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Some Things to Know about Africa: #5 Governance

May 22, 2011

This is the long-delayed fifth instalment in my occasional series designed to help interpret Africa for other outsiders. As I’ve said before, I have given myself a licence to over-generalise, hoping that this indulgence on a mere blog will be forgiven. In previous pieces I’ve discussed Africa’s historical interactions with the rest of the world, its heterogeneity, the importance of community, and issues of time and agency. This time I’m tackling the thorny issue of governance.

Everyone knows Africa is poorly governed, right? It’s famous for corruption, for coups d’état, for repression, its poor public services, big men staying in power too long, mining and oil companies paying sweeteners to secure access to natural resources, and so on. If you google Africa + corruption you get 31.6 million hits. But even though I’m willing to generalise, I don’t think it’s fair to let this stereotype through without examination.

Most countries in Africa are only a few decades old in their current form. Their boundaries are mostly those drawn up by Europeans in Berlin in 1884 and bear more relation to the needs of the colonial powers than to any local phenomena. Most countries in Africa were colonies until around 1960: they were poorly prepared for independence, with political systems and political cultures designed for the convenience of distant metropolitan rulers. This meant that they were unlikely, after independence, to emerge with the fundamental characteristics of a peaceful and well-governed polity: a sense of responsibility shared by citizen and state; a responsiveness to all citizens’ needs and interests by the state; a high degree of open participation by citizens in public affairs; and the predictable rule of law.

So it is not surprising that African countries came to be seen as examples of poor, weak or inadequate governance in the decades following independence. If good governance is, at its heart, the management of differences and conflicts over resources to maximise the benefit and well-being of all, and with the minimum of violence, then Africa has certainly provided many negative examples. President Mobuto of Zaire was just one of many leaders who stole and diverted national resources on a huge scale – to the tune of billions of dollars in his case – to their personal accounts, and to their cronies, over many years. Elections were frequently subverted or plain cancelled, and the prevalence of one-party states ensured that changes of leadership were rare unless through coups d’état. According to Wikipedia, there were 85 coup events, affecting 35 African countries, between 1952 and 2000.

Responsible and responsive states aren’t built in a day, and there’s been substantial progress since the 1960s, especially since the end of the Cold War, after which elections and peaceful changes of leadership have become more common. Countries like South Africa, Ghana, Uganda, Mali and Mozambique – even Nigeria – are cited as illustrations of the progress that’s possible, while others such as Sudan, Central African Republic, DR Congo and Chad lag behind. Even the places where progress has been made continue to exhibit many of the features associated with inadequate governance. This is not just an African phenomenon – indeed there is no reason to think that every country everywhere is on a predetermined natural path towards ever-better governance. Nevertheless, the common international narrative – as adopted formally by the UN’s Millennium Declaration – does assume this would be a good thing, and I agree. 

What you see is not what you get

One thing worth pointing out is that where Africans have adopted the organs and appearance of a modern democratic state, things are not necessarily what they seem. Having a political constellation in which parliament, a judiciary and an executive are designed in imitation of Westminster, Paris or Washington does not necessarily mean these organs and institutions are separate from one another, nor that they keep each other in check. African parliaments do provide a debating chamber, but they are often more useful as a system for distributing patronage, as for examining legislation or for holding the executive to account. It’s typically very expensive to be elected to parliament, and MPs or their sponsors need a return on that investment. Recent history in Zimbabwe is just one example among many of how the judiciary is still far-too ready to bow to the wishes of those in power in their interpretation of the law; which means that despite the apparatus of the rule of law, it is too-often superseded by arbitrary decisions and particular interests.

Meanwhile the civil service is in general poorly paid, poorly supervised, and politicised, with appointments and promotion likely to be based on affinity ties as much as on merit. I have met hundreds of competent and motivated civil servants in Africa, but they are often the exceptions. Chronic underperformance and absenteeism are hard nuts to crack. It is often still possible for a civil servant to get away with the coat-over-the-chair trick, in which he or she comes in to work, shuffles papers on the desk, and hangs a coat over the back of the chair to give the appearance of someone who’s just popped out of the office – before spending the entire day out of the office on personal affairs. (A variant of this is the two-coat trick, whereby a colluding colleague switches the coat for one of another colour, and shuffles the papers from time to time, to make it look as though the absent colleague has been and gone. This can be kept up for a week!) Ultimately, where civil servants are held accountable by their bosses, it is often for the wrong things (e.g. unfair service provision benefiting particular individuals or groups, colluding in corruption, using government resources to support the ruling party’s interests, etc.)


One of the obstacles to better governance is the very strong role ethnic identity plays. Almost all African countries are made up of a complex ethnic quilt, and relations between different groups are charged with history. The Tutsi-Hutu phenomenon in Central Africa is well-known, but other countries have equally complex identity mixes. Nigeria alone is said to have over 250 ethnic groups.

These are complex phenomena, capable of widely different interpretations. Different ethnic groups need not be in conflict with one another. Indeed, historically there have been accommodations between them, often lasting a long time, based on synergy, comparative advantage and power. The Tutsi-Hutu relationship appears to have evolved as a reasonable way for pastoralists and farmers to govern opposing uses of the same land. In other cases, a particular ethnic group exercised a kind of feudal control over neighbouring groups: e.g. the Ashanti in Ghana and the Baganda in Uganda, both of whom taxed their neighbours and went to war when necessary to extend or defend their position.

The problem in a nutshell is that ethnic ties and ethnic identity still tend to trump national, citizenship ties and identity. The historian Eric Hobsbawm in his magnificent The Age of Extremes, claims that democracy is only feasible when the sense of national identity prevails over ethnicity and other forms of identity. This is not yet the case in Africa – as shown for example in research by Civil Society for Peace in Northern Uganda. This sampled people from across the country, and found that they saw themselves overwhelmingly as Acholi, Baganda, Banyankole, etc. – i.e. according to their ethnicity – before seeing themselves as Ugandans.

What this tends to mean is that governance is practised in ways which benefit the ethnic groups of those in power (whether locally or nationally) at the expense of others. This skews the benefits towards or away from particular groups, creating a sense of entitlement among beneficiaries and resentment among the rest.

This in turn means that politics tends to be about identity – I vote for someone who speaks my language – rather than about policy issues. Indeed, when policy issues do become important elements of elections, they tend to be identity-based policies. Thus in Côte d’Ivoire over the past twenty years, the question of Ivoirité – who is a true Ivorian, and who is an outsider? – has been the main political issue, rather than what kind of education or health services should the state provide, or what system of taxes.

Of course, ethnicity is not the only form of identity. Religion is another one, and has provided a mechanism for people to develop additional affinity ties. Membership of Islam, or of a particular branch of Christianity, for example. Sometimes these groupings correlate with ethnicity – as with the tendency of members of the Presbyterian church in Kenya to be Kikuyus – other times they cut across ethnic boundaries, and can create new opportunities to break down the old politics of identity.

In partial defence of some of the African leaders of the early post-independence era, one of their arguments for creating one-party states was based on the same analysis. They reckoned that a single-party system would avoid ethnic polarisation. But this failed to work as planned, and the single party itself often became dominated by particular ethnic groups. In Guinea, the Peuhl perceived themselves to have been squeezed out of politics over the years; while Kenyan political history is coloured by the rivalry between the Kalenjins and Kikuyus at the expense of each other, and frequently of other tribes. Indeed, the argument has often been made that governance systems should be more explicitly based on the strong ties of ethnicity which exist across Africa – rather than undermining and distorting them with foreign concepts imported from places like Westminster.

Corruption and patronage – as norms

It is easy to label African governance as corrupt. Bribes are common, after all, and perpetrators seldom seem to be held to account when their sharp practices are exposed, provided they are well-connected. Corruption also makes good headlines for lazy editors, and is an all-too-easy justification for cutting overseas aid.

 But “corruption” as a label and a concept pre-supposes a system which normally works “cleanly”, and where “corrupt” practices are an anomaly. It is therefore the wrong label to use in respect of African governance, where those who are trying to “clean up” the system face the herculean task of changing the norms. It is more honest and useful to think of African governance as a set of systems and behaviours in which “corrupt” behaviour is the norm.

In most of Africa, high proportions of government budgets are gifts or cheap loans from outside the country, rather than funds contributed by citizens through taxes. Put this together with a governance system which provides insufficient mechanisms of voice and accountability, and where ethnic identity trumps other forms of belonging, and you have a system in which the individual and his or her family have very limited rights to the basic services which the state would normally be expected to provide. There is no social contract at the national level.

This is the classic scenario in which patronage becomes a predominant element in the political economy. The Mafia evolved in Sicily, in the political vacuum created by the lack of interest of the distant King of Sardinia in governing the place. It took over the role of the state, collecting taxes, providing protection and some welfare services, but with a very skewed form of accountability, hence the provision of services was provided somewhat arbitrarily based on one’s degree of connection with those in positions of power.

As with Sicily in earlier times, so across Africa in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, where complex networks of patronage, usually fed by free or discounted access to state or national resources, are used to maintain leaders in power, and to spread access to resources to clients in a cascading system of distribution. An NGO leader in Sierra Leone recently described to me how people get access to services and benefits – jobs, administrative and judicial decisions in their favour, better health service, etc.

“They go to their ‘Bra’ – everyone has a Bra – and asks him for help. If he’s satisfied that it’s in his interests to help them, then he uses his connections to open doors on their behalf. Then they owe him a favour which he’ll be sure to call in, even if it’s just their votes at election time; or their help intimidating opposition voters.”

I said to her that this sounded like the film The Godfather, and the just nodded her head. Different versions of this are common across Africa. Thus any attempt to understand how African politics works needs to take account not only of ethnicity but also of the related culture of patronage. When politicians “steal” from the state, much of the money gets distributed through their patronage system and thus helps to keep them in power. Michela Wrong calculated in her book In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz that despite having stolen billions of dollars during his thirty years in power, by the time he died, Mobuto had spent almost all of it on buying off those whose support he needed to stay in power. When commentators speak of “unaccountable” governments, they are wrong. Patronage networks do have the power to transfer their allegiance, and they thus do in some measure hold the leaders accountable, in a ways that parliaments seldom do, so far. The problem for good governance is that they tend to hold them accountable for providing services to a very limited group of people, rather than for responsible and fair decision-making. So rather than seeing them as unaccountable, it would be more accurate to see them as accountable to the wrong people, and for the wrong things.

This is something that the proponents of anti-corruption commissions (ACCs), and the like, perhaps fail to understand. It is rare for an ACC alone to make much headway within a political system and a political culture in which “corruption” is the norm. All that will happen is that the ACC will be subverted and co-opted, or will be rendered unable to work – as happened in the well-known case of Kenya, where ACC Commissioner John Githongo was hounded into exile. As I believe he himself has said, what Kenya needs is perhaps not so much a fight against corruption, as the establishment of a “new politics”.

ACCs will only work if they are accompanied by citizen initiatives, led by individuals with strong leadership and political talents, pushing an alternative approach to accountability, encouraging and assisting citizens to examine the claims of government achievement, and scrutinise government spending, and raise the alarm when these deviate from what is in the people’s interest.

The old and the new

Another complication which seems to be common in African governance is the uneasy co-existence between what we might call the traditional and the new – though these terms don’t perfectly do justice to the different governance systems in question. Throughout Africa it is normal to find the trappings of what we might call the modern state – courts, police, councils and parliaments, civil servants, ministers, national legislation, white papers and so on – sitting alongside an older system comprising chiefs, elders, peer/age groups, and a gamut of older rules and laws. Often these rules and laws are mutually contradictory, for example a number of countries have passed laws alienating land from tribal or other forms of collective ownership, and yet the traditional systems, governed by older rules, still prevail. This creates confusion, and as we well know, confusion is often much loved by those in a position to exploit it to strengthen their own, and their clients’ economic and political power.

I was told by a village chief in the DR Congo recently that he is unable to require certain cattle owners in his area to keep their cows away from people’s crops during the growing season – in line with local rules – because they are politically well-connected. Such people are accumulating large herds of cattle, at the expense of farmers and of pastoralists unable to flout the laws as they do.

This kind of confusion also scares banks away, so it is rare for an African to secure a loan using the farm as collateral, as the banks quite rightly have little confidence they will be able to seize the land in the event of non-payment. This is a major hindrance to economic growth – effectively excluding large parts of the agricultural sector from access to loans, at a time when Africa’s green revolution is long overdue.  

Those on or outside the margins of power and influence suffer most from this confused state of affairs, and women especially. Even in countries where the (modern) law now permits women to inherit land along with their brothers, this is often stymied at local level by traditional chiefs who prevent it, with the encouragement of the local power elite.

Wherever traditional rules and institutions trump modern ones, young people also tend to lose out, as tradition tends to keep them too on the margins. This has particularly pernicious effects given the age structure of African society, where young people have the numbers but are denied a voice. The phenomenon is widely recognised to have fuelled the civil war in Sierra Leone – traditionally a gerontocratic and patriarchal society – and is currently creating a great deal of tension in Guinea and other countries of the region.

I have been interested in this uneasy coexistence of different rules, laws and systems for years, and have consistently asked people in African countries to define for me the role of traditional local chiefs. I seldom get a clear answer, indicating perhaps that people from these places are perhaps a bit ignorant of the rules themselves; but more likely that there are no clear a priori rules, and that the power of local chiefs and other traditional instruments of power is linked as much to circumstances – their personal leadership capacity; their affinity with those in power in the “modern” system, through patronage networks – as to the predetermined attributes of their particular office.

An anthropologist acquaintance investigated how different forms of governance interact in an area of the rural West African interior. He found that a recognisable – if bastardised – version of the traditional governance systems was essentially alive and well – despite decades of imported reforms during the colonial and post-colonial periods. Those running the “traditional” systems had developed a clear strategy of accommodation with the “modern” system of decentralised government which had most recently been introduced. Under this – to simplify what is actually a very sophisticated approach – they merely nominated representatives to the new-fangled local councils. Local voters were told who to vote for, and did as they were bid. Most of the decisions taken by these new district councils did not impinge on the status quo within the local political economy, and the traditional leaders paid little attention. But as soon as the local councils took up an issue which might have a deeper impact – on land allocation, for example – they guarded their rights to decision-making jealously, and instructed “their” councillors how to vote.

As with patronage and the other features of governance described above, this undermines the fair application of the rule of law, and increases the opportunities for apparently arbitrary and unfair decision making.


Decentralised governance is critical to democratic rule, and thus “decentralisation” has become a key plank of the externally-supported modernisation processes being implemented across Africa. It is often a complicated and troubled process, as central authorities are not surprisingly loth to relinquish power, and as in the example just mentioned, they may well be keen and able to come to an accommodation with local power-holders, in which they agree to retain and share power, with local people relegated to the role of what Mahmoud Mamdani calls subjects, rather than citizens, in his book Citizens and Subjects.

So although a decentralised modern polity may well be one of the keys to a more representative and responsible state, this is still too often a pipe dream, especially in rural areas. The theory is that local decision making and resource management should be more amenable to transparency and accountability, because of its proximity to the people, compared to national level. But in my experience this ideal is still some way off. One country I which I have worked had a simple system for transferring funds from the ministry of finance to the local districts: 30% of every financial transfer had to be paid back to the officials in the ministry as a bribe. No bribe, no more money for the local government. Thus while this might be called corruption, it might also be called “part of the governance system”, in which it was systematized and normal for local government to have to falsify receipts for 30% of their revenues from central government. What happened to the 30% – most likely it was divided amongst civil servants and politicians, and a large percentage was used to provide party funds for elections, etc.


So in conclusion, the key point seems to be that across Africa, governance systems, practices and cultures are confusing to the outsider, are not what they may seem, and are being manipulated by those who are able to entrench themselves and their clients in power. Despite the appearance of the trappings of the democratic, decentralised state, most Africans are still some way from attaining the status of citizens, if that implies they have a voice in governance and that their needs and interests are considered as priority by those who make resource allocation decisions. But it’s far too simplistic to label governance as just “corrupt”, and important to try and understand how and why things work they way they do. 

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