Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Anthropology of Anger Civil Society and Democracy in Africa

1. The Need for Some Alternative Ideas
In Abidjan, the large boulevard that links the airport and downtown and runs through the popular residential areas of Koumassi, Marcory, and Treichville is called Boulevard Giscard d’Estaing. It obviously is a name that is not indigenous. Having had to get used to it, however, and having learned to pronounce it, the inhabitants of this prestigious lagoon city quickly found a way to integrate such a barbarous surname into their imagination. When the boulevard was first built, there were no sidewalks, and the population in that area was not used to traffic lights. As a result, dozens of pedestrians were hit by speeding cars every month. For the most part, these accidents were caused by the nouveaux riches, for whom the car had become the ultimate symbol of social success. The Boulevard Giscard d’Estaing became a frontier the ordinary people of Treichville could not cross—or could cross only by putting their lives on the line. Getting safely from one side to the other amounted almost to a miracle. In the popular mind, the Boulevard Giscard d’Estaing was thus renamed the Boulevard du Destin (the Boulevard of Fate).
This articl seeks to propose some alternative approaches to the study of sociopolitical change in Africa. It is important to explore the determinants of collective creativity—to grasp the meaning of small, ordinary things and to understand, via an examination of phenomena generally overlooked by social scientists and policymakers, the dynamics of the social structure. In this work, therefore, I will opt for an approach informed by commonplace phenomena. My aim is to decipher events and cast light on much that is usually left unsaid or that is stated inexplicitly. Since Veyne’s seminal work on how history is written (1984), we have learned that there can be neither guilt nor shame in probing into our daily experiences.
Analytical Matters
Many scholars have argued that the ongoing democratization process in Africa is doomed to fail because of insufficient internal demand for political reforms—the underlying assumption being that democratization is a consequence of conditionality imposed by external donors. Others have challenged the very roots of the current changes, alleging some kind of determinism as prerequisite; that is, Africa needs cultural and economic adjustments before it is ready for sustainable democracy. In this book I argue that both views are wrong. Indeed, African peoples have been trying for decades to challenge authoritarianism, but their patterns of behavior could not be captured by the classical tools used by social scientists. I also argue that it was the upsurge of popular protest in African countries that forced African regimes and the international community to reconsider the way in which the political process operates. For several decades, the rules of the political game and the social game (concerning power, status, wealth, and domination) were unilaterally determined by Africa’s authoritarian states, and people feigned to accept those rules when in fact they constantly adjusted their behavior to escape domination and to circumvent the most coercive strictures.
Proposing an outline of what can be called a political anthropology of anger, I will shed some light on the continent’s long tradition of an indigenous form of activism—through culture, arts, social organizations, individual and collective behavior within the public sphere, etc. By analyzing social changes from a grassroots perspective, I will show that the quest for freedom in Africa is deeply entrenched and that the most noticeable thing about the continent is that the recent sociopolitical events—successes or failures—are simply the natural (and somewhat predictable) results of the dynamics of political markets with highly creative political entrepreneurs. Finally, I argue that collective resistance to authoritarianism and collective willingness and commitment to build new and more effective political systems are functions of the development of civil society.Such a statement needs clear definition of the main concepts.
Political Markets
Markets used to be institutions where buyers and sellers came together to exchange goods. “Today, the concept of markets is used to include any situation where exchange takes place” (Stiglitz 1993:13). I borrow this concept from economics to illustrate the dynamics of the ongoing democratization process in Africa. Applying tools from economics to the anthropology of African politics, I focus on four basic questions that economists tend to pose when analyzing any market—what is produced, how it is produced, how these decisions are made, and for whom political goods (ideas) are produced—and on the whole, the answers reflect the efficiency of these political markets. In political markets with competition, citizens make choices that reflect their needs. And political actors (parties, civil society) make choices that maximize their gains (in terms of power and influence); to do so, they must produce the ideas that citizens want, and they must produce and implement them at a lower cost than do other political actors. As they compete against one another in the quest for power and influence, citizens benefit, both in the kind of ideas produced and the cost at which they are implemented. Political markets allocate ideas to those who are willing (or able) to “buy” them, that is, to participate in the political game. Images used by Stiglitz to describe market economies can be used here to present my conception of African political markets. Like bidders at an auction, the market participants willing to pay the highest price (defined in any terms) take home the goods, in the sense that their willingness legitimizes the supplier of those political goods. But what people are willing or able to accept depends on the quality of information they have about the game and the actors and also on their level of trust in the whole system. That is why many people are kept out of the market.
Such an analysis leads to the idea of political entrepreneurship as a key concept for understanding how African political systems work. A successful political entrepreneur is someone who can not only compete within the existing boundaries of the market but also increase the number of potential consumers by drawing new citizens into the game—this is called participation, in democratic theory (see, for instance, Schneider and Teske 1992). There is a strong tendency among those who dominate the game to eliminate competition or to maintain a limited number of participants, since any enlargement is likely to disturb the prevailing equilibrium and to force all the actors into new struggles. One has to think about the challenges facing African authoritarian regimes as a situation of monopoly, in which the dominant player is unwilling to accept new entrants. The discussion of the democratization process can be analyzed using this simple and basic framework.
In spite of the monopolistic resistance of governments, African peoples have always tried to enter political markets. Although governments have often succeeded in maintaining a limited level of competition in political arenas, political participation has always existed, but in a form different from what can be captured by the classical tools of analysis available in political science. By taking a grassroots approach to the study of the democratization process, I try to substantiate that statement. Furthermore, I argue that the numerous techniques invented to escape enslavement over several decades of dictatorship eventually led to the emergence of an informal civil society that cannot be observed and analyzed the same way that societies are in other parts of the world. It follows that the “success” of the current social changes taking place in all African countries will be a function of the cohesiveness of civil society and its ability to come out of the closet and occupy the public sphere in a positive way.
My central assertion is not far from the observation made by de Tocqueville (1945): The strength of civil society will strongly affect the industrial and the democratic structure of African countries over the next decades. But contrary to Putnam (1992), whose ideas are behind much of the current scholarly interest in intermediate institutions, I use a different definition of civil society—a definition that will, I hope, keep me from falling into the trap of naiveté about the virtues of civil society into which most thinkers have fallen, beginning with de Tocque ville himself.
Civil Society
To define civil society is an ambitious task, given the breadth of recent writings on the topic (Gellner 1991; Shils 1991; Seligman 1992; Cohen and Arato 1992; Gautier 1993; Harbeson et al. 1994). As Zakaria puts it, “In the world of ideas, civil society is hot.” (1995) In this book, I define it as new spaces for communication and discussion over which the state has no control. For a number of reasons, which are discussed in Chapter 6, I define it as including only those groups, organizations, and personalities that pursue freedom, justice, and the rights of citizenship against authoritarian states. Some scholars may find such a restrictive view problematic, since conceptions of freedom, justice, and the rights of citizenship vary across social groups and it is difficult to find an objective standard for inclusion and exclusion; moreover, some groups pursue these goals without being against the state, while other groups are against the state without pursuing these goals. But I chose a narrow definition because one needs to be careful in grouping under the same label all kinds of organizations. Indeed, the problem with general definitions such as “intermediate institutions” and “private groups that thrive between the realms of the state and the family” is that they include almost everything between the family and the state, which would also include the Mafia! As Zakaria explains:
The space between the realm of government and that of the family can be filled with all kinds of associations, liberal and illiberal. Historians have amply laid out how the Nazi Party made its first inroads through infiltrating local groups. On a less extreme note, many of the small groups that have formed in America over the last two decades have been thoroughly illiberal in spirit: victims’ groups that have discouraged individual responsibility, minority clubs that have balkanized the campus and the workplace, pseudoreligious cults with violent agendas (1995:25).
Further, I argue that Africa’s social capital is dwindling dangerously in some regions, not because of the declining number of people in charity organizations, choral groups, and soccer associations, or the decreasing membership in Rotary Clubs, as Putnam’s model predicts, but because of the absence (or the weakness) of spiritual capital within civil society. That is why I suggest the concept of a civic deficit, which is not the consequence of any kind of cultural gap but rather the product of collective anger. 1
The Anthropology of Anger
The driving force behind my argument is anger. This notion might suggest that this book is primarily addressed to social psychologists, which is not at all the case. Without attempting to provide a full theoretical statement of the anthropology of anger (this book is by no means aimed at launching a school of thought), let me give a straightforward definition of the term: People get angry when they are systematically oppressed, and they develop many ways of escaping repression, some of which may lead to the fragmentation of the most stable countries and the worsening of social conditions; in this new era of democratization, the vicious legacy of anger is a factor of political instability and democratic sustainability. One of the dangers of the new politics is that there may be no rules—perhaps just a generalized anomie. I am aware that this is a strong statement, with important ramifications. Indeed, by so defining the problématique, I can foresee some criticism: not everyone in society is oppressed, and not everyone is oppressed in the same way; how, then, do collective dreams and fears take shape, and what mechanisms finally convert anger into a political attitude (action or withdrawal from the political market)?
There are at least two bodies of literature that can help explain why I confer an analytical status to the term indiscipline. First, Ted Gurr“s reflections on ’relative deprivation” and “potential for action” (1970, 1985) are very useful in understanding how frustration can propel individuals to participate in some kind of political
protest. As Gurr argued (somewhat solemnly): “The basic relationship is as fundamental to understanding civil strife as the law of gravity is to atmospheric physics: relative deprivation ... is a necessary precondition for civil strife of any kind. The greater the deprivation an individual perceives relative to his expectations, the greater his discontent; the more widespread and intense is discontent among members of a society, the more likely and severe is civil strife” (1970:596). Those who are familiar with the numerous forms of political protest in Africa will agree that Gurr’s conceptualization of what he calls “relative deprivation” is only a rough approximation of what is really going on today. Gurr has subsequently adjusted his analysis to take into account some of the criticism, giving more importance to factors that he initially neglected: the “cultural” prerequisites for violent forms of protest and some rational calculations (Gurr and Duvall 1976). I shall not discuss his culturalistic approach to politics at this point; I will move beyond his cynical view of the determinants of political protest. My arguments in this book are substantially different—they may sound far more idealistic in some sense.
The second group of thinkers that I found useful to engage are those working on everyday forms of resistance, such as James Scott and the so-called Subaltern Studies School. They are much more appealing to me, since they adopt a grassroots perspective of analysis. They start from the observation that historical records and archives never mention peasantry, for instance, except when their activity is menacing. This observation confirms that “most subordinate classes throughout most of history have rarely been afforded the luxury of open, organized, political activity. Or, better stated, such activity was dangerous, if not suicidal. Even when the option did exist, it is not clear that the same objectives might not also be pursued by other stratagems” (Scott 1985:xv). That is why it is important to understand everyday forms of peasant resistance, defined by Scott as “x;the prosaic but constant struggle between the peasantry and those who seek to extract labor, food, taxes, rents, and interest from them. Most forms of this struggle stop well short of outright collective defiance. Here I have in mind the ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so on” (1985:xvi). In fact, many historians have argued that such informal methods of protest are eventually what really pushes history. As Bloch put it in his study of feudalism, the great millennial movements were “flashes in the pan” compared with what he called the “patient, silent struggles stubbornly carried on by rural communities” to resist oppression and injustice (1970:170).
While this second approach seems to capture the type of social dynamics that I will describe and analyze in the context of the current sociopolitical changes in Africa, I must emphasize that I disagree with one of Scott’s assumptions; that is, the idea that “most subordinate classes are ... far less interested in changing the large structures of the state and the law than in what Hobsbawm has appropriately called #145;working the system ... to their minimum disadvantage’” (1985:xv). Peasants in Africa and, more generally, people living in rural areas had no such limited views on the significance of their citizenship during the first phase of the democratic liberalization that occurred between 1989 and 1993: like other social groups, they wanted the quest for dignity to be a top priority on the national agenda. The claim for a national conference, for instance, in order to “fix” the government, was as strong in rural areas as in major cities. 2 In fact, the strong belief in the necessity to change the way the state functions has always been a characteristic of African peasantry, as Ela has shown (1982, 1990).
For these reasons, I would rather follow de Certeau’s dilettantism in investigating the behavior of ordinary people—peasants or others—commonly assumed to be passive and manipulated by corrupted elites or governments (1984). This book is aimed at exploring the ambiguity behind the enforcement of social rules. Apparently submissive and even consenting to their subjection, African peoples nevertheless often transformed the laws imposed on them into something quite different from what their leaders had in mind. They subverted the rules not by confronting them directly, but by circumventing them very carefully, or even by using them to achieve objectives contrary to the system that they had no choice but to accept. They were other within the authoritarian regimes that outwardly assimilated them. To use de Certeau’s words, “Their use of the dominant social order deflected its power, which they lacked the means to challenge” (1984:xiii). The strength of their difference lay in their use of subversive tactics, which are worth examining, since they reveal the amazing existence of what can be called a collective consciousness.
Theoretical and Conceptual Issues
Observing the widening gap between theory and research, Coleman highlighted the
fundamental contradiction confronting social scientists today: “Social theory continues to be about the functioning of social systems and behavior, but empirical research is often concerned with explaining individual behavior” (1990:1). Indeed, a key issue that is not always fully addressed by Africanists is that of accounting for the functioning of the political system: They tend to draw general conclusions on the system as a whole from uncertain anecdotes about individual cases. Of course, this is not specific to African studies. However, whereas researchers in other fields of knowledge usually acknowledge the existence of the problem and try to solve it by using quantitative methods, Africanists tend to avoid it. Their work is rarely scrutinized by the academic community in the same manner as other publications are, and their “empirical evidence” is generally limited to some administrative data or a few patterns of behavior they noticed during their short trips to the field—both of which are highly unreliable. Since this book has been written from the perspective of my personal involvement in the struggle for freedom in my own country, I will not tackle this issue here. However, I will briefly mention the various options available to anyone dealing with it, and I will clearly present where I stand.
Broadly speaking, there are two methods of explanation in the literature devoted to individuals: One focuses on individual behavior, using principally factors external to the individual or factors characterizing him or her as a whole (let’s call this approach A1). Another examines processes internal to the individual, focusing on processes through which these internal changes lead to a specific behavior (A2). Both approaches have their advantages and disavantages, whether one undertakes qualitative or quantitative research (see Coleman). But the theoretical difficulties are compounded by the fact that many social scientists analyze social systems using data and information collected from individuals. Whether this is supported by methods of statistical association or analyses of processes internal to those individuals does not really matter, since it is very hard to explain the functioning of social systems using (unreliable) information from single individuals. Yet many political scientists working on African issues do this all the time, without recognizing the numerous hidden assumptions sustaining their models.
Yet, even if one follows the second approach—that is, studies social systems, not merely groups of individuals—there are still many difficulties because of the existence of several levels of analysis: One can either focus on a sample of cases of system behavior or observe system behavior as a whole over a period of time; this requires the use of statistical techniques (let’s call this approach B1). A second method is to examine processes internal to the system: component parts at a level below that of the system institutions, individuals in subgroups, etc. (B2). Each of these four modes of explanation has certain points to recommend it and certain shortcomings that one must acknowledge while using it.
I do not think that there has to be a clear-cut separation among these four approaches, yet, the academic community is generally divided along the lines of Figure 1. In order to be considered “scientific,” and to benefit from the respect of their peers, Western political scientists studying Africa usually adopt either A1 or B1. Otherwise, their work is quickly dismissed as being too subjective and too superficial; in “scientific” terms, it is said to lack quantitative and empirical evidence or no formal model to support the theory. But those working on African issues do not bother to build quantitative models or to back up their observations with empirical evidence. And there is good reason for this: In countries where even the president does not always know how many citizens live in the capital city, it is risky to undertake quantitative analysis based solely on statistical techniques. Moreover, almost all the theoretical frameworks used by political scientists cannot be transferred to the very specific sociological environment of African countries; they simply do not support broad and simplistic comparisons. How would one classify Mobutu’s regime in Zaire using Robert Dahl’s definitions? How would one assess the rigidity of political parties in Tanzania using Maurice Duverger’s law? How would one define civil society in Sudan with Gramsci’s perce ption of the state and his concept of hegemonic alliance in mind?

Facing such an unusual environment, where most of their quantitative tools need to be readjusted, many political scientists have chosen the easiest way of dealing with the situation: using an A2 approach—that is, observing microphenomena from the perspectives of individuals and trying to draw general conclusions as to how the system works simply by interpreting individual behavior. In doing so, they fall into the trap of subjectivism—and their work is rarely perceived as contributing to knowledge in any way.
In this book, I follow the A2 and B2 approaches. I could have tried to give a “scientific” flavor to my work by backing it up with some mathematical formulas. But given that these are general reflections concerning many issues and covering a vast geographic area, I chose instead to limit myself to the analysis of phenomena within my main area of interest (mostly western and central Africa), using my personal experience in the field where necessary. As noted by Coleman, “The major problem for explanations of system behavior based on actions and orientations at a level below that of the system is that of moving from the lower level to the system level. This has been called the micro-to-macro problem, and it is pervasive throughout the social sciences” (1990:6). In spite of the considerable body of theoretical work attempting to deal with this problem, I do not think that I could have tackled the issue properly, given the high level of complexity of African social systems. The only way I could honestly address the question was to limit my propensity to generalize about Africa.
I therefore decided to conduct research based on the commonplace attitudes and events of everyday life, that which is beyond the realm of words, in an attempt to uncover the logic that most accurately serves collective ambitions. My observations lead to the conclusion that the democratic project in sub-Saharan Africa has not been perceived by the people as a cultural fetish used to disguise famine, misery, and suffering. Rather, they see it as a means of expressing citizenship, confiscated and perverted by decades of authoritarianism.
Throughout Africa, people are invading the political arena in an (often furious) attempt to get their will finally taken into account by the leaders, and ethical ambition is expressed through explosions of anger. The real issue lies in the fact that these popular movements lack appropriate leadership. Their new “representatives” do not have the competence to build institutions that take into consideration the cultural realities and power relationships among the major social actors. It is these factors that finally determine the dynamics of the democratic project.
Africa in anger offers political scientists new areas of reflection. Avenues, themes, and dimensions of political participation are viewed here from a highly unusual perspective. The range of political activities treated elsewhere—for example, ways of expressing political choices, manifestations of discontent, methods of organizing electoral campaigns—has been considerably enlarged because of the creativity inherited from a
long tradition of indiscipline. The feeling of political competence has rapidly become one of the values most common among all groups of the population.
These interesting indications, which are signs of the rebirth of civil society, raise the question of the validity of the analytical tools and frameworks for the interpretation of voter behavior. For instance, the so-called ecological models that are based on theories of human geography appear to be just as inadequate in capturing African realities as the so-called psychosociological ones (see Mayer and Perrineau 1992)—even though the latter theories are more adaptable to the African context, provided that local cultural factors are incorporated into the analysis.
The major problem with Africanists is that they are doggedly trying to make sense—any sense, actually—of African political changes. Thanks to Axelle Kabou’s impressive talent, we now have a series of questions that demand the right answers. 3 By studying people’s anxieties, by observing the deep ambitions behind their innocuous behavior, I had the feeling that beyond the concerns regarding the uncertainties of current events there was a certain optimism. If complacent optimism is unrealistic, then Afro-pessimism has no basis either. The optimism that underlies the following text has nothing to do with slogans; it is simply a necessity that is fueled by the potential and the will of people encountered in African political markets over the last few years.
The conclusions in this book indicate that, far from rejecting development, Africa is forging new trails toward the affirmation of its dignity. The discrepancy between political supply and social demand summarizes the present difficulties in Africa’s democratic process. The populist inflation that seems to pervert the art of politics in some countries accrues in reality because of this gap, and it is amplified by external financial and economic constraints. Since authoritarian regimes have limited the state to a prebendal role (Joseph 1983), communities have reasserted their liberty toward it. Civil disobedience tends to be the order of the day, and public policies are invalidated daily by collective indiscipline.
The question as to what would have to be done to improve the performance of the democratization wave (actors, rules, or the very nature of the game) loses its importance once one ceases to engage in classical political science and undertakes a political anthropology of anger. Actors matter only in as much as they agree to comply with certain rules. The important problem of the ethnogeographic dimension of politics comes afterward. Once Africans and their representatives give priority to the question of institutionalization as opposed to solutions centered on infighting among individuals or on mere leadership, once the organs for managing civil societies are well structured and the ambitions of their proponents become well known because they are widely disseminated and broadly discussed, social balance will be restored and public authority will be reestablished.
The state will then cease to be the battlefield of private interests and will become the place for discussing and stabilizing various types of social organization. The discrepancy between the collective ambitions of social groups and communities on the one hand and the individual expectations of the citizens on the other is not due to a lack of will or to the people’s familiarity with the “delights” of authoritarianism, but rather to the shortcomings of methods designed to integrate individuals into the democratic process. 4 At the heart of the present malaise are the issue of the involvement of the majority in building new institutions and the problem of accumulation schemes. The aim of this book is to offer some suggestions to the study of political processes that seem to be nonlinear and to shed some light on ways of analyzing social changes in countries where people are angry.
Chapter 2 presents the main theoretical frameworks political scientists use to assess political changes in sub-Saharan Africa, emphasizing the shortcomings and contradictions of each model, and also underscores the need for another conceptual approach. I suggest a simple model of the first phase of democratic development in Africa (1990#150;1995).
Chapter 3 focuses on the cultural foundations of social changes. I discuss the psychological and philosophical background of public discourse since independence and some related issues: the politics of culture launched by African governments in the 1960s and 1970s; the ambiguity of being African in today’s world; the use of
memory, utopia, and myths in politics; the relationship between culture, revolt, and violence in countries where young people seem to have no future; and finally the work of intellectuals and artists who have decided to express another vision of the way their societies should be organized by challenging most of the conventional aesthetic standards.
Chapter 4 identifies the emerging democratic patterns behind the banality of everyday life in Africa. By exploring the language of the ordinary people, and by looking beyond the behavior of all kinds of people, one can perceive a refreshing optimization of disorder. Thus, one needs to reinterpret the people’s “natural propensity to indiscipline” and their rejection of official watchwords.
Chapter 5 is devoted to the study of the politics of the sacred. Given the explosion of the quest for God in Africa today, it is important to analyze how collective anger and anxieties are translated into the mechanics of new spiritual habits that seem to influence and, sometimes, to determine the outcome of political battles in many countries.
Chapter 6 explores the role of civil society in the quest for democracy. I underline its key influence in reshaping the emerging political markets in sub-Saharan Africa and its conflicting objectives, as well as the risks of disintegration of countries where some of the most powerful civic organizations are essentially created along “ethnic” or regional lines, or for political purposes only. Finally, I make some policy recommendations aimed at strengthening civil society.In conclusion, I discuss why people in some countries are still expecting a messiah. I look at the high level of initial expectations and the risks of frustration and downfall. I also analyze how the cynical (mis)management of collective anger by some political entrepreneurs can lead to such tragedies as Rwanda, Burundi, or Liberia.
2. How Africa Fits into Democratic Theory
In one of his most recent works, Paul Krugman (1995) relates the intriguing paradox of the evolution of the knowledge of European cartographers who charted Africa between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. He observes that in theory one would expect knowledge to develop in a linear fashion and maps to become ever more precise as more research was carried out. However, this was not the case.
As Krugman explains, the maps roughly sketched by the first explorers, despite some inaccuracies with respect to distances, the shape of the coastline, and characteristics of the inhabitants, contained a wealth of useful information on the interior of the continent. As time went by and sources of information grew more reliable, the coastline was studied carefully, along with its cities and populations. As early as the eighteenth century, the mapping of the coastline had by and large taken its definitive form. At the same time, however, the interior—most of the continent—became less well known. Fantastic legends concerning the inhabitants’ characteristics gradually disappeared, but nothing more was learned about the real locations of towns and rivers. Over time, European cartographers actually became more ignorant of the continent than they were at the time of the first explorers.
What occurred over three centuries to cause such a regression? Krugman’s hypothesis, which strikes me as a good one, is that the improvement in mapmaking techniques raised standards with respect to the reliability of data. Secondhand information and intuitive judgments once taken at face value no longer measured up to the academic standards of those working in the discipline. Only data gathered in accordance with the research methodology and theoretical models of the day were considered valid. Although the plotting of the map of Africa benefited in the end from the initial skepticism of researchers—those who relied on data meeting the rigorous standards of present-day cartography—there was a time in which the improvement in scientific methods resulted in a loss of knowledge.
The analogy between the development of mapmaking and the evolution of research on Africa in the social sciences is striking. There was a time when the travel journals of a Ibn Battuta, a Ibn Khaldun, or even a René Caillé provided the West with information on the organization and operation of African societies that was considered generally accurate, if paternalistic and somewhat crude. Then ethnologists landed on the continent equipped with their theories and armed with their subjectivism and arrogance. Whether in good or bad faith, they claimed they were there to make the field of African studies “clear” and “rational” through the application of models that had more to do with the logic of their own mentalities than with the identity and structure of the places they claimed to analyze “scientifically.” From Jahn and Hegel to Lévy-Bruhl and Voltaire, the obsessive desire to apply rigid theories to recalcitrant terrain, without always verifying their validity through empirical research, resulted in a literature of dubious worth (Amondji 1993).
The present state of research in Africanist political science confirms that scientific knowledge in this field remains utterly confused. Despite the number of publications and the high methodological standards, the results are rather thin. Despite the repeated use of econometrics and complex models borrowed from game
theory (which completely altered research methodology and revolutionized the knowledge of Western political scientists), one has the impression that Africanist political science is still stammering, still sterile, and in general it has yet to be taken seriously within the social sciences. As Sklar bluntly puts it:
The vast majority of political scientists still classify research on Africa questions as a peripheral “area study” which is not essential to the discipline’s scientific progress.... In competitive appointment processes, Africanist scholarship does not enjoy a comparative advantage based on disciplinary contributions of its practitioners. If the question is, “Why do we want an Africanist particularly?” no decisive reason, based on scientific or theoretical necessity, can be adduced. In fact, I cannot think of a widely recognized problem or theory, of concern to political scientists generally, that requires African area expertise to either explore scientifically or explain to students (1993:84).
It is clear that ignorance does not prevent researchers from being arrogant: if nothing has been found in Africa, they conclude, it is because the continent has nothing original to offer political thought. How can one seriously believe that the cradle of civilization, at present an immense territory where all races and cultures coexist, where every type of social organization on the planet is found, has nothing specific to offer political science? How can one believe that the current social transformations are reducible to the level of slight social tremors brought on by the economic crisis? How can one continue to affirm that the existing literature has properly interpreted the complex phenomena that have occurred throughout Africa when the theories and models developed over the past decades were incapable of not only predicting but even explaining the current social changes? It is high time that social scientists abandoned their arrogant attitude toward Africa, for to date very little of their research has helped us decipher its complexity.
That is why it is necessary to take a long, hard look at the basic assumptions that have governed thought in the social sciences up to now. In this chapter, I shall first examine democratic theory as it is used today, then compare and contrast this with African realities so as to measure its effectiveness and underscore its limitations. The first section deals with the polarization of the debate on democracy in Africa and demonstrates how the analytic paradigms that are usually employed to define and measure democratic progress do not properly evaluate what is happening in the African political arena. Epistemological, hermeneutic, and semantic questions, which the very idea of democracy has always raised, have caused Africanist political scientists to adopt divergent viewpoints, reducing their work to a web of contrasting and often incoherent ideas. I analyze the reasons for this confusion and try to shed light on the different ways in which the subject is approached, the conflicting objectives of researchers, the subterranean strategies used by political actors to exploit the nebulousness of the current situation, and especially the two main philosophical anchors that govern or justify the reasoning and arguments of scholars: ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.
The second section of this chapter underscores the need for a new approach to the definition of democracy so that it is not a projection of the values of those performing the analysis but a representation of the values of those experiencing it. This requires above all the adoption of a different conceptual framework for measuring democratic progress, such as the democratization index I have earlier proposed (Monga 1993, 1995b). Unlike other methods available in literature on the subject, it has the advantage of being more “legitimate” and flexible, and it provides for the possibility of both geographic and temporal improvement.
I conclude by calling upon Africanist political scientists both to rid themselves of the straitjacket of models ill adapted to the environment they seek to grasp and to espouse a multiple, imaginative perspective on African politics. Only then will scholars be able to see how old the quest for freedom in Africa truly is and the degree to which democratization is taking hold; only then will they be able to measure the vast riches the continent has to offer the social sciences. I also suggest a simple model of democratization in Africa, emphasizing the importance of the elaboration phase of the rules of the political game.
The Polarization of the Democratic Debate on Africa
One of the paradoxes of current democratic theory is the growing gap between theoretical advances and the practical application of models derived from them. Though questions and disputes about democracy go back to its origins, an examination of the present state of knowledge in the field allows one to better conceptualize its objective and understand the source of disagreement among the different schools of thought. However, applying research results to societies engaged in what Huntington (1991) has termed the Third Wave of democratization results in contradictions that lead one to adopt a skeptical attitude toward the utility of political science.
To begin, it is necessary to put things into their proper perspective and to demonstrate that, despite the debates on the definition of democracy and the conditions for its sustainability, not only do current theories rely on the same paradigm, but the blind application of this paradigm, which is incapable of grasping the dynamics and the meaning of political transformations in Africa, creates confusion.
Theoretical Advances of Democratic Theory
Let us return for a moment to the European cartographers, who, as time went by, knew less and less about their subject. Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, they had so refined their research methodology that they grew more and more ignorant of the continent’s geography, because information no longer met their stringent criteria. Their intellectual itinerary is comparable to that of present-day political scientists, who have adopted such high standards for their paradigms of analysis that they are unable to use them to define the current state of African politics. To understand why confusion reigns in the study of African politics, let us begin with a brief discussion of the evolution of democratic theory and the principal issues being debated today.
It is surprising that the extensive literature produced by political scientists tells us little about the origin of democracy. Despite research indicating that the ethical quest at the heart of this idea is practically consubstantial with humanity—compare Snowden (1970) and Bernal (1987) to cite two mainstream publications—political scientists insist that democracy originated somewhere in ancient Greece. However, the definition of the word democracy and the implications of the Greek concept of the term call this opinion into question. The very principle of the rule (kratos) of the people (demos) opens up an infinite number of questions that are generally ignored but nevertheless explain the heart of the debate among various schools of thought. As Held has pointed out with respect to the notion of rule alone:
Definitional problems emerge with each element of the phrase: “rule”?—“rule by”?—“the people”? To begin with “the people”: who are to be considered “the people”? What kind of participation is envisaged for them? What conditions are assumed to be conducive to participation? Can the disincentives and incentives, or costs and benefits, of participation be equal?
The idea of “rule” evokes a plethora of issues: how broadly or narrowly is the scope of rule to be construed? Or, what is the appropriate field of democratic activity? If “rule” is to cover “the political” what is meant by this? Does it cover (a) law and order? (b) relations between states? (c) the economy? (d) the domestic or private sphere?
Does “rule by” entail the obligation to obey? Must the rules of “the people” be obeyed? What is the place of obligation and dissent? What mechanisms are created for those who are avowedly and actively “non-participants”? Under what circumstances, if any, are democracies entitled to resort to coercion against some of their own people or against those outside the sphere of legitimate rule (1987:2–3)?
The definition of the people, the other component of the word democracy, raises at least as many questions, and each carries with it important implications (Held 1987:iii). Far from being a purely philosophical discussion, an interrogation of the idea of democracy must include philosophical, theoretical, and practical dimensions. I shall argue in this chapter that it is because Africanist political scientists have not dealt
sufficiently with such fundamental questions that they have had such difficulty in coherently conceptualizing the ways in which Africans conceive of and experience democracy. This opens up a larger debate about the geographic and temporal validity of the models used in the social sciences. One of the advantages of the index of democratization I have proposed is that it is capable of integrating this intrinsically conflictive problematic and capturing not only the specificity but also the range of indigenous perceptions of the idea of democracy without altering its original and “universal” substance.
But above all else, it is useful to look at the evolution and current status of democratic theory. The necessity of distinguishing between different types of approaches to democracy (philosophical, theoretical, conceptual, and practical) is no doubt the source of the debates that have pitted political scientists against one another over the last three centuries. Held (1987) provides an overview of the principal issues disputed in political theory since Plato and an interesting schematic presentation of the intellectual landscape today.
On the one hand, there is the liberal model, derived from the classical Greek model, influenced by the ideas of Hobbes, Locke, Mill, and Montesquieu and synthesized over the course of the twentieth century by Hayek (1960, 1976) and Nozick (1974). This model derives from what is referred to as legal democracy, whose principal justification is as follows: “The majority principle is an effective and desirable way of protecting individuals from arbitrary government and, therefore, of maintaining liberty. For political life, like economic life, to be a matter of individual freedom and initiative, majority rule, in order for it to function justly and wisely, must be circumscribed by the rule of law” (Held 1987:251). The key features of legal democracy are a constitutional state (modeled on features of the Anglo-American political tradition, including the clear separation of powers), the rule of law, minimal state intervention in civil society and private life, and a free-market society given the fullest possible scope. Its general conditions include effective political leadership guided by liberal principles, limitations on bureaucratic regulation, and, if possible, the eradication of the threat of collectivism of any kind.
On the other hand, there is the Marxist model, inspired notably by Rousseau’s skepticism regarding the representative structure and codification of the general will. Like all others, this model has evolved considerably throughout history. It is one of the principal sources of inspiration for what is called participatory democracy, which Macpherson (1977) and Pateman (1985) have theorized in recent years. Participatory democracy is defined in the following manner: “An equal right to self-development can only be achieved in a ‘participatory society,’ a society which fosters a sense of political efficacy, nurtures a concern for collective problems and contributes to the formation of a knowledgeable citizenry capable of taking a sustained interest in the governing process” (Held 1987:262). Its key features are the direct participation of citizens in the regulation of the main institutions of society, including the workplace and the local community; the reorganization of the party system so that political leaders are directly accountable to the membership; a flexible institutional system with political parties much more integrated into the parliamentary structure; the adoption of the principle of better distribution of resources; and an open information system to ensure informed decisions.
Held’s categories are, of course, subject to critique insofar as they rely on ideological distinctions that are not always as clear-cut as he suggests. That said, I shall maintain his basic definitions all the while broadening them to include extensive French research on the question. 1 I want to distinguish between theorists who think that the idea of democracy should be limited to purely political concepts—that is, to the political rights of the individual and the right to choose those who decide the rules of government (roughly speaking, what Held calls legal democracy)—and those who consider that democracy should apply to all aspects of social life and that individual rights should include economic, social, and cultural dimensions (an extension of participatory democracy as defined by Held and others). We shall later see that, in the case of African countries, it is necessary to use such definitions so that inspired autocrats will not twist too easily the concept of liberal democracy.
Political science has yet to go beyond the dichotomy between these models. Of course, some authors have questioned their validity in today’s world, given the implacable logic of the market economy. Revitalizing Rousseau’s skepticism regarding all forms of representation, Dahl, for example, has underscored the developmental logic of capitalism, which tends to “produce inequalities in social and economic resources so great as to bring about severe violations of political equality and hence of the democratic process”
(1985:60). 2 Other writers have addressed similar concerns. For example, the democratic models Held (1987, 1994) and Gould (1988) have proposed insist on the necessity of extending the democratic agenda beyond government and into the business world and social life. But these ideas have remained theoretical— one can easily imagine how disastrous a practical application of such an approach would be, especially for highly industrialized nations that pride themselves on being the exclusive repositories of freedom, the owners of democratic truth.
In sum, it appears that centuries of heated debates among political scientists have produced works that, however technical and advanced theoretically, are not applicable to the study of African societies. Much remains to be said and done on this subject.
The question is how to use these various models to decipher the sociopolitical transformations that began to take shape in Africa in the early 1990s. The answer, of course, is not an easy one. The syndrome of inefficient overqualification with which Africanist cartographers were stricken comes into full force here: How is one to use the variants of the liberal or Marxist model to measure political development in Zambia, Djibouti, or Mauritania? How can one be sure that the political institutions adopted in Malawi after the fall of the former “president for life,” Hastings Kamuzu Banda, are evaluated in the same way as the British institutions on which they are based? Should one believe that the strategies of Congolese politicians can be analyzed through the prism of French political science simply because the system is a replica of France’s form of government? Should one think that imported institutional paradigms, which Badie (1992) has denounced, have a concrete impact on the African political landscape, that they really affect the nature and operation of African politics? Should one believe that the fragility of the transition to democracy, which appears to have taken place in Zambia, Madagascar, Niger, and Congo, is a reflection of the low level of political development in these countries and hence of the impossibility of establishing a true democracy in these countries?
No. The practical application of the theoretical advances in political science described earlier has failed by and large, especially when it concerns understanding the actual organization and operation of African politics today. The liberal and Marxist traditions, along with their numerous variants, have produced increasingly sophisticated methods of analysis, but the environment they seek to encompass and interpret remains resistant to their application. Nevertheless, unlike European cartographers of yore, political scientists today insist upon using them in Africa at all costs. As a result, they perceive there only troubling images, signals of a profound disorder. They are nonetheless wrong to interpret this “nebulousness” as proof of Africa’s political backwardness.
The Paradigm of African Political Backwardness
This rapid overview of contemporary thought on democracy is necessary, even if its complexity is somewhat daunting. First, it helps one understand why Africanist political scientists are guilty of the crime of which economists are generally accused—as soon as two of them get together, they disagree about everything down to the most elementary conceptual tools. Second, it enables one to pinpoint the technical origin of errors in analysis and judgment that political science “experts” have made with regard to Africa.
Nothing is more enigmatic and confused than current research in Africanist political science. It is enough to read some books and articles on the subject to measure not only their complexity but the poor quality of the findings. Analyses of the sustainability of the democratic process, which were begun in the early 1990s in most African nations, are even more confused—even if one manages to decipher them, the conclusions reached by the various authors are often contradictory. Some view the present state of affairs in a positive light and think that time will improve the performance of local political actors. Others are pessimistic and think that the political, economic, institutional, and cultural prerequisites for democracy do not exist in Africa and are not likely to exist there for at least another generation or so. The only thing upon which everyone appears to agree is the political backwardness of Africa, not in terms of its obvious marginalization in world affairs, but in terms of its present capacity to adopt democratic ways. But they are all wrong and I propose to show how and why.
No encyclopedia is vast enough to cover exhaustively the vast array of incoherent mishmash published recently by the “experts.” So let us begin with the university scholars who have studied the political unrest on the continent. So as not to tire the reader, I will confine myself to the main theses advanced by the most renowned scholars, whose work has been published in the most prestigious journals.
The Presumption of Incompetence
Dabezies is a professor at the Sorbonne, an influential man, a former diplomat and military officer; in short, he is the prototypical French Africanist, having spent considerable time as a power broker in both government and research. Stupefied by the fact that “democracy has suddenly reemerged as a sort of panacea,” he cannot help wondering, with barely veiled irony, whether it is a “passing fever, an ephemeral illusion or an ersatz remedy” (1992:22). In his view, failure is all the more predictable in that its causes may be traced to decolonialization, for independence was attained before the new local leaders had time to acquire the political training necessary to govern effectively. The constitutional mimetism that determined their choice of governmental models could only lead to the present impasse: “Democracy, let it be said, is a long and difficult path; it is hard to manipulate and brings no miraculous remedy to Africa’s ills—notably material ones; it is, moreover, a new idea on the continent, and neither the colonial period nor the era of independence movements saw such a ‘bubbling over,’ which some have described in lyrical if not demagogic terms” (1992:25). The absence of historical depth—in terms of a democratic tradition and an institutional framework for the ratification of democratic values—is also cited by eminent British and American scholars as one of the causes of Africa’s present difficulties. In a recent book, Apter, a professor at Yale, and Rosberg, Berkeley professor emeritus, write that the various European political and administrative traditions of the colonial era “left a legacy of institutional indigestion, insufficiently trained cadres, poorly entrenched but with great power, and a host of developmental problems that quickly overwhelmed nationalist political successors” (1994:17).
Writings by Africanist political scientists are filled with such justifications, whose pertinence is dubious at best. (Though there is a strong body of literature in comparative politics providing evidence of democratic systems designed without any structural prerequisite [Rustow 1970; Karl 1990; Diamond 1992]). Let us skip the paternalistic commentaries on the continent’s “structural incapacity” and move on to the soundness of the arguments behind this thesis. Must there be a certain tradition and a group of men “trained” in the conceptualization and management of freedom for the idea of democracy to succeed? History offers few examples of such prerequisites because the quest for freedom is so intimately linked to human life itself that democracy emerges almost ex nihilo. Neither the fathers of the American Revolution nor the French revolutionaries needed prior training in order to construct political systems protecting citizens from arbitrary government!
Indeed, the most intriguing aspect of this argument is the refusal to apply the same presumption of incompetence to politicians in countries in other parts of the world whose political history resembles that of Africa. Eastern Europe, for example, had little experience with democracy before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A study by Stubos concludes: “All Eastern European countries, with the noticeable exception of Czechoslovakia, had no prior tradition of democratic rule before the imposition of communism. In some cases, of course, some sort of limited or guided democratic practices were in place and formal parliamentary institutions were in existence. The fact remains, however, that democratic institutions and practices never acquired deep roots in these countries, neither did they make a dent in their political culture” (1993:31). The presumed absence of a “democratic culture” (I will later return to this notion) did not prevent Eastern bloc countries from implementing a democratic process that scholars regard with interest and optimism. Only Africa is consistently labeled as a place where certain conditions must first be met if its democratic ambitions are to be taken seriously. Moreover, no one would suggest for Eastern Europe, as Collier (1991) did for Africa, the creation of some “external agencies of restraint” to prevent leaders from making “structural” or “natural” political mistakes because of their countries’ alleged lack of democratic culture.
The Absence of a Critical Mass of Democrats
Many consider that the threat to the future of African democracies lies in a small number of citizens who “want” democracy. This low demand for political reform is described by Dabezies: “If [democracy]
corresponds to a diffuse feeling of freedom, indeed, at a higher level, to a profound desire to liberate the masses, it as yet directly concerns but a minority, intellectuals and civil servants in particular, certain of whom have only recently begun to oppose the regimes they denounce” (1992:25). Widner is in full agreement: “Pressure for great political competitiveness came from elites who found that public offices they held suddenly stopped yielding the rents they used to supplement their income. Where these elites could organize general strikes, incumbent heads of state often tried to preempt their demonstrations by legalizing such opposition while maintaining control over critical electoral resources” (1994).
Starting from the same assumption, Bates (1994) tries to explain the shift in the position of the elites, advancing a convoluted theory based on the notion of human capital. Bates explains that the growth of certain types of local elites (especially old guard politicians, attorneys, church leaders, and community activists), whose skills are marketable only in their own countries, eventually created a tense political situation in which there was a surplus of this type of labor. The elites could survive and provide for their families only by fighting the regimes in power. They therefore initiated the present democratic process, which remains limited to a few social groups:
From whom does the reformist impulse emanate? One source is fixed and specific human capital, those people who have invested in skills that are but imperfectly transferable elsewhere. Among these are the old guard politicians and those who people the ranks of local, community-based hierarchies: lawyers, community activists, and church leaders. A lawyer in Ghana, for example, especially one at the peak of his career, is unlikely to find a comparable position in London. Although he might join an international agency, his career path is not international. Unlike finance capital or people with general, as opposed to community-specific, skills, professionals cannot readily defect abroad. Therefore, in the face of declining welfare, rather than exit, they may find it preferable to give voice (1994:21–22).
Médart (1994) is even more blunt when he states that democracy has difficulty taking shape in Africa “because there is no democracy without democrats.” The events that led to a softening of authoritarian regimes are reduced to a mere game between elites and stripped of any legitimacy. In short, the quest for democracy in Africa is superficial.
Such arguments are invalid. They demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of what has been happening in Africa over the past few decades. To affirm that the battle for democracy was engaged by African elites (Bates even claims that this is one of the “paradoxes” of democratization in sub-Saharan Africa!) is to ignore the silent struggle by men and women of all social classes from the beginning of the colonial era. Collective insubordination is the oldest watchword in African societies across the board. Accounts by historians (Mbokolo 1992; Roberts 1990) and more general works on arts and literature (Kom 1983; Ngandu Nkashama 1984; Mouralis 1984) bear witness to this.
If Widner’s thesis were correct—that is, if civil servants and local elites initiated the democratic process in Africa—then the political system would function beautifully, for this social group is the most homogeneous and has the fewest conflicts of interest. Bates’s thesis does not withstand scrutiny, either: it is both an insult and an error to assert that African elites suddenly demanded a better system of government simply because their financial resources had dried up over the years and their skills were not exportable. How can one claim that a Ghanaian lawyer could not find the same type of position in London that he had in Accra? Or that a Kenyan priest would not be accepted in a New York parish? Or that a Malian volunteer working in the private sector in Bamako could not perform the same service in Paris?
Médart’s maxim, “There is no democracy without democrats,” is elegant but inaccurate and utopian. Were it true, Italian democracy would not work, and neither would French and U.S. democracies. For democrats exist nowhere—there are only human beings who agree, willingly or by force, to bow to institutions that function in accordance with a set of rules deemed to have been established democratically by the majority of citizens (see again Rustow 1970; Karl 1990).
The Urban-Rural Dichotomy
There is a tendency among some authors, Anglo-Saxon scholars in particular, to cast doubt on the legitimacy of demands for democracy by questioning the prevalence of such demands in the population of the countryside. This idea is based on the urban-bias theory, first advanced by Lipton (1977) and developed notably by Bates (1981). The basic assumption is as follows: “The most important class conflict in the poor countries of the world today is not between labor and capital. Nor is it between foreign and national interests. It is between rural classes and urban classes. The rural sector contains most of the poverty and most of the low-cost sources of potential advance; but the urban sector contains most of the articulateness, organization and power. So the urban classes have been able to win most of the rounds of struggle with the countryside” (Lipton 1977:13).
The apparent dichotomy between urban and rural areas determined public policy and the political economy of sub-Saharan Africa during the 1980s. In the past few years, it appears to have taken over scholarship as well. Political scientists are all too ready to view the democratic process as an exclusively urban phenomenon. The rebellious cities, symbols of the arrogance of the state and the wasteful expenditure of public funds, are pitted against the silent and exploited rural areas, “victims” of the power of civil servants and urban elites. Occasionally the “opposition” between urban and rural areas is technically explained and the well-documented propensity to overvalue African currencies becomes the conceptual justification for the domination of the urban sector over the rural one—an overvalued currency hurts exports and lowers the price of imported goods. In other words, having long accepted uneven exchange rates, African governments have made an essentially political choice that favors the lifestyle of city dwellers, who are more likely to purchase imported luxury items, and reduces the purchasing power of rural inhabitants, who are the exporters of raw materials (Bates 1981). From there it is but a short step—which certain authors do not hesitate to take—to the conclusion that the eruption of demands for democracy in Africa’s large urban centers is simply a noisy display by a bunch of hungry city dwellers who suddenly find themselves deprived of their numerous privileges.
Although such analyses are at once superficial and caricatural, they are influential and dominate thought in the academic community (the urban-bias theory has recently been critiqued on economic grounds by Varshney [1993], whose work will not be discussed in detail here). However, the decline of agriculture’s contribution to the economy is a normal phenomenon. Studies have shown that industrialization generally occurs at the expense of agriculture inasmuch as agriculture must contribute an increasing share of its revenues to the industrial sector (Timmer 1988, 1992, 1993; Quisumbing and Taylor 1990). Of course, these studies do not answer all the questions raised by the urban-bias theory—notably, whether the democratic movement stems from a loss in purchasing power among city dwellers. But as Bratton and Van de Walle have pointed out, that does not mean a correlation necessarily exists between economic factors and social demands: “It is ultimately misleading to interpret political protest in strictly economic terms ... there is little or no correlation between the intensity of political unrest on the one hand and the severity of economic crisis or austerity measures on the other. Some countries with very deep economic problems, such as Tanzania, Guinea, or Guinea-Bissau, witnessed little or no unrest by 1990, yet riots and strikes shook relatively wealthy countries” (1992:41).
This observation sufficiently invalidates the urban-bias thesis; however, the theory’s success in academic circles warrants a few additional remarks. The implicit idea behind the theory of urban bias concerns the political inertia of the bulk of the African population, which is manipulated from time to time by perverted urban elites. Nothing could be farther from the truth. First, one must question the validity of the urban-rural dichotomy given that sub-Saharan Africa is more and more urban and less and less rural. At the very least, it is incongruous to speak of the urban domination of the rural “masses” in such countries as Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, and Congo, where the percentage of city dwellers is around 50 percent! What is more, it is erroneous to view social groups as political monoliths, even in the Sahel countries, where the rural population is quite large. Conflicts of interest and ideological differences in rural areas weaken the relevance of the urban-rural dichotomy and suggest that definitions and labels need to be refined (Harriss and Moore 1984; Widner 1993). In an Africa where cable stations like CNN are watched in every home, where Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan are as popular in the country as they are in big cities, it is archaic to believe that those who live in rural areas are sociologically different from city dwellers. Those who have studied the
conditions that led to the democratic process in Africa know that rural movements launched some of the most pressing social demands. The fact that they are more often voiced in urban centers reflects the desire to add a new political dimension to a very old quest for freedom.
A look at the geography of political protest is enough to refute the rural passivity argument. In general, popular protest originated in rural areas, and for a very simple reason: the rural sector suffered more from the economic crisis than the urban sector and thus was the first to revolt. But given the barbarity of authoritarian regimes, this revolt was insidious and subtle and was expressed at the level of everyday actions (Mbembe 1988). Together with urban organizations and networks, rural inhabitants have, as it were, delegated to city dwellers their spirit of opposition. Contrary to popular belief, the eruption of violence and protest in large African cities at the end of the 1980s was above all a rebellion by proxy; the democratic process has actually been orchestrated by peasants, whose purchasing power has been steadily declining for the past ten years. City dwellers were called upon to play a piece composed elsewhere—in the closed circles of family meetings, in the secret network of rural cooperatives, in the informal gatherings of country merchants, and in the weekly church services held in every hick town on the continent. Leading figures in the democratic movement can confirm that the current struggle for social change originated in the rural sector. 3 To find more “scientific” proof of rural involvement in politics, one has only to look at voter turnout in rural areas, which is generally higher than in cities, even when polling places are scarce. Country folk are not illiterate ignoramuses, as some writers like to think, and they are often more involved in the democratic process than city dwellers, who tend to give in more readily to nihilism and discouragement.
The urban-rural dichotomy is thus something of a cliché. Those who perpetuate it and base their analyses on it are engaging in the sociology of appearances. Reality is very different.
Disparate Ethnic Conglomerations and Fragmented States
The resurgence of regionalism and ethnic conflicts in the post–Cold War era has also fueled pessimism concerning the future of democracy in Africa. Horowitz, a specialist in ethnic questions who teaches at Duke University, considers the implementation of democracy to be much more difficult in what he terms “divided societies.” His basic argument runs as follows: “Democracy is about inclusion and exclusion, about access to power, about the privileges that go with inclusion and the penalties that accompany exclusion. In severely divided societies, ethnic identity provides clear lines to determine who will be included and who will be excluded. Since the lines appear unalterable, being in and being out may quickly come to look permanent” (1993:18).
Applying this analytic framework to Africa, Horowitz paints a less than cheery picture of the current political situation:
Togo and the Congo Republic both have northern regimes (based, respectively, on the Kabrai and the Mbochi) that came to power after military coups reversed the ethnic results of elections. Neither regime has had a special desire to accommodate a democratic process it identified with its southern (Ewe or Lari) opponents. Consequently, both took steps to disrupt the process.... Kenya, with its Kalendjin-dominated minority government, finally succumbed to Western pressure and conducted a multiparty election. But the incumbent president, Daniel arap Moi, was able to use a combination of intimidation, violence and ethnic divisions among the opposition to win both the presidency and a parliamentary majority on a plurality of votes, mainly from his own group and several other small ethnic groups. The result is a regime that continues to exclude the two largest groups, Kikuyu and Luo. Likewise, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, presiding over a government supported mainly by Beti and Bulu and opposed by all the rest, benefited from an opposition divided along ethnic lines and an election boycott by the major party.... In a dubiously conducted election in Ghana, the military ruler, Jerry Rawlings, won the presidency,
supported by 93 percent of the vote in his own Ewe-dominated area, but polling less than one-third in Ashanti, thus reviving an earlier polarization (1993:21–22).
Horowitz’s analysis is weakened by some factual errors. He is wrong to assert that a given head of state is supported by a given ethnic group, to the exclusion of all others, yet this falsehood supports his entire argument. None of the leaders who, in his estimation, automatically won the votes of citizens in their native regions could govern with the exclusive support of their tribes. In fact, one of the most important patterns that emerged in recent African elections is the nonexistence of ethnic voting blocs, the end of monolithic regional support for a given candidate (compare T. Young 1993).
Let us not dwell on Horowitz’s abuse of official results of elections that were rigged by authoritarian regimes in order to maintain power and that have been contested and denounced by the international community (Geisler 1993). Let us focus instead on the substance of his discourse. First, there is the arbitrary nature of his ethnic classifications, whose limitations and inconsistencies Horowitz himself has evoked in earlier writings (1985), as have many other anthropologists and historians (Amselle and Mbokolo 1985). Is it necessary to remind those who carelessly use ethnic labels that these classifications, which often go back to the colonial era, served a specific hegemonic purpose? As C. Young has written, “‘Colonial science’ constructed a wooden and unusable model of ‘tribal man’ in Africa. There existed, for purposes of drawing administrative subdivisions within colonial territories, a normative map in the alien mind, into which discrete ethnic units could be distributed, with due regard for colonial security calculus. Thorough administrative inquest and competent bureaucratic sifting and winnowing of ethnographic data would permit successful tribal cartography” (1994:75).
That analysis confirms what Vail has written concerning the anatomy of the differential process through which peoples in Southern Africa fell into the ethnic trap:
The creation of ethnicity as an ideological statement of popular appeal in the context of profound social, economic and political change in southern Africa was the result of the differential conjunction of various historical forces and phenomena.... One may discern three ... variables in the creation and implanting of the ethnic message. First, as was the case in the creation of such ideologies elsewhere, for example in nineteenth century European nationalism, it was essential to have a group of intellectuals involved in formulating it—a group of culture brokers. Second, there was the widespread use of African intermediaries to administer the subordinate peoples, a system usually summed up in the phrase “indirect rule,” and this served to define the boundaries and texture of the new ideologies. Third, ordinary people had a real need for so-called “traditional values” at a time of rapid social change, thus opening the way for the wide acceptance of the new ideologies (1989:11).
One must keep such historical phenomena in mind if one wishes to steer clear of what Southall (1970) has termed “the tribal illusion” toward which Horowitz’s remarks clearly point. Of course, though it stems from an illusion, the reality of ethnicity today is such that it is impossible to ignore. That said, one must study its origin before according it the importance many Africanist political scientists have given it. It is particularly necessary to ask whether ethnicity is the cause of current political difficulties or whether they stem from a long period of authoritarianism. Otherwise stated, is ethnicity an exogenous and predetermined variable, as Horowitz implicitly suggests, or is it an endogenous variable, whose value is dependent upon other factors that have been ignored?
When Horowitz speaks of the “ethnic results” of elections, he attributes a certain degree of incertitude to a process that, according to the logic of his analysis, ought to have none. If Africans indeed always voted in line with their “ethnic convictions,” there would be no need to organize elections, because their results would be preordained—a simple ethnic head count would do. Governance along ethnic lines—which, according to Horowitz, means the inclusion of the ethnic “winners” of elections and the exclusion of all other groups (the “losers”)—ought to require an extraordinarily complex institutional mechanism to function. But
nowhere does Horowitz speak of either the technostructure or the procedures through which the Kabrai and the Mbochi involve all the members of their ethnic communities—and them alone—in the governance of Togo or Congo!
A few items of information are enough to refute the ethnic argument in Cameroon. During the 1992 presidential election, for example, the principal leader of the opposition, who was ahead in all the polls according to analysts, came from a minority group—English speakers in the northwest. On the eve of the election, 200,000 people, including politicians, intellectuals, and other prominent figures from all regions of the country, went to hear him speak in Yaoundé, the capital of President Biya’s native Beti country. (So much for clear-cut ethnic divisions and Horowitz’s overly schematic analysis.) Similar events occurred in Kenya, Nigeria, Benin, Malawi, and Zambia—in short, in all places where elections gave voters a chance to express if not their preferences, then at least their dissent.
Much can also be said about the way Kenya has been analyzed through the prism of ethnicity. As Chege has written, “the deluge of so-called scientific literature” (1994:284, n. 15) by experts in development has not yielded significant results. With regard to the impetus behind political reforms, it was not pressure from international monetary funds that caused Moi to call a multiparty election. 4 Numerous studies have shown that financial institutions would have continued as before, for they have never required the accountability of African governments. In fact, one needs the soul of a chemist to attempt to assign, as certain political scientists have done, a precise quotient of responsibility to every group involved in triggering the democratic process. One thing is certain, however: Internal pressure exerted by various groups in civil society was a much more decisive factor in the current reforms than the timid actions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (Barkan 1992, 1993; Chege 1993; Holmquist, Ford, and Weaver 1994; Tibbetts 1994).
Finally, Horowitz’s implication that the African opposition consists of tribal representatives who are bitter about their exclusion from power goes beyond mere negligence: It is the type of characterization that is unfair to sub-Saharan Africa. What political scientist would call Bill Clinton a representative of the Arkansas tribe simply because he massively carried his native state? What political scientist would view Jacques Chirac’s landslide victories in Corrèze over the years as an example of an ethnic vote in this region? Why is the notion of an electoral base, accepted throughout the world and considered by Western political science as something every serious politician needs, systematically interpreted as proof of backwardness when it comes to Africa?
Though it rests on shaky foundations, the ethnic factor remains a constant in the political situation in Africa. It dominates intellectual discourse because it provides a simple and apparently coherent theoretical model for the analysis of seemingly bizarre, or incomprehensible, phenomena. Political scientists find this both technical and functional analytical framework reassuring, for it allows them to justify the existence of authoritarianism. For instance, Williams notes: “In Africa, where democracy is ‘widely approved but everywhere in doubt,’ open public participation in politics has tended to be characterized by divisive struggles among ethnic groups over power and resources. Resulting conflicts have led to a general paralysis of productive political activity, a demobilization of participatory institutions, and the seemingly ineluctable turn toward authoritarian mechanisms of rule” (1992:97).
This passage is almost word for word what Sklar wrote a decade ago, (1986:115) presenting the conventional wisdom. Given that few intellectuals wish to promote the idea of authoritarianism, some desperately attempt to devise an “honorable” solution to the problem. They turn to a sort of consociationalism with blurred boundaries that might encompass both Nigerian-style federalism and the Senegalese version of “shared” power. 5 Though there is literature on the limitations of Nigerian federalism (Suberu 1993), little exists, unfortunately, on the Senegalese pseudomodel, whose merits are always being sung by the “experts” in constitutional engineering. Albeit poorly understood and little studied, the Senegalese model of government has sufficiently demonstrated its unsuitability as a serious alternative for other African nations (Diop and Diouf 1990).
So we are back to square one; that is, the level of banality and modesty scholars afford themselves when studying the ethnic question in Africa. As I will later demonstrate, the results of their analyses would be more consistent if they agreed to abandon some of their prejudices about the continent.
The Clash of Civilizations and Cultural Inaptitude
Huntington, one of the most prolific and influential Western political scientists of our time, has advanced the hypothesis of a clash of civilizations, in his eyes the best explanatory paradigm of the world today: “It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural” (1993a:22).
Huntington defines a civilization as a “cultural entity” comprising villages, regions, ethnic groups, nationalities, and religious groups that, despite their heterogeneity, constitute a coherent whole. (Let us skip for the moment the syntactic incompatibility of this definition.) Then, using this framework, he identifies the major civilizations in the modern world: “Civilization identity will be increasingly important in the future, and the world will be shaped in large measure by interactions among seven or eight major civilizations. These include Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African Civilization” (1993a:25). Beyond the arbitrary classification of civilizations, what is most striking in this assertion is the use of the word possibly with respect to the existence of an African civilization. It is hard to know what it is supposed to mean here: does Huntington doubt that civilizations exist in Africa today, or does he question the ability of African civilization (in the singular, of course) to “clash” or “compete” with others? In any case, the author’s perception of Africa is suspect.
Affirming that Japan alone has been able to modernize without Westernizing, Huntington predicts a great confrontation and advises Western leaders to take preventive measures. Among other things, he counsels the West “to promote greater cooperation and unity within its own civilization, particularly between its European and North American components,” “to moderate the reduction of Western military capabilities and maintain military superiority in East and Southwest Asia; to exploit differences and conflicts among Confucian and Islamic states” (1993a:48–49).
I have presented Huntington’s thesis because it sheds light on the ideological atmosphere in which certain theories in Africanist political science have been elaborated. His basic premise is that the most authentic quest for freedom belongs to the West, that it holds the copyright now and forever on the expression of democratic principles and their “proper” implementation. Other peoples are completely incapable of conceptualizing democracy, so it is best to leave them to the course of their own histories, all the while protecting the West’s precious Greco-Roman heritage from the contamination of heretical civilizations. Huntington presents his thesis even more clearly in his response to critiques of his new theory (1993b).
Huntington’s ideas are at the heart of the rhetoric on the cultural inaptitude of Southern peoples (notably Africans) that prevents them from assimilating the democratic model. Their incapacity to incorporate philosophical and political ideals elaborated in the West points to their inability to contribute anything of value to the chorus of nations and to participate in the grand ball of civilizations. This original sin manifests itself politically in various ways: Africans cannot seem to make work the institutions they are always importing (Badie 1990, 1992); African societies and their leaders appear to have adopted an attitude of masochistic complacency toward authoritarianism and patrimonialism (Callaghy 1994); in short, Africa refuses to develop (Kabou 1991).
Although Badie denounces what he sees as the superficial character of democracy in African nations, as well as their importation of governmental models, he does not consider these nations capable of developing alternative models:
References to democracy, to the rule of law, are as fragile, vulnerable and illusory as the beginnings of an alternative model are difficult to find in the discourse and political practices of
African and Asian societies, and this for several reasons. First one must take into account the importance of imported governmental models in the political debate, ... which further dries up the production of new models. Second one must take into account the element of duration.... The third reason for this absence of alternative models is probably the lack, in these developing societies, of well-structured social movements, the nonexistence, within civil society, of at once organized and mobilizing forums of protest.... The fourth factor is perhaps, paradoxically, the overvaluation of politics that characterizes these societies.... The debate tends to turn in circles, around the modus operandi of the official political scene; it is much less imaginative with regard to the evolution and transformation of society.... The alternative political function is essentially an oppositional function, with no hope of gaining immediate access to power and that, to borrow Georges Lavau’s formula with respect to the tribunitial function, lazily contents itself with the production of a negative discourse (1990).
All the clichés are here: a political imagination held hostage to Western models, a paucity of forums of protest worthy of the name, a dearth of politicians up to the task, a lazy oppositional discourse. In short, democrats in the Southern regions are not worthy of the West’s consideration. Are we far from Huntington’s thesis? Apparently so, but in reality, no. For we find in Badie the same skepticism toward the ability of African societies to produce a “respectable” (alternative) political discourse.
A number of North American Africanists also subscribe to this logic of disqualifying African democracies on ideological grounds. Thus, Callaghy seems desperate about the inability of African societies (not leaders!) and nations to abandon mediocrity and patrimonialism. This leads him to question the possibility of true political change: “The characteristics of the modal African state are not likely to be altered very much by the varying processes of political liberalization sweeping Africa in the early 1990s.... Under the formal political structure of African regimes, a unifying perceptual and operational cultural idiom has emerged which is deeply embedded in society as well as in the state—that of patrimonialism and patron-client relations” (1994:204,206).
Using the same type of argument, Lancaster is equally quick to paint a dark picture of Africa’s future:
The nature of political institutions in Africa suggests that democracies there are likely to function differently from democracies in the West [nice euphemism!]. These regimes are more open than their authoritarian predecessors, but their accountability to their publics remains weak. It will take time for an undertrained and underfinanced media to play the role it does in much of the West of putting issues on the national agenda, contributing to national debate, and investigating and criticizing government policy failures or corruption. The public may remain politically inert except at elections; even then, many Africans continue to base their votes on cues from village “big men” or ethnic brokers rather than on the government’s performance (1993:29).
All those who have carefully followed African politics in the past few years, especially the presidential elections in Nigeria, Cameroon, Benin, and other countries, know that Lancaster’s contemptuous description of African voters is not realistic (neither is the presumption of rationalism and political activism she attributes to Western voters), a point to which I shall return later. In fact, this poorly argued Afro-pessimism is a version of Huntington’s thesis, which holds that there is no way to civilize these accursed peoples and that it is therefore best to keep them at a safe distance. This concern confirms what Rufin (1982) has written about the West’s hands-off attitude toward the chaos in Southern countries and its desire to prevent the invasion of the barbarians, as the Romans had earlier done.
Fortunately, many other scholars have pointed out the shortcomings of Huntington’s theory. I will confine myself here to several fundamental contradictions in his reasoning, which is enough to refute his hypothesis. Cultural pluralism, for example, is much more acute in the United States and Canada (which, in Huntington’s
view, are part of the same homogeneous civilization) than it is in Italy (classified in a different civilization). The geographic zones Huntington hastily and arbitrarily draws are far from monolithic and the five criteria he uses to define a civilization (history, language, culture, tradition, and religion) do not allow one to differentiate in a compelling way between the peoples of the world—none have exclusive rights over their own history, tradition, or culture! One of the paradoxes of what is referred to as “Western cultural imperialism”—which I regard as nothing more than the temptation to subject and mold the other to one’s vision of the world—is that it has imposed a certain type of discourse, a certain language and tradition, in short, a single history. Since Columbus’s time, the West has endeavored to render civilization uniform, to make it “one” (Said 1993). Even when this attempt failed, there were consequences: The trajectory of numerous peoples was irrevocably altered, the confrontation reshaping the identities of both victims and aggressors (Todorov 1982, 1993). Thus, today it is at once futile and artificial to try to restore the authenticity of civilizations, to try to reestablish the imprints of each culture—as if we were dealing with chemical ingredients.
I could list endless examples of blunders in much of the “scientific” literature devoted to the study of Africa’s political transformations. But Huntington’s work, replete with errors of fact and judgment, strikes me as enough to discredit research on the topic. Granted, one could simply shrug one’s shoulders and conclude that because the social sciences are not among the exact sciences, these errors are par for the course. The problem is that errors made by influential scholars, who are also trendsetters, influence the decisions of politicians and policymakers. In a very concrete way, Africa is the victim of the prejudices and analytical errors of researchers who are accountable to no one. A remark Jacques Chirac made during a trip to Abidjan a few years back is proof of this: “Democracy,” he declared, “is a frill for Africa.” Now that he is France’s president, we will be able to measure the concrete of his vision.
All of this leads to the real question of how to explain the collective blindness of the political science community. How is it that Africa, which does not have a monopoly on complexity, remains so opaque to scholars, so very resistant to their methods of analysis that it makes the theoretical models that have issued from centuries of political thought appear ridiculous? Why do Africanists continue to confuse the subject and object of knowledge? Before suggesting new avenues of research, I shall attempt to respond to these questions.
Theoretical Framework for Analyzing Political Change
In order to advance a theory of democratization that does not fall victim to the aforementioned distortions, it is necessary to proceed in stages. I shall begin by analyzing the reasons for the present confusion in Africanist political science—the genesis, if you will, of misunderstandings. I shall then suggest another way of looking at and studying Africa’s new political marketplace.
The Genesis of Misunderstandings
Two types of reasons account for the blindness of some researchers. These reasons are tied either to the development of the social sciences and the attitude of those who wield concepts (I refer to these as external reasons) or to the nature of the new local political marketplace—that is, the new rules of the game and the behavior of the new political actors (I refer to these as internal reasons).
The external reasons can be summed up in a short phrase: the obstinate refusal of global brain trusts (the academy, international development agencies, the banking community) to take sub-Saharan Africa seriously. They are exhibited in two ways:
• Through the West’s lack of geopolitical and speculative interest in Africa, a result of the end of the Cold War, and
• Through scholarly contempt for Africa’s misuse of certain political concepts and methodologies
The internal reasons have a dual origin:
• On the one hand, the extraordinary agility with which African authoritarian regimes have manipulated techniques of renewal, which has allowed most of them to reinvent themselves and sometimes even to turn to their advantage the desire for change
• On the other hand, what must be called the political bricolage of opposition leaders, which is perceptible behind the structural weakness and atomistic tendency of their movements, most of which came to light in a socioeconomic environment conducive neither to risk taking in general nor to political risk taking in particular 6
Let us examine one by one these four sources of confusion.
The World’s Indifference and Intellectual Safaris
It is easy enough to call into question Fukuyama’s (1992) ludicrous vision of the end of history. Nevertheless, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there has been a radical shift in the way the international community—wrongly more than rightly—views and conceptualizes history. The marginalization of Africa is a part of this shift, which was stimulated by increased global competition for volatile, scarce, and expensive capital. 7
The new world order that came into being after the disintegration of the Soviet Union does not include Africa within its world geography. Unable to discern the smallest sign of hope in Africa’s ongoing sociopolitical transformations, the international business community has focused its attention on three areas: the Americas, Europe, and the Pacific. The criteria this community uses to assess its potential interest in disparate parts of the world are limited to such indicators as internal rate of return and net present value, used to measure the immediate value of discounted financial flows expected from investments and the payback period. Given these “objective” criteria, it is neither surprising nor regrettable that easy-profit seekers have avoided the continent.
More troubling is that the indifference of “money makers” appears to have determined the general attitude toward Africa. Despite the success of numerous missions in Africa, the UN is trying to forget the trauma of Somalia and Angola and thus has paid less attention to issues of human rights and democracy. Western governments that used to proclaim their “duty to interfere” in countries where the standards of universal morality were blatantly transgressed have become reserved. The era of the great overseas operations for the protection of human rights appears to have come (temporarily?) to an end.
This new attitude has rubbed off on Western intellectuals. Among Africanist political scientists, it translates into a lack of rigor in their treatment of the continent. The sophistication of the aforementioned theoretical models in fact disguises a certain negligence. When it comes to Africa, one can afford to indulge in approximations, generalizations, even illiteracy. Africa’s overall image is so negative that only the most pessimistic types of discourse conform to the logic that governs understanding of the continent. Publications as “prestigious” as the Financial Times, Der Spiegel, or Time can publish cover stories and surveys built upon falsehoods and factual errors without stirring up a storm of protest, no doubt because “experts” on Africa know that rebuttals will not damage their professional reputations. 8
The abdication of intellectuals serves the interest of certain players, namely, that of Western leaders who have personally involved themselves in “African affairs.” 9 When former French president François Mitterrand was questioned about the efficacy of his support for democratization in Africa, he declared that the increase in the number of African countries having adopted a multiparty system was proof of his success (1993)—as if it were enough for any old Mobutu to proclaim himself a democrat to be recognized as such by France’s head of state. Although it is hard to tell whether this type of thinking stems from cynicism or contempt for Africans, it certainly reflects the current trend in the West of intellectual exoticism with regard to Africa. It is no longer necessary even to formulate intelligent answers to legitimate questions.
As a result, and despite the multiplication of sophisticated yet confused theories, the scholarly debate—when it exists—on political transformations in Africa lacks vigor and impartiality. True or false, supported by empirical evidence or not, most analyses are never put through the filter of common sense or rigorous conceptual schemes; one is generally satisfied with what appears “plausible,” “original,” or “convincing.” In recent years the continent has become the El Dorado of wild thought, the best place for daring intellectual safaris, the unregulated space in which to engage in theoretical incest, to violate the fundaments of logic, to transgress disciplinary prohibitions; in short, to give oneself over to all forms of intellectual debauchery— with impunity and in good conscience. Africa is the final frontier for those who like to tinker with ideas; it is the Luna Park for lovers of ideological orgies.
Archaic Instruments of Analysis
It is not at all surprising that Africa has often proved resistant to the assumptions of political scientists and does not fit into (Western) democratic theory. The analytic paradigms that social scientists persist in applying to these complex societies are obviously inapt. All discussions on the meaning and optimal form of democracy hinge upon the idea that “objective,” measurable conditions determine its sustainability. Held writes: “Democratic ideas and practices can only in the long run be protected if their hold on our political, social and economic life is deepened” (1987:4). Diamond (1990) reiterates this position when he affirms that in the long run only the emergence of a civic culture can help negotiate one of democracy’s intrinsic paradoxes, namely, the conflict between the necessary clash of ideas and the need for consensus.
Within each school of thought, these assumptions translate into a few concepts: the notions of political culture—which includes civic culture and participation—legitimacy, and accountability. Summing up the terms of a prominent debate between eminent U.S. political scientists, Lipset (1990) dismisses Juan Linz (who tends to favor parliamentary government) and Donald Horowitz (who more or less advocates presidentialist forms of government) on the grounds that the only thing that really matters is the political culture of a given people. In fact, most of the current democratic models primarily base their judgment of a political system’s democratic validity on this criterion. But the assumptions upon which the idea of political culture is founded are false; for in general—even when they are applied to the well-established democracies of the industrialized world—they stand on shaky ground, as numerous critics have demonstrated (Aron 1972; Callinicos 1991).
Take, for example, the notion of civic culture. Almond and Verba came up with this idea in the early 1960s, and it continues to serve as the centerpiece of current political theories on African societies. There is nothing wrong with the idea per se; the problem lies in the practical application of the supposed elements of civic culture and the criteria used to measure it. Let us begin with Almond and Verba’s definition of the term. Their point of departure is the notion of political culture, which they define as follows:
The term “political culture” refers to the specifically political orientations—attitudes toward the political system and its various parts, and attitudes toward the role of the self in the system. We speak of a political culture just as we can speak of an economic culture or a religious culture. It is a set of orientations toward a special set of social objects and processes. But we also choose political culture, rather than some other special concept, because it enables us to utilize the conceptual frameworks and approaches of anthropology, sociology, and psychology (1963:12– 13).
Their approach is honest and straightforward, and their willingness to include the research methodologies and perspectives of such disciplines as anthropology, sociology, and psychology speaks to their modesty and the subtlety of their model. They are right to propose a flexible, multidimensional analytic scheme, for the notion of civic culture, derived from that of political culture, must be wielded with great care because it belongs to a vast conceptual field and varies greatly from one society to the next. Thus, when Inglehart defines civic culture as “a coherent syndrome of personal life satisfaction, political satisfaction, interpersonal trust and support for the existing social order” (1988:1203), he points to the implied existence of such notions as a collective attitude, a scale of values, a feeling of well-being on the part of citizens toward
citizenship, etc. Such a vast field of study inevitably opens onto various divergences, which make it virtually impossible to perform comparative analyses—unless one falls into the trap of ethnocentrism, which, unfortunately, most scholars who utilize this concept do.
In truth, the definitions social science dictionaries give the term attitude transform it into a Bermuda Triangle of sorts from which it is almost impossible to escape. Summarizing decades of multidisciplinary research on the question, Jary and Jary define it as a “learned and enduring tendency to perceive or act toward persons or situations in a particular way.... It is therefore useful to see attitudes as involving three elements: a) a cognitive component—beliefs and ideas; b) an affective component—values and emotions; c) a behavioral component—predisposition to act and actions” (1991:27–28).
Marshall addresses the complexity of the problem:
Many people do not have well-developed or even superficial opinions on topics that may interest the sociologist. Some would argue that the idea of attitudes is closely tied to the culture of Western industrial society, in which citizens are regularly invited to express their views on public issues, both directly and through the ballot box. What is certain is that attitude scales developed in Western societies do not function in the same way in other cultures. Even the standard simple job satisfaction question attracts a different pattern of response as soon as it is used beyond the confines of Western industrial societies (1994:21).
We can see how difficult it is to evaluate the attitudes of individuals in different parts of the world. Even more difficult is measuring collective attitudes and group behavior by way of individual responses to questions developed within a particular frame of reference. Yet the followers of Almond and Verba do not hesitate to use the civic culture argument everywhere and for everything, even to predict changes in the scale of values from one generation to the next. True, statistical sampling techniques are extremely sophisticated today, and the central limit theorem, with its predetermined margin of error, allows one to sidestep the problem of representativeness and to grasp the essence of a given population. The question nevertheless remains: How can one be sure that surveys conducted by U.S. researchers in the slums of Kinshasa truly reflect the thinking and political opinions of people in the Zairean bush? How can one be certain that the information collected from questionnaires hastily put together and distributed in a few neighborhoods in Dar es Salaam corresponds to the way Tanzanians conceive of and experience politics?
Political scientists who use Almond and Verba’s model often fail to take into account the caveats expressed by its authors. For example, in attempting to evaluate political culture in Zambia, Bratton and Liatto-Katundu asked people to fill out a questionnaire based on a few questions: “We address a simple and conventional set of questions which will be familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of an earlier generation of political culture studies.... What do people know about their political system? How do they feel about their government and their fellow citizens? Which political values do they hold dear? And, finally, how do they act politically?” (1994:1). Even if the results are not totally devoid of interest, there clearly is a Western bias in the survey questions. How can one hope to obtain reliable, usable information from Zambian citizens who are asked, only several months after the end of decades of dictatorship, to express their political orientations? How can one expect intelligent answers to such questions as “What is a local government council supposed to do?” How could one be surprised to find that populations long forced to live in a corrupt, inefficient single-party system do not distinguish between the federal government and local authorities? What would the responses be if the survey had taken place in Columbus, Ohio, or Moscow rather than Lusaka? Would researchers rely on the answers to measure the level of political culture in the United States or Russia? It is clear that these types of studies have theoretical, conceptual, and practical limits. 10 The conclusions reached cannot be interpreted in the manner suggested by Almond and Verba’s original model.
Although the quantitative problems associated with measuring political knowledge cannot be underestimated (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1993), political scientists who employ such methods to evaluate the civic culture of individuals must also be aware that the collective consciousness of which Durkheim spoke (’the body of
beliefs and sentiments common to the average of members of a society” [1968]) is equally difficult to grasp. Dahl, an advocate of the concepts of political culture and citizen competence, has come to recognize their severe limitations: “If democracy is to work, it would seem to require a certain level of political competence on the part of its citizens. In newly democratic or democratizing countries, where people are just beginning to learn the arts of self-government, the question of citizen competence possesses an obvious urgency. Yet even in countries where democratic institutions have existed for several generations or more, a growing body of evidence reveals grave limits to citizen competence” (1992:45, emphasis added).
The results of empirical research on the validity of these notions in long-established democracies are disappointing and attack the credibility of the democratic idea. Muller and Seligson (1994) recently developed a model designed to test the nature of and the causal relationship between civic culture and democracy. Their conclusions call into question Almond and Verba’s thesis (countries with a high level of civic culture have stable democratic systems) as well as the opposite point of view advanced by Barry (1978) and Schmitter and Karl (1991), which holds that civic culture is not the cause but rather the result of democracy. According to Muller and Seligson, causation is, at least, reciprocal. There is no such thing as a linear correlation between the level of democratic culture and the effectiveness of democracy. One is tempted to agree with this idea in light of the mysterious separation between practical political consciousness and discursive consciousness made by French voters. Analyzing voting patterns in a small French town, Déloye observes that
voters do not create their behavior, they recreate it at each election, drawing upon knowledge acquired from previous polls. In the voting booth, the voter generally discovers, within the “pool of ordinary knowledge” that constitutes his or her memory, a practical answer that gives meaning to what is happening. Most of the time, s/he instantly associates the present electoral situation with similar experiences s/he has had in the past (whence the difficulty of modifying, even marginally, this internalized behavior). This reflexive form of competence anchors voter behavior in the personal history of the voter.... The power of this voting habit, justified by practical voting consciousness, paradoxically explains why the voter has such difficulty formulating the meaning of and reasons for his actual behavior (1993:88).
To some extent, these comments are similar to Rohrschneider’s remarks concerning the consolidation of values within the German elite. Studying the manner in which democratic institutions in former West Germany modified the behavior of politicians in former East Germany (a process known as “value convergence”), he observes that the lack of democratic culture does not negatively affect the outcome of the political game, since the institutions progressively shape the political behavior: “I find that the socialist and parliamentary institutions in the East and the West, respectively, have substantially influenced elites’ conceptions of democracies in Germany, leading to a value divergence across the East-West boundary. Yet the findings also suggest that a partial value convergence in terms of liberal democratic rights among postwar elites has taken place. The results support an institutional learning theory, but they also suggest that support for liberal democratic values has been diffused in East Germany” (1994:927). In an epigraph to his article, Rohrschneider quotes a member of parliament from East Berlin, who serenely declared: “I think entirely in dialectical terms.” This loyalty to Marxism parallels voting habits in a small French town: both phenomena belong to the same type of determinism, which is institutional rather than cultural in the narrow and almost ethnological sense in which political scientists often understand it. Paradoxically, this leaves more hope for the idea of democracy than one may have initially expected.
Proposing an elaborate mathematical model devised to question the dogma of civic culture, Muller and Seligson shed light on some of the practical difficulties in measuring civic culture across the world. It invites one to reexamine Inglehart’s model, generally considered the cornerstone of theories based on the idea of civic culture, which consists of four variables: (1) a country’s level of economic development in 1950, as measured by its gross national product (GNP) per capita; (2) the percentage of the labor force employed in the tertiary sector, which is used to determine the size of the middle class; (3) a composite measure of civic culture over 1981–1986 that reflects the general public’s average level of life satisfaction, interpersonal trust, and lack of support for revolutionary change; and (4) a country’s years of continuous democracy from
1900 to 1986. Democracy is measured on the seven-point scale Gastil developed for Freedom House, which has published a yearly report since 1972 (see Gastil 1991).
An analysis of Inglehart’s model reveals the arbitrariness of its logic and the reason it cannot be transferred to the African context. Even if we put to one side the accuracy of the indicators used to measure the level of economic development (economists increasingly view GNP as a poor indicator of prosperity), the fact remains that the idea of a middle class takes on a very different dimension in sub-Saharan Africa, as do the problematic notions of level of life satisfaction, interpersonal trust, and support for revolutionary change. Whether one adopts Inglehart’s model or Muller and Seligson’s, the measurement of democracy poses an even greater problem: How can one employ a simplistic seven-point scale to interpret what is happening in Rwanda, Zaire, Congo, Madagascar, Senegal, Libya, or Sierra Leone? And how can one compare the situations in these countries to what is going on in the United States, Scandinavia, or the Islamic republics in the former Soviet Union? One cannot. Despite their high level of sophistication and the good faith of their authors, these models are decidedly inadequate to the task.
The results of recent research likewise invalidate the idea of civic culture. Verba et al. conducted an extensive survey in the United States that led them to conclude that citizens who are involved in traditional forms of political activism (participation) are in no way representative of the social groups to which they belong. This conclusion confirms the thesis earlier advanced by Bennett and Bennett (1986). Given that the question of representation lies at the very heart of democratic thought, such discoveries ought to serve as a wake-up call to researchers and policymakers: “Those in public life are more likely to be aware of, and to pay attention to, the needs and preferences of those who are active. Thus, it would seem to matter for the democratic principle of equality that studies of citizen participation in America concur in showing political activists to be unrepresentative in their demographic characteristics of the public at large” (Verba et al. 1993:303).
Of course, one may question whether observations of this sort apply to Africa—once again, much research remains to be done. But it is already clear that the theory whereby one surveys a group of activists involved in various forms of political participation in Dakar, Lusaka, or Nairobi and deems the results to be representative of the political hopes and needs of the Senegalese, Zambians, or Kenyans warrants discussion. Adopting the opposite approach—that is, seeking to discover why some citizens do not participate in political life—Brady et al. (1995) developed an original model with surprising results. For example, they found that certain resources such as time and money count at least as much as civic competence; and that some citizens are inclined to express their political views conventionally, whereas others tend to use different avenues of expression, which as yet have been studied little, if at all. One must keep this crucial finding in mind if one truly wishes to explore and understand the new African political marketplace. Unfortunately, few Africanist scholars have done so.
The other criterion of analysis found occasionally in Africanist political theory (generally in the works of rationalists) is that of legitimacy. In theory, the idea of legitimacy is less contentious than the concept of civic culture advanced by culturalists, for it appears to encompass less controversial notions. However, if one takes a closer look, as Weatherford has done, one cannot fail to see that its various dimensions are no guarantee of a smooth, controlled analysis. How, for example, is one to verify whether a given political system actually meets the following criteria:
Accountability (Are rulers accountable to the governed via a process that allows wide, effective participation?); Efficiency (Is the government set up to accomplish society’s ends without undue waste of time and resources?); Procedural fairness (Is the system structured to ensure that issues are resolved in a regular, predictable way and that access to decisional arenas is open and equal?); Distributive fairness (Are the advantages and costs allocated by the system distributed equally or else deviations from prima facie equality explicitly justified on grounds that define “fair shares” in terms of some long-run, overarching equality principle?) (1992:150)
These questions are, of course, troubling but so very important if one is to provide the word legitimacy with real content. They might be asked by an Algerian in Algiers or by an Angolan in Luanda, but also by an American in Washington, a Frenchman in Paris, or a Japanese in Tokyo! The sad truth is that one would likely receive a variety of discordant responses to these questions regardless of the country in which they were posed. And what one perceives at the level of the political and institutional system (the macro-level) is but a single aspect of legitimacy. One must also study the meaning of legitimacy at the level of individual beliefs and hopes (the micro-level), which means investigating such notions as interest and involvement in politics (’the psychological feeling that political participation is worth the opportunity cost of trading off time and commitment from other occupations,” as Weatherford puts it); faith in collective action, that is, in the trustworthiness of other people; and a certain degree of optimism with respect to one’s country and to the power of voters. All of these not only warrant analysis but would unquestionably open up important debates in any country.
We have come to the end of our theoretical excursus. Having begun with the idea that a liberal democratic model exists to which African countries, despite the political reforms of the early 1990s, have not managed to conform, we have arrived at the idea that the evaluative criteria of said model are too arbitrary to be taken seriously and that no country in the world could pass the democratic test anyway—assuming it were possible to design such a test. Many years ago this observation led Dahl to describe democracy as a goal after which polyarchic Western governments strive but never reach (1971). It is a shame that Africanist political scientists have not taken to heart the modesty implied in this lesson. As for African heads of state, they do not hesitate to exploit these contradictions in order to “legitimate” their authoritarian regimes and revamp their approach to politics.
The Art of Political Aggiornamento: A Revamped Discourse
The opacity of the new African political landscape cannot be attributed to the egocentrism and ignorance of Africanist political scientists alone. The remarkable creativity of African leaders has also contributed significantly to the present confusion. Because of the rapidity with which they have brought their discourse and repressive techniques up to date, African dictators have managed at once to create uncertainty about their abilities and will and to sell the international community on the ludicrous idea that the future of Africa depends on them and them alone. As a result, thought is by and large confined within the boundaries they have erected and only their point of view is included on the agenda of university scholars, political brain trusts, and international banking institutions.
Through an incredible reversal of fortune, all of Africa’s dictators—from Senegal’s Abdou Diouf and Djibouti’s Hassan Gouled to Morocco’s Hassan II and Zaire’s Mobutu—who were losing strength in the early 1990s succeeded not only in maintaining power but occasionally in strengthening their control over their countries and in changing the issues of debate, this at a time when the dictators of the former Eastern bloc were toppling like bowling pins. If one is interested in advancing thought on democracy in Africa, it is necessary to examine this near miracle (the techniques of political survival used by African dictators) in order to understand why it occurred.
Initially shocked and stunned by the 1990–1991 popular uprisings, African leaders quickly regained their composure and began to decipher the vocabulary of the new era. 11 They came to understand that the imprisonment of their opponents was costly and difficult to manage: The democratic myth appeared to have ignited a firestorm of political activism, and the number of people wishing to become involved in government increased exponentially. Whereas the opposition had previously been confined to a handful of leaders not only known and “on file” but mostly in exile, it now extended to countless masses. These illegitimate governments had to address the problem of controlling an ever increasing number of adversaries. Already overcrowded, prisons could no longer hold them all.
Since direct violence was no longer effective, heads of state quickly classified it as an obsolete tool, an outmoded weapon—at least against certain types of leaders. 12 It was therefore necessary to devise new techniques to rally people to their cause, to rewire the circuits of official propaganda, and to modernize practices of exclusion. That is why African leaders have developed a discourse centered on democracy. In
the name of pluralism, they do their best to fight words that strike them as unorthodox. Their retorts warrant attention.
The discourse of African heads of state centers on four themes: (1) the political immaturity of the population; (2) the lack of financial means to organize efficiently the democratic process; (3) the denunciation of outside interference and violations of their national sovereignty; and (4) the demand for cultural relativism, which gives them license, on “moral” grounds, to design their own democracy. In their eyes, democratization is a mere cosmetic; thus, they busy themselves with the elaboration of a “new” ideology to explain their refusal to adopt the principle of alternation of power. Cameroon is a striking example of this strategy. The primary goals of official discourse are to make a mockery of popular demands, to engage in sophistry, and to create deliberate confusion. Let us take a look at some of these new techniques and at the new crib sheet for authoritarians. Concentrated on Cameroon, the discussion that follows also sheds light on what is happening in Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and other countries.
• Cultural relativism against democracy: It all begins with the repeated use of cultural relativism clichés. The celebration of the myth of uniqueness is likewise one of the government’s new themes. In a speech given in Yaoundé in 1991, Paul Biya proclaimed, “Cameroon is Cameroon!” so as to justify his refusal of the National Conference—a popular meeting during which all the politically active groups in the country redesign the rules of the political game and elaborate a new electoral agenda. In so doing, he was following in the footsteps of some of his minions, such as Emah Basile, the deputy and mayor of Yaoundé, who rejected the idea of a multiparty system by declaring to the National Assembly in 1990: “We don’t want imported models!” Beyond the puerile quality of such a slogan, especially in a country where those in power refer and defer daily to French constitutional law, it is necessary to call attention to the resurgence of a certain form of national pride. It is a rather laughable nationalism, however, because its essential function is to rationalize the maintenance of a repressive system by giving it a “philosophical,” “legal” foundation and an “intellectual” framework.
By refusing to import political models developed in Benin, Nigeria, or Congo (for example, the Supreme National Conference), the authorities not only were expressing contempt for “little countries” but were simultaneously affirming, “We’ll democratize at our own pace.” Understood in this idea is the following: “We refuse to use outside ideas because they do not belong to the reality of our culture or our history.” The reasoning is specious, as it is in all sophisms. First of all, the cultural precepts that are referred to are rarely identifiable. Lévi-Strauss and Eribon criticized this type of monoculturalism, which forgets that “toutes les cultures résultent de brassages, d’emprunts, de mélanges, qui n’ont cessé de se produire, bien que sur des rythmes différents, depuis l’origine des temps [all cultures are a result of brewing, of borrowing, of mixing; a process that has not ceased, though always with differing rhythms, since the beginning of time]” (1990:212). 13 Multicultural by virtue of its formation, Cameroonian society has, of course, produced its own synthesis that citizens may conceivably wish to retain today. But to disgrace and discredit a political system from the Sahel while glorifying a hybrid form of presidential government is completely incoherent.
The cult of Cameroon’s uniqueness likewise appears in the comparisons leaders often make between their own country’s performance and that of other countries where the economic and political situation is deemed to be worse. State-run television regularly devotes programs to the “catastrophes” that occurred in Congo or Zaire, insinuating that the disaster was brought on by the organization of national conferences in these states. It is comforting for leaders to invoke such notions as “intellectual sovereignty”; they can slyly refer to the “Westernization of the political order,” which Badie and others have denounced, and to distort the debate on democratization.
Burkina Faso’s president Blaise Compaoré dips into the same well of cultural relativism, declaring: “I do not believe that there exists a set of immutable principles for the political organization of a state. Each state must prove extremely imaginative and inspired if it is to find the mechanisms capable of combining political
forces that do not always share the same options. Every society inevitably has a specific form of political organization. Just as every people evolves in function of its own cultural experiences” (1995:55).
The president of Equatorial Guinea, T. Obiang Nguéma, justifies his adherence to cultural relativism via the rhetoric of political illiteracy:
Like all African nations, Equatorial Guinea is in the process of democratizing. This is why we have adopted a governmental policy that we have baptized trial democracy. For we cannot be considered as totally democratic. It is a new process. To speak of democracy, one needs a well-informed, well-educated people able to face the problems that emerge with democracy. The country must also have sufficient financial resources if democracy is to develop normally.... Africans see democracy as a way to make money, to obtain important positions, to live like kings, forgetting that their responsibility is to craft the nation. A great majority are not yet aware of the true meaning of democracy. Ignorance and poverty are, of course, factors that slow its development” (1994:102).
• The “do-nothing” strategy: In the 1960s and 1970s, when African opposition leaders living in exile in theWest denounced human rights violations in their countries and called for the establishment of a multipartysystem and for free and fair elections, governments invariably replied by way of solemn communiqués.Anxious to preserve the respectability they had won by lobbying the most influential international media,autocrats vehemently rebutted all accusations. The demands of opponents were reduced to “posturing onthe part of men hungry for power” or “attacks on national security” (compare Eyinga 1978), and insultswere a large part of official replies. The ideologues of the single party always justified their responses on thegrounds that because the people were not yet ready for pluralism, the maintenance of national unity,“patiently won” at the price of a long civil war, required sacrifices in the realm of human rights. For decades,the discourse of authoritarians centered on this theme.
Since the mid-1980s, African governments have evolved considerably. Amid the panoply of arms used against opponents, invectives remain a favorite weapon, but the content and timing of governmental reactions are now more original, more in keeping with the spirit of the times. Subscribing to the axiom that “there exists no historical law that provides that a people shall revolt at a certain threshold of despotism, famine or abuse” (Vargas Llosa 1993:2), African authorities presently opt for a do-nothing strategy. At first view, this does not look like a strategy at all, since it does indeed consist in doing nothing for as long as possible. In the face of their failure to improve the economy, of growing demands of all kinds, of scandals uncovered by the press, and of criticisms from the international community, governments often counter with silence. It is as if African heads of state think that by adopting a contemptuous attitude, they can wear down their opponents, keep them outside the arena of debate. Doing nothing has become a consummate political virtue. And sometimes it works! Sheer exhaustion has caused some members of the opposition to team up with those in power, for they feel their effort to change the course of history ended in failure (for example, in Morocco, Tunisia, Zaire, Senegal, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Gabon); it has driven others to radicalize their discourse and thereby fall into the trap of blindness or populism; it has led still others to abandon politics (for example, in Zaire and Kenya)—which is the chief objective of governments seeking to reduce, in any way possible, the ranks of the opposition.
• Disqualification and defamation as a weapon: A new function ascribed to official discourse is the use ofdiscredit and defamation as a strong weapon against recalcitrant members of the opposition. To each of theopposition’s demands, the government responds with censorship (silence) or systematic vilification (words).This was the case in May 1990, when Cameroon’s chief opposition leader, John Fru Ndi, led a march inBamenda for the establishment of the Social Democratic Front party (SDF). The authorities prohibited theprotest march and deployed a large number of troops in the northwest region of the country. Thousands ofprotesters showed up, defying the Cameroonian army, which opened fire and killed six people. Unable tocontrol the outpouring of emotion generated by the affair, the government launched a disinformationcampaign centered on discrediting those who had organized the march. Over several days, journalists onCameroon’s only state-run television station explained that the deceased had been “trampled to death” by
other protesters. 14 Poorly disguised archival footage was used to back up this claim. The protesters were presented as “wild gangs” from Nigeria who had sung the Nigerian national anthem during the march. John Fru Ndi was accused by the state press of being a common swindler who had been responsible for the bankruptcy of the Cameroon Bank, from which he had purportedly borrowed CFA 400 million that he never paid 15
The same tactic was used between July and September 1992, before the presidential election slated for October 11. The regime got the Paris-based African press to run articles singing the praises of Paul Biya’s government and demolishing his opponents. Biya’s “success” was celebrated, his economic and political results deemed enviable. The other candidates were all impostors. John Fru Ndi, the opposition front-runner, was portrayed as the former cook (!) of Prime Minister Simon Achidi Achu. Yondo Black, who played an important role in establishing a multiparty system, was accused of being a crooked lawyer. The intellectuals in the front lines of the battle for freedom of speech were presented as “tribalists,” and “illiterate” ones to boot. Yet again, discredit and defamation served to belittle those guilty of the crime of imagining that things could be run differently. Only the glossy paper and dazzling photos of Jeune Afrique and Africa International outshined the Cameroon Tribune.
Similarly, Zaire’s dictator Mobutu uses insinuation to discredit his adversaries. Never at a loss for ludicrous ideas, he has declared that the “politics of food” is the only way to explain the behavior of those opposed to his regime: “Know that they come see me, eat at my table. Sometimes planes land in Gbado at two o’clock in the morning, and you wouldn’t believe who wants to have a chat. And I’m there, I receive them, and the planes take off again at 5 a.m., and no one’s any the wiser. Listen, I’m not going to say anything more” (1994:20). He also engages in sophistry: “It’s quite simple: in the minds of some of my fellow countrymen, the transition means nothing more than the departure of President Mobutu, his eviction, outside the context of any popular vote, and their installation—without elections. I said no! The people are sovereign, they have their say in this. All the more so since they’re the ones who elected me, and many times over” (1994:16). And when asked his opinion on the reasons for popular protest in Zaire, he responds without a chuckle: “Oooh!... It’s because of my personality, you see. I’m not always pleasant to behold, my head has an unpleasant shape, my name too no doubt. I make people feel uncomfortable, there you have it” (1994:21). Not a word is uttered about his catastrophic performance as Zaire’s leader for the past thirty years. To pacify the international community and maintain power, he need only discredit his opponents.
• Resorting to the paradigm of ethnicity: To “explain” the difficulties of democratization in Africa, official discourse constantly resorts to the ethnic or tribal argument. Nearly two decades ago, Kotto Essome observed: “Because it explains everything, the ‘tribal’ excuse defies all explanation. Universally invoked as the fateful, ancestral cause of Africa’s ‘ethnic’ divisions, it excels in diverting attention from their genesis in colonialism and from the ravages on the fringes of a market economy that catalyzes and reinforces their institutionalization”(1985:33). Although the “tribal” is lacking in scientific substance, the ideological mystification of “tribalism” has allowed African governments to deflect public opinion from the only question that really matters: their abysmal thirty-year record of rule. By reducing even the most corporatist opposition demands, criticisms, and social tensions to “manipulative” efforts on the part of one or more ethnic groups to the detriment of others, African heads of state often succeed in eliminating debate on the economic failure and social bankruptcy of their countries. They systematically sidestep the issues raised by the opposition by bringing them back to the question of slicing up the mythical “national cake” among the different tribes.
Thus, when Cameroonian attorney Yondo Black was arrested in February 1990 because he sought to create a political party, the government accused him of having tried to use his title of traditional tribal chieftain to organize the takeover of the government by the Duala. Next the government elicited a “show of support on the part of traditional Littoral tribal chieftains for President Biya.” Wearing exotic tribal garb and ornaments of royalty, some went on television stating that the Duala community had not mandated Yondo Black to defend its interests. Although that had obviously never been the intention of this former president of the bar association, the government had achieved its objective: it had created a diversion so that attention would not be focused on the real question raised by Yondo Black—respect for political pluralism written into the constitution—and had lent credence to the idea that he was motivated not by nationalism but by tribalism.
The ethnic argument has nourished the practices and discourse of authoritarianism in the past few years. Thus, it is easy to see why the official ideologues became flustered when, after thirty-three years of exile in France, the writer Mongo Beti decided to return home in February 1991 (see Kom 1991a). Born in Mbalmayo, a true son of the south province (Biya’s native region), Mongo Beti has steadfastly opposed the regime. In his case, it was impossible to trot out the old “tribe-with-hegemonic-ambitions” argument; something else was required. Taken aback, out of catchy ideas, the government first organized a campaign on national television devised to show that Beti was, of all things, French! His identity papers were presented on television along with copies of visa request forms he had filled out in Paris in order to make the trip home. Subsequently, J. Owona, general secretary of the presidency and second in command, published a vitriolic article in a “private” newspaper published by the presidency in which he besmirched the writer’s family and accused Beti of having been co-opted by other tribes (Owona 1991).
• The cult of fatalism: The efficacy of modes of political communication that use paralogisms and distortion depends on their capacity to maintain the illusion of power. To imprint these new “truths” into collective memory, the regime attempts to exploit the factor of time. It seeks to impress these theses on the general psychological environment—in a Braudelian sense. 16 It endeavors to restructure the episteme by creating the conditions for fatalism on a massive scale. Its goal is to discourage the greatest number of citizens, to take away their interest in politics—in brief, to reduce political participation to the lowest possible level.
Through police brutality and various types of subterfuge, political opinion remains focused on considerations that do not invite debate. Such measures as censorship, the prohibition of privately run media, the imprisonment of recalcitrant journalists, the silencing of dissenting voices, the exponential increase in official propaganda, and the reinforcement of police and administrative powers have not so much recreated the climate of terror found in these nations during the 1960s and 1970s as they have created a collective weariness and discouragement.
More sophisticated, if hardly original, techniques are used to reach the same goal: sap the foundation of citizens’ hope and faith in the possibility of a different world. Thus, the enlistment of intellectuals in the apparatus of repression is not designed to breathe new life into the existing system but rather to convince dreamers and utopians that “every man has a price” (compare Mbock 1985), that it is better to put up with a corrupt (and sated) leader than to risk the alternation of power, which would come down to a political takeover by young, hungry wolves—even more inclined to rob the public coffers than those in place. 17
Whenever the government wishes to justify the imprisonment of a writer, the torture that takes place at police headquarters, the rigging of the register of voters, the stuffing of ballot boxes, or the nonpayment of salaries, it finds at its disposal a pleiad of “professors-with-a-long-list-of-diplomas” (that’s the way they are usually introduced on public media) ready to explain such decisions. Cameroonians watched on television an “eminent” professor of public law criticizing the National Conference on the grounds that “it is not provided for by the dictionary” and that “a Belgian would not understand it.” They were not surprised when he was later appointed minister of culture. They likewise witnessed the promotion of a “great philosopher,” who had long called for the “dictatorship of renewal” (official ideology), to a high-ranking position within the administration of the University of Yaoundé. They have seen “world-renowned intellectuals” make meager attempts at theorizing tribalism and then assume the directorship of big-budget public agencies.
The same strategy of “conversion” has been used successfully against numerous political “opponents”: those who work for the government and whose only role is to create diversions; those who created parties in the hope of receiving state financing; and those who tired of waiting for the alternation of power and thus resigned themselves to joining ranks with the “presidential majority” in exchange for a seat on a board. Such maneuvers, which involve the combined interests of urban elites, coteries, mysterious lobbies, and various pressure groups, are not related to a given policy or political idea, but that does not prevent the government from presenting them as proof of the existence of a dialogue among the nation’s different political families. It also shores up the idea in the collective unconscious that alternation of power serves no purpose, that it might even be dangerous insofar as it would upset the delicate balance (’dialogue,” in official parlance) of political forces.
Without question, these new political techniques (the cosmetics of authoritarianism) have helped cloud the perception of Western and African political scientists. They underscore the need to refine analysis of African sociopolitical transformations. As the Beninese philosopher Houtondji has pointed out, “The major problem in the sphere of political analysis is to know not so much how a regime defines itself as what objective function this self-proclaimed definition has in the political game which the regime is playing” (1983:93).
Official African discourse stems above all from the idea, endorsed by numerous intellectuals, of the negatively marked specificity of the African political arena, for the political philosophy behind most theories of modernization supplies cultural relativism with a theoretical framework of which African heads of state take advantage (Coleman and Halisi 1983). When Huntington affirms that “the most important political distinction among countries concerns not their form of government, but their degree of government” (1968:1), he elegantly justifies the suspicion of the universality of forms of political organization and, in so doing, de facto concedes the validity of any form of relativism that claims to be able to govern “better”—that is, according to measurement criteria that may be defined only locally. Huntington’s initial criticism is no doubt well founded, but it leads one to a slippery slope that African dictators have not hesitated to start down, reinforcing their barbarisms with all sorts of philosophical justifications.
The Political “Bricolage” of the Opposition
In the face of the creative maneuvering by African heads of state, the opposition cuts a sorry figure—but this does not reflect the dynamism and seriousness of rural and urban populations, who do not hesitate to make sacrifices so as to manifest their desire for freedom. Wole Soyinka has often spoken of an Africa betrayed from within. This observation, which was subsequently developed by Ayittey (1992), certainly applies to the political arena, where the inconsistency and capriciousness of actors in certain countries is such that long hoped for change appears unlikely. There are several problems regarding opposition leaders. First, very few of them were prepared to fulfill their roles. Although the Côte d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo and Gabon’s Paul Mba Abessole have a great deal of experience fighting political battles, the same cannot be said of the vast majority of current opposition leaders, often former big shots in the regime who transform into its most bitter rivals. 18 Cameroon’s Jean-Jacques Ekindi is an interesting case in point. A former political baron of the single party who organized in March–April 1990 a national march against the establishment of a multiparty system, a staunch critic of the coordination of opposition parties in 1991—two months after the first opposition party was legalized—he resigned from the ruling party in May 1991 and became the general secretary of said coordination in August. Similar examples can be cited for Gabon, Togo, Congo, the Central African Republic, etc.
Quite often, then, the career paths of opposition leaders are inconsistent, which raises the question of these leaders’ true motivations, their loyalty to the causes to which they have committed themselves (if loyalty can be said to exist in politics), and their leeway to maneuver vis-à-vis the regimes they claim to oppose. But given that politics is not an art of the straight line, as Winston Churchill’s tortuous ideological trajectory amply demonstrates, the seriousness of African politicians must not be judged on their successive party affiliations alone. This brings us back to our initial reservation concerning this category of African opposition leaders: It is their flexibility of spirit that makes their behavior so unpredictable—and always “justifiably” so. 19
Almost everywhere opposition parties seem paralyzed. Ruling heads of state have custom-built adversaries; that is, the latter are often ready to celebrate the virtues of the old order, often incapable of transforming collective despair into an avenue for change. Despite the institution of a multiparty administrative system, public discourse remains one-dimensional insofar as the new leaders have not suggested alternative political programs. The numerous recognized opposition parties revolve around a few individuals, exhibit a rigid, centralized structure, and function in the same way and with the same ideas as the old single party. This organizational deficiency leads one to think that Africa’s multiparty system is but a conglomeration of multiple “single” parties.
I believe these are the principal reasons for the current confusion in Africanist political science. Next I shall attempt to propose an alternative vision of the political arena.
Outline of a Theory of Democratization in Africa
Having addressed the genesis of the misunderstandings that cast doubt on the relevance of Africanist political theories, I will now move on to an analysis of the space of politics. I will explain the new rules of the political game, interpret the current transformations and changes in attitude, and examine Africa’s contribution to democratic theory. Adopting Braud’s definition of the political arena as the “site of (peaceful?) competition for the right to monopolize coercion, to lay down the law and to guarantee its effectiveness in society as a whole” (1992:6), I shall analyze in more theoretical terms what is at stake in the current political battles and how the rules of the game and the behavior of the actors have changed.
The Reconfiguration of the Political Arena and the Capacity to Disguise
Many who have studied the African political game have spoken of the hunger for power that drives political actors but have not investigated their true motivations (Bayart 1989). These writers forget that power is never an objective in and of itself; rather, it helps one attain other goals, which are by and large clearly expressed. By analyzing competition for power in sub-Saharan Africa, one can better grasp the multiple dimensions of the present democratization process.
In the period immediately following independence, power in Africa was conceived as a sort of privilege, indeed a monopoly, held by a group of individuals and occasionally divvied up among members of a clique, along the lines of Krueger’s (1974) rent-seeking principle. At the time, this “substantialist” conception of power, to use Braud’s terminology (1992:10), was the most widespread in Africa. Numerous writers have referred to its most perverse forms as “neopatrimonialism” (Callaghy 1994; Médart 1994).
This paradigm is no longer operative today. Even the most extreme forms of African patrimonialism have undergone revision. Far from being a system of mere privilege trafficking and influence peddling, patrimonialism is attuned to the social exigencies of the times and seeks to craft a type of power that is less direct and primitive, more equilibrated, and, in a certain sense, interactive. The naked power that characterized the first three decades of African independence has given way to a much more subtle form of political action that I shall term power in disguise. It consists in the ability to appear to be something one is not (as witnessed in the techniques for the renewal of the symbolic order) and sometimes does not even require the threat of violence to succeed. A minimal level of obedience to government authority is guaranteed not only by the conviction of citizens that the state has methods of public and private retaliation but also by their very disenchantment, a result of the capability of authoritarianism to disguise itself. 20 In societies with a highly developed sense of spirituality, the craftily manipulated politics of confusion allows leaders to capitalize on the psychology of fear, to play with people’s emotions, and to exploit the entire range of emotions.
The specificity of African power also lies in the very nature of the institutional arena in which political competition is played out. The usual dichotomy between rigid political systems characteristic of dictatorships (where competition is restricted because access to power is blocked) and flexible systems (where the various actors divide among themselves, in a more or less inegalitarian manner, positions of power on the local and national levels) cannot account for the subtleties of the African model. Both systems are combined in a semirigid model in which access to the political game is blocked less by way of restrictive constitutional provisions than through the practical, everyday implementation of laws and rules. Cases like that of Cameroon, where the constitution of May 20, 1972, stipulates that “the President of the Republic defines and implements national policy,” or Côte d’Ivoire, where a code of election law was adopted in 1995 for the specific purpose of keeping the candidate the administration feared most out of the race (French 1995a, 1995b; New York Times 1995), are exceptions, not the rule. In general, the textual framework of competition has been modernized to the point that access to the political arena is blocked not through institutional constraints but through abuses of the new legal liberties. Thus, when Zaire’s president Mobutu Sese Seko officially legalized 322 “opposition parties,” he knew very well that the effect on the political outcome would be the same as legalizing none; the excessive number of parties allowed him to trivialize the function of opposition to his government and opened up various possibilities for political manipulation—the heads of most of the parties were loyal to him, and these precious allies were numerous enough to defeat
any proposal by the parties to take action against him. Most African dictators quickly understood and mastered this classic technique of barring access to the political arena via excessive politicization.
Thus, by flooding the political market with as many political parties as possible, the government is eventually able to trivialize (or even marginalize) its opponents. Of course, it is usually well known that most of the newcomers are in fact political allies of the sitting government, but it does not matter, since their official status as opponents entitles them to official respectability, public funding, campaign time in the public media, etc. The actions of these newcomers finally erode the political appeal of the other opposition leaders, who are quickly labeled “radical,” “irresponsible,” or “violent” people. This is one of the main paradoxes of multiparty politics in Africa: the higher the number of opposition parties, the weaker the opposition is as a whole, and the stronger the authoritarian regime becomes. It all boils down to monolithic pluralism, for the political weight of the two main political actors may grow or diminish, but it returns to the starting point. A political baron of Cameroon’s former single party used a nice metaphor to describe the current situation of atomization of the political market and ideological unanimity. Some political actors are sopranos, he said, others, baritones, but they’re all singing the same song (Ntsama 1993).

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