Progressive Trend

This article discusses whether it is nevertheless possible to understand African states as examples of the same political system, as some recent studies have asserted (or assumed). It argues that by comparing the historical patterns of political development in African states, one can identify a limited number of distinct historical paths, starting with the process of decolonization (where there are two variants). Subsequently divergent paths arose from differing responses to early post-independence political crises, producing contrasting forms of politics -centralized-bureaucratic politics and spoils politics – and corresponding political systems. Further differentiation has arisen systematically from popular responses to the breakdown of these forms, giving rise to populist revolts, state collapse or to democratic challenges (and sometimes democratic restructuring). Each of these represents a distinct form of politics, and political systems, within Africa. A model of the process of political development in post-war Africa is set out along these lines, and used to criticize several recent attempts at characterization of African politics, in which either states belonging to one historical path (and thus one political system) are treated as representative of all African states, or in which states from different paths and belonging to different systems are seen as examples of the same political form and political process. The use of aid to impose political conditions on recipient countries, to further democratic and government reforms or to punish non-compliance with earlier demands, is a relatively new feature of the international aid regime. This article evaluates the proliferating donor and academic literature emerging on the subject. At the heart of discussion of democracy/ governance policies are debates about transformation of the state, its relationship to economic development and the decreasing extent to which considerations of sovereignty limit donor interventions. The author argues that, while political conditionalitys may assist the development of democratic movements in Africa, there is an irony in that structural adjustment risks undermining the state reforms seen to be essential to them while, equally, democratization may challenge the processes of economic restructuring being imposed. Since the late 1980s, historians have paid increasing attention to party politics and political movements in Africa. Recent work has emphasized the importance of World War II in transforming political constituencies, mobilizing opposition to colonial regimes, and encouraging new political imaginaries. Documenting these processes has also enabled a richer appreciation of the complexity of African publics, and the ongoing power demanded and asserted by women as well as men, non-elites as well as elites. In this way, the role of history has often been to tell important stories from the bottom up. Africanist historians Interdisciplinary research methodologies, emphasizing local discourses and cultural frames, have also contributed to an increased understanding of the specificities of political participation and state practices in African countries. In turn, these insights represent a useful addition to— and in some cases revision of—existing accounts of ”weak ” African states andother notions of African dysfunction. Africa is a continent of over a billion people, yet questions of underdevelopment, malgovernance, and a form of political life based upon patronage are characteristic of manyfrican states. Introduction to Africa and its politics explains that the core questions underpinning this VSI center on how politics is typically practiced on the continent; the nature of the state infrica; and what accounts for fricas underdevelopment. This VSI aims to appraise sub-Saharan africas recent political history, examining post-colonial political structures, the impact of colonialism, and the form and nature of post-colonial states. The type of politics practiced in many African states continues to be hostile to genuine nation building and broad-based, sustainable development. The last decade and half in africas recent history has been marked by some dramatic and significant developments on the continents political terrain. These developments have been as varied as they have been contradictory. They have also constituted a major source of challenge to political theory as different schools of thought grapple with them in terms of their weight and meaning. As can be imagined, there is no consensus on the most appropriate approach for interpreting the changes that are taking place in the structure, content and dynamics of African politics; indeed, efforts at conceptualizing the changes have produced a veritable Tower of Babel, with commentators not only speaking in different tongues but frequently past one another. The sense of confusion which is prevalent in the literature is indicative as much of the complexity of the changes themselves as of the crisis of theory in the study of Africa (Mkandawire, 1996, 2002; Zeleza, 1997; Mamdani, 1999). The contradictoriness of the changes, at once inspiring hope and generating despair, has polarized the scholarly and policy communities into Afro-optimist and Afro-pessimist camps. But for all the insights which they may offer into the problems and prospects of progressive change in Africa, both the Afro-pessimist and Afro-optimist frames are far too simplistic and subjective to serve as an enduring basis for capturing the dialectics of socio-political change and transformation. A more careful, historically grounded interpretation of the changes occurring on the continent is, therefore, needed and for it to be useful, it should enable us to transcend the narrow and narrowing parameters that currently dominate the discourse on the processes and structures of change occurring in contemporary Africa.

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