In Africa, Modernity Challenges Traditional Governance

7 MINS READJan 17, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
A Congolese rebel alliance soldier surrounded by looters in Kinshasa prods a photograph of ousted Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. African populations are demanding more from their leaders, and not all leaders are prepared to give it.
A Congolese rebel alliance soldier surrounded by looters in Kinshasa prods a photograph of ousted Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. African populations are demanding more from their leaders, and not all leaders are prepared to give it.

Two and a half decades after the Cold War ended, its effects are still being felt in Africa. The continent is inundated with power struggles, though the ones being waged today are much different from those traditionally fought. Modern dynamics have become superimposed over the customary elements of conflict, and African populations are holding their leaders to higher standards. Likewise, Western countries have also begun to demand more accountability and transparency from their African allies. As education levels continue to rise, and African countries develop economically and technologically, rulers find themselves more constrained than before. Some have weathered the new order better than others. Beyond regional factors, though, domestic factors continue to be equally critical to a leader's ultimate success or failure.

Of the 54 independent states that make up Africa, many have recently undergone a major transition of power or are on the cusp of one. Once unshakable political parties, some in control since Africa's wave of independence movements in the 1950s, have disintegrated or been defeated by opposition figures. Not all of Africa's leaders are ready to accept the changes, however. Several long-term authoritarian rulers — among them the presidents of Gambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — have resorted to military force to maintain at least temporary control. In South Africa, Zimbabwe and Sudan, longtime political parties and leaders are rapidly losing support to a coherent opposition. Generational shifts among the ruling elite and African populations in general can partly explain this trend, but the importance of broader regional and global changes cannot be overstated.

Cold War Polarization

African countries by and large gained independence during the 1950s and 1960s, when the rest of the world was divided East against West in the Cold War. Africa's burgeoning nations could not help but be dragged into the conflict, and many of its governments had their foundations built on Cold War dynamics and the bipolar race for influence and power. As African states inevitably turned away from their former colonial masters, it was natural to look elsewhere for funding and military support. During the Cold War, the two main options were the United States and Russia. Each superpower was interested in establishing influence over Africa, particularly countries with the rich natural resources needed to support industrial activity and advanced weapons programs. Angola, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and many more became embroiled in Cold War proxy conflicts.

Washington and Moscow invested in leaders who held sway over certain resources or territories, paying particular attention to the governments and rebellions fighting for Western or Soviet influence on the continent. Leaders without foreign support were unable to compete in an environment where countries were torn apart by independence movements and ethnic and political battles were especially divisive. Drawing on foreign assistance, strongmen at the helm of single-party systems emerged to rule over numerous African countries. With significant financial backing, those leaders were able to overcome, at least temporarily, the massive domestic divisions that have always encumbered African leaders. And, by default, these new rulers became useful allies to the Cold War powers.

Calling for Accountability

With the end of the Cold War, global interest in Africa waned. Russia, dealing with political turmoil and economic collapse, withdrew inward. The United States and other Western powers, no longer threatened by their Soviet foe, turned to other priorities. In addition, the normalization of defense and foreign aid budgets reduced the amount of foreign money pouring into African nations. There was a cultural shift too: In the 1990s, the global approach to the African continent was very ideological, leading to several U.N. interventions to stabilize African states. The region has since become less fractious, for many different reasons. African populations are more educated now, and advancements in technology and relative economic diversification have improved matters. But this, coupled with a clear generational change, is bad news for many of the governments to emerge immediately after independence. 

African populations are demanding more from their leaders, and not all leaders are prepared to give it.

Western opinions have changed too. Foreign policy has become important to Western voters, who pressure their governments to intervene or at least hold African governments accountable for cases of massive human rights abuses, such as the Rwandan genocide. And commercially, there is a push for better business practices in African countries. Western countries still have very real economic interests in Africa, but they now find themselves more constrained in how they can act on those interests. Foreigners can no longer provide controversial African leaders with blank checks to fund their rule or lend military support to back their governments.

Other countries not as beholden to their populations are stepping in, though. China is one particular example. Beijing managed to make economic and political inroads with most African political leaders, and other Asian powers, including Japan and India, are close behind. This degree of support is nowhere near as extensive as the Cold War backing was, but it is a useful supply of income and resources with few strings attached for many African leaders.

What the West Still Provides

Despite Africa's changing relationship with the West since the end of the Cold War, Western countries are still an important part of Africa's political, economic and security dynamics. Asian powers are reluctant to commit dedicated military power to Africa, and a number of African states still rely on Western military might to combat a variety of threats, including the rise of terrorism. A good example is France's counterterrorism efforts across the Sahel since 2013. Economically, access to Western markets is vital to many African states, even those allied with the Soviets during the Cold War. African nations are trying to diversify their sources of foreign funds, but some have been unable to do so, given the self-imposed limits of Western patronage today. For example, the leaders of Zimbabwe and Sudan have forcefully maintained control over their populations in ways averse to Western public opinion — and therefore to the opinions of policymakers. Authoritarianism comes at a high price: Sanctions regimes and international isolation have haunted these countries and reduced the opportunities for meaningful economic development.

A map showing the influence of France's Operation Barkhane

Abandoning authoritarian practices does not automatically solve the problems facing African countries, though. African nations wanting to maintain access to Western markets and to benefit from U.S. and European security often have to adopt practices that are extremely controversial domestically. Even in countries with fairly cohesive populations and increasingly sophisticated political institutions — such as Ghana, Mauritius, Botswana, Senegal and Namibia — establishing rule that is compatible with Western demands is problematic. Even when advances are made, many times changes are enacted legally but never implemented. Many countries have gone through democratic transitions that require them to officially recognize the importance of human rights only to continue using intimidation tactics and actual force to maintain rule.

When the opposition becomes too powerful, despite legal or extralegal deterrence tactics, some leaders will compromise their hold on power without giving it up completely. For example, when the Zimbabwean government was facing mounting political opposition from former President Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change party, it formed a government of national unity to absorb its opposition. Similarly, Democratic Republic of the Congo President Joseph Kabila recently appointed opposition members to his government following unrest over his decision to postpone elections. Other governments have failed to survive such circumstances. For example, Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo was forced out of office during a French intervention meant to settle a dispute over election outcomes in 2011.

African states are no longer beholden to European metropoles or to Cold War political forces, but they must now navigate a much more complicated international foreign patronage landscape. They have fewer options for external funding, and that funding comes with more strings attached. How African governments manage the constraints imposed on them and the degree to which they succeed is greatly determined by domestic factors, especially economic, ethnic and political dynamics. Overcoming these hurdles is paramount if African countries hope to foster strong and stable economies and political systems.

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