Political Leaders in Africa: Presidents, Patrons or Profiteers?
Author: J A van Wyk
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What impact has leadership had on the development of African states? This paper from the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) reviews and analyses the multiple layers of formal and informal political leadership in post-colonial Africa.
Political leaders are the primary holders, controllers and distributors of power and resources in a particular institution and/or territory. Contemporary African leaders operate in an environment constrained by colonial legacies and instability. Leadership is characteristically neo-patrimonial, featuring presidentialism, clientelism, the use of state resources and the centralisation of power.
Autocratic and personalised political power, legitimised by the legacy of liberation struggles, have frequently produced cases of ‘stayism’ whereby leaders employ extra-constitutional and coercive means to retain power. Although a wave of post-Cold War democratisation has reduced cases of ‘stayism’, this process has yet to be consolidated. Weak opposition parties, a focus on loyalty rather than issues, constrained civil society and media, privatised violence, politicised armies and intra-state violence all remain issues of concern.
Post-independence elites have largely entrenched their own interests, with control of the state and its resources becoming the primary purpose of political contestation:
Nevertheless, NEPAD and APRM continue to be government and elite driven processes.Tensions exist between a governance system based on neo-patrimonialism and the more liberalised democratic system of governance to which NEPAD subscribes.
- African leadership styles are often characterised by: the need to achieve and hold power; nationalism that perceives one’s own nation or group as superior; distrust of others; and a task-orientated approach.
- Instability and underdevelopment can challenge public authority and undermine the internal sovereignty of the state. The resulting power vacuums create the conditions for the emergence of informal and private leadership.
- Forms of traditional leadership and authority have largely been marginalised in the post-independence period.
- New indications of transactional and transformative leadership in Africa include the African Union (AU), the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM).
If Africa is to make further progress towards more stable, accountable and open political systems, its leaders must embrace the challenge of change:
- It is imperative that Africa’s conflicts are resolved and that post-conflict reconstruction takes place. In this regard, leadership and the role of the AU are of critical importance.
- A key task of all African leaders is to develop their societies and state institutions. Political leaders allocate resources. However, control over resources lubricates patronage networks and satisfies the ambitions of elites.
- African elites must adopt alternative political programmes that explicitly reject the bases of the postcolonial state.
- The few civil society organisations (CSOs) that do exist are caught between an entrenched elite and non-state/informal political actors. This sphere of political agendas and activities needs to be opened.
- The underlying causes of the continent’s underdevelopment by its leaders should be addressed. The APRM should be strengthened and enforced and, where applicable, leaders should be indicted for bad governance.
- It is recommended that an African Leadership Academy be established, under the auspices of the AU and civil society, to ensure effective leadership development.
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van Wyk, J-A., 2007, 'Political Leaders in Africa: Presidents, Patrons or Profiteers?', Occasional Paper Series, vol. 2, no. 1, The African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), South Africa
Jo-Ansie van Wyk