NEPAD Ignores the Fundamental Politics of Africa

By Taylor, Ian | Contemporary Review, July 2004 | Go to article overview

NEPAD Ignores the Fundamental Politics of Africa


Taylor, Ian, Contemporary Review


IT is now well over two years since the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) was launched in Abuja, Nigeria and perhaps time to review the progress that this project for supporting development in Africa has made (see Contemporary Review, June 2002 and May 2003). Stripped to its bare bones, NEPAD is a 'partnership' with the developed world whereby African countries will set up and police standards of good government across the continent--whilst respecting human rights and advancing democracy--in return for increased aid flows, private investment, and a lowering of obstacles to trade by the West.

An extra inflow of US$64 billion from the developed world has been touted as the 'reward' for following approved policies on governance and economics.

Sadly, little concrete progress can be discerned, although plenty of meetings, summits, pronouncements, and speeches have marked NEPAD thus far. Why this is so is largely because of the very nature of post-colonial African politics. This is a controversial point and one that foreign governments certainly overlook. Indeed, most commentaries ignore the reality that power in African politics must be generally understood as the utilization of patronage and not as the performance of legitimacy drawn from the sovereign will of the people. In other words, in spite of the facade of the modern state, power in most African polities progresses informally, between patron and client along lines of reciprocity. It is intensely personalized and is not exercised on behalf of the public good. Zimbabwe is a good example of this, but most other African countries broadly follow this pattern, including NEPAD stalwarts such as Nigeria, Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, etc. Very few countries (Botswana being a prime example) have avoided such a state of affairs.

In a traditional patrimonial system, all ruling relationships are personal relationships and the difference between the private and public spheres is nonexistent. Under a neo-patrimonial system the separation of the public from the private is recognized (even if in practice only on paper) and is certainly publicly displayed through outward manifestations of the rational-bureaucratic state: a currency, a flag, borders, a 'government', and even bureaucratic offices etc.

However, in practical terms the private and public spheres are habitually not detached and the outward signs of statehood are often facades hiding the real workings of the system. Consider the fate of Air Zimbabwe and Harrods shopping sprees by Mugabe as a good example; perhaps an extreme example but indicative of a broader trend, which varies across the continent.

Clientelism is central to neo-patrimonialism, with widespread networks of clients receiving services and resources in return for support. This relationship may be likened at the highest (presidential) level to that of a father and his children whereby political legitimacy rests on the idea that government stands in the same relationship to its citizens as a father does to his children. Essentially, the father serves as the nurturer, teacher, and most importantly, provider to the nation and in return he receives love and support from his children. It is when he can no longer perform this function that the system starts to fall apart. Crucially, resources extracted from the state are deployed as the means to maintain support and legitimacy in this system, with the effect that the control of the state is equivalent to the control of resources, which in turn is crucial for remaining a Big Man.

That is what lies at the heart of the profound reluctance by African presidents to hand over power voluntarily and why almost all African regimes end in controversial circumstances. In most cases the democratic option is either absent or is not respected by the loser; the stakes simply are too high, as once one is out of the loop regarding access to state resources, the continuation of one's status as a Big Man becomes virtually impossible. …

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