Below is a list of things that many Africans know about politics based on their own historical and cultural perspectives. As a cultural anthropologist specializing in media and politics in West Africa, I’ve been struck by how closely the American political scene now resonates with the scholarship on the African state. Each point below deserves much deeper discussion, but here’s is the quick and dirty version:
1. Beware of ‘strong men.’ Scholars of African politics often describe how African politics is too often dominated by strong men, charismatic elites whose power is based on personal patronage.
Such strong men tend to have very little real political vision or ideology but promise special treatment to specific groups as a way of winning their support. Their power is based on patron-client relationships, maintaining exclusive control over resources and distributing those resources to their subordinates on the basis of favoritism.
Across the continent, Africans have struggled to get rid of strong men. It is a constant struggle requiring sustained effort.
2. Beware of ‘straddling.’ The power of strong men comes from ‘straddling’ both economic and political realms (converting wealth into political power and vice versa). Their original power may come from the military or from the business realm but the result is the same. Once in power, ‘strong men’ use the state as a vehicle of further accumulation. That is, they channel state resources into their private interests. This is ‘kleptocracy.’ Google “Mobutu” for details.
3. Beware of politicized institutions. In a 2009 speech in Ghana, President Obama famously said, “Africa doesn’t need strong men. It needs strong institutions.” Obama then described how strong institutions can hold the power of the executive in check, holding the government accountable to the people while increasing the power of the state to carry out the people’s mandate.
Currently, in the US we have a strong man now staffing our strong institutions with white supremicists, mysogynists, and homophobes. So we possibly have the worse case scenario on this one, increasing state power plus decreasing accountability—all infused with hate.
4. ‘Democracy’ is not always democracy. In the 1990s, a wave of democratization swept across the African continent, often called the ‘African renaissance.’ However, many of these democratic transitions have not really changed the political scene all that much. Scholars refer to many ‘pseudo-democracies’ that create a thin veneer of open political contest while actually just recycling power among a handful of elites.
4. People tend to vote in regional blocs. This is mostly due to historical and economic reasons. Outsiders sometimes call it ‘tribalism’ (and some Africans use this term, too); but it’s not really about ethnic identity—or at least that’s not the only thing it’s about. In most countries, different regions each have a specific array of resources such as particular mining products, agricultural crops, and labor. Regional economies are constructed on the basis of these economic interests. This is a process that has played out through history in complex ways.
In some communities with valuable resource (such as gold), trade and revenue from that commodity have formed the basis of regional empires and proto-states (in the precolonial period). Empires tend to generate powerful cultural identities (drawing from pre-existing group identities, unifying and politicizing them against regional rivals). The West African empire of Asante is a good example of this. Some other areas become (willing or unwilling) suppliers of labor to the more powerful regions. This generates a quite different form of cultural identity, informed by conquest and marginalization as well as economic dependence.
Both Asante and ‘the North’ are now encompassed by the nation-state of Ghana. They are associated with distinct voting blocs, affiliated with different political parties based on distinctive political ideologies.
Looking at the red-blue polarization of voting in the US, we might think about the economic interests that have created very distinctive and powerful cultural identities in coastal/metopolitan areas versus “the hinterlands.” These identities are now politicized against each other. To Africans, it may look a lot like (what used to be called) ‘tribalism.’
5. Tyranny relies on a strategy of divide and rule. When Europeans sought to gain power over African societies in the colonial period, they found ways to pit those regional identies against one another and hold them in constant conflict, undermining efforts at resistant coalition. One tactic was favoritism, giving access to schooling, health care, and other social services to certain regions and recruiting privileged groups into administrative positions in colonial government. This created resentment among other groups and regions. The Hutus and Tutsis are a grim example of the consequences of this tactic.
Another tactic involved coopting local leaders (in some places, chiefs) by making them collect taxes and organize work teams to build roads, work in mines, and other forms of forced labor. This polluted and undermined local leadership and made it difficult for communiites to organize at broader, regional levels.
Donald Trump’s entire campaign is a strategy of divide and rule. In fact, he talks about very little else. We can expect divisive policies reminiscient of colonial rule.
6. Mining will not save the working class. Oil and mining do not create sustainable economies for working people. Countries (and communities) whose economies depend primarily on oil and mining for revenue tend to suffer from something called ‘the resource curse.’ Primary resources are subject to the global dynamics of supply and demand, resulting in price fluctuations. The communities where resources are extracted have no control over these dynamics. Rather, powerful global corporations manipulate the global market in their own interests. And they don’t care that much about the well-being of communities (just ask the peoples of the Niger delta where oil companies are detroying the environment).
It is impossible to create long-term economic plans when state revenues are bouncing around unpredictably and uncontrollably. And there’s a more complex phenomenon called ‘Dutch disease’ which makes it difficult for other economic sectors to develop and thrive when oil or other mining sectors are dominating the economy.
So, for communities dependent on mining and other extractive industries, further extraction is not the answer. Working-class communities do better with more diversified economies.
7. Manufacturing is good for the working class. Currently, Ghana is in the midst of a presidential campaign. In their political platforms, both of the main political parties (the encombent NDC and the oppositional NPP) are emphasizing the importance of industrial manufacturing to constructing a sustainable and resilient economy. The NPP has proposed a ‘One district, One factory’ policy, promising to create public-private partnerships to build factories in each of the 216 districts. The NDC has also voiced commitment to supporting industrial development, though much more focused on building infrastructure.
Time and time again, Ghanaians on both sides of the political spectrum told me that industry creates jobs for Ghanaians, adds value to primary resources like crops and mining products, and makes for a more stable economy. There’s a popular “Made in Ghana” movement that animates this bipartisan consensus.
As the colonial experience demonstrates, global trade tends to support the power of (white) elites against the interests of working peoples at home and abroad. There is good reason to be suspicious of transnational trade deals that typically provide little to no protection for labor and the environment.
In response to scapegoating rhetoric about immigrants ‘stealing our jobs,’ we should think about ways to rebuild our manufacturing sector to provide living-wage jobs for everyone. Rather than deregulation and other methods of reducing government involvement in the economy, we should think about ways that government might actively promote industry in partnership with private interests.
9. Don’t dismiss the power of symbols. In 1700, a group of disparate chieftaincies in the Asante area of south-central Ghana were facing military threat from a neighboring kingom, Denkyira. Legend has it, the group of chiefs of came together in a meeting and a powerful priest summoned a golden chair down from the sky. The priest announced that this Golden Stool would be the symbol of unity for the Asante peoples. The chiefs all pledged their allegiance to the Golden Stool and vowed to serve and protect the union it represents. They then formed a military coalition and defeated Denkyira.
We’ve heard a great deal of discussion about symbols lately. The safety pin was proposed as symbol of unity among liberals and immigrants, people of color, women, and the GLBT community. Just as wearing a symbol might be superficial and self-congratulory, attacking symbolic unity might also be less helpful than just going ahead with the real challenges of working together to form coalition to defeat our common enemy. We certainly need to be mindful of the dynamics of power within coalitions and strive to promote the voices of those historically disadvantaged groups. This requires dialogue.
History has demonstrated time and time again, symbols are not the end of political change but the very beginning.
10. Often, the radical solution is the most effective. In many parts of Africa, the early movements toward independence were led by gradualists—African professionals (lawyers, doctors, journalists, civil servants) who worked to increase African representation in colonial government as part of a slow, gradual strategy for gaining independence. These groups formed the basis of the earliest political parties in the colonial period.
In places like Ghana and Tanzania, people got fed up with this gradualist approach in the 1950s and got behind more radical, populist leaders like Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere. These leaders unified disparate groups of farmers, youth, miners, teachers and other working-class peoples in coordination with elite professionals to create powerful political alliances. Nkrumah used a campaign of boycotts and strikes, all publicized in his own newspaper, to demand “Self-Government Now.” The radical approach was effective and Ghana became one of the first independent nations in Africa with Nkrumah as its first head of state.
In the US, we now hear the call to give Trump a chance, to “wait and see” what he might do in office, then to work within the new political reality to achieve the very modest forms of change we might be able to achieve. This is compromised gradualism.
We need strikes, boycotts, and protests. We need media. We need bold leaders with integrity, wisdom, and vision. We need radical coalition.