. These inequalities are palpable.
Yet, as Andrew Panton recognises, in Africa the beat goes on, at least in the DRC where music sustains society. And it is not only melodies, food and fashion that take to the stage; African film is a niche market in the industry that holds much potential for development. Verónica Pamoukaghlián tells us that Nigeria and South Africa contribute $1 billion to the continent’s annual GDP. Whereas the former’s production dwarfs the latter’s, in box office revenue the southerners pull in 7.5 times as much, at $90 million.
Analytically, the very notion of culture, which John Kakonge engages in detail in his piece, needs to be retraced back to its beginnings and this necessitates some attention to history. This, coupled to the mantra that “Africa is not a country”, leads Luke Mulunda to suggest that we refer to “cultures of Africa” instead of “African culture” to promote an appreciation of the diversity and magnitude of the phenomena at hand.
Taking history at its broadest reach, we present an article by Delme Cupido on the plight of Africa’s “first peoples” with notable challenges and significant advances to recognise their human dignity before focusing more specifically on the San in Zimbabwe in a provocative piece by Owen Gagare that exposes their difficulties. Keeping with the theme of migrant peoples, Ini Ekott dives into the lives of Fulani pastoralists who since time immemorial have been nomadic and who now face major adaptive pressure in an existential threat to their culture.
In terms of concomitant diversity, we see Khumalo’s “Afropolitan” squaring off with so-called “white” Africans, who are, according to Kevin Bloom, still in the process of negotiating the identity of their Africanness. Meanwhile, Terence Corrigan and Vaughan Dutton find no evidence of a consistent religion-governance nexus, which flies somewhat in the face of intuition given the significance of faith-based traditions proselytised onto the continent and their cultural richness.
Ronak Gopaldas unpacks the “reverse flow” migration of sporting Africans onto the terroir of old colonial masters, with reference to France’s recent victory in the FIFA World Cup, using this as an exemplification of the outflux of some of Africa’s best and brightest human and cultural capital. Tom Osanjo provides the flipside of this coin, discussing the success of ex-pat sports stars back in their home countries, such as footballer Dennis Oliech from Kenya.
After all, our African identity is only the beginning, the rest is what we choose to retain, create, inspire. In January, the world lost one of its most talented sons, the late, great, Hugh Ramapolo Masekela. I still remember him turning to me during a live performance of The Boy’s Doin’ It in England, pointing and belting out “and this Durban boy’s doing it here in Cambridge”. I felt proud of being African and proud of the funky Africa Bra’ Hugh was representing on the global stage. In the face of adversity, racism and inequality, those warm, colourful, cultural strains of Africa streamed out sweetly through his lyrical trumpet on that cold, frosty, northern night. “Africa’s century is only just beginning,” I thought to myself, as I smiled infectiously.