Is there a New Politics in Africa?
It is easy to talk about reinventing Africa for growth, development and democracy. Why should we have any hope for the future? Has the global system changed the peripheral location and role of the continent in the global divisions of power, production and exchange? Have African leaders, especially the custodians of state power changed their style of politics? Can we say there are holistic national, sub-regional and regional programs in place to change the face and fortunes of the continent? Are there new ways of bridging the huge gap between leaders and the people and rebuilding confidence in government? These are some of the salient issues that we must interrogate.
It is refreshing to note that there is an increasing feeling of euphoria in Africa these days. For a continent that was awash with brutal dictators, corrupt regimes, misplaced priorities, institutional decay, and social dislocations and violence, the recent political openings and renewed commitments to democratic values give hope for a better future, if they are sustained. True, there is much to worry about in the illiberal democratic realities of the continent. In fact, most of the newly elected politicians still act and sound very much like the dictators of the past. They are violent and intolerant of democratic processes and discourses.
They try to ‘modernise’ dictatorship and brutality. They want to be thanked for using public funds to execute projects. They focus on things that people can see rather than on the people themselves. Hence, health, education, agriculture, and social development often give way to buildings, even more universities and roads; especially the expansion of already motorable roads. They give democracy a bad name as they waste public funds in building personality cults, servicing youth vanguards and Women’s wings of their parties. Though parliamentary elections have been held in over 48 African states since the 1990s, the truth is that democracy is struggling to survive as the politicians continue to contaminate and compromise the context of democratic practice. They do enough to scare anyone from believing in a better future for Africa.
This not withstanding, the emergence of new issues, new discourses, new leaders, and new political parties on the continent’s political landscape has altered the balance of forces and encouraged a radical alignment and realignment of political forces. It is a realignment that is still in progress and the nations of Africa are by no means experiencing it at the same pace or level. Irrespective of the particular country concerned, there are certain common variables that are shaping the content and context of contemporary politics in Africa: the end of the cold war; donor complaints about aid fatigue; the end of apartheid and the emergence of South Africa as a central player in continental politics (they just hosted the world cup to the satisfaction and amazement of all); the increasing unpopularity of military juntas; the increasing influence and power of civil society groups and the emergence of a new breed of articulate politicians.
To these, we can add the new commitment of international organizations and Western governments to the new democratic agenda; the new recognition of the centrality of pluralism, gender, identity and nationality issues in the articulation of political platforms; increasing access by ordinary people to new technologies of communication, and the political conditionalities for foreign aid and investment requiring, at the minimum, democratic practices, respect for human rights, and multiparty political arrangements. Africa, in spite of its dependence, underdevelopment, and marginalization in the global divisions of labor and power has not been spared the impact of these developments and they are critical to reinventing its image and politics.