To answer the question posed and understand if the study of African politics should be approached differently than the study of politics in the west I believe it is essential to consider them both separately and establish if there any similarities or apparent differences. In order to do this I am going to break this essay down into sections that will enable me to conclude and ultimately answer the question posed. The three sections that I have proposed are; firstly 'Does the study of western political systems help us understand politics in Africa? Secondly, Do we need different concepts and methods to study African politics? And finally, Can the study of African politics tell us about politics in the west? The term the West has, I think two overlapping meanings.
In a general sense, the term refers to the cultural and philosophical inheritance of Europe, which has often been exported through migration or colonialism. The roots of this inheritance lie in the Christian religion and the learning of 'classical' Greece and Rome shaped in the modern period by ideas and values of liberalism. When looking at western political systems it is apparent that what exists is a Polyarcy (literally means rule by the many) and this refers to the institutions and political processes of modern representative democracy. The most important feature of a polyarcy is the existence of regular and competitive elections operating as a device through which the people can control and, if necessary displace their rulers. Thus defined, the term 'Polyarcy' may be used to describe a large growing number of regimes throughout the western world. The West defines itself as democratic, its institutions and conventions are formed on ancient ideals of democracy.
The political decision making body, the state or government, for example is formed by a democratic vote by those people who are citizens within that country. Both the UK and the USA use a system that is known as first past the post to elect its government officials. In comparison Nigeria can be used as an African example of first past the post being used in electing both the House of Representatives and also the Speaker of the House of Representatives. When we study Western politics we start by looking at governments and their institutions and then work our way down and by doing this we can see how all other institutions are formed and why they exist.
Western politics sees government's that are representative of the electorate and they are multiparty states which means that more than one party competes for power, and example of this is the UK where more than one political party exists and the electorate has a choice to vote for any of them. Throughout Western government's certain structures exist, for example each government consists of an executive, a legislature and a separate judiciary. The United States of America has a complete separation of powers meaning that the three powers of government mentioned above are separate and they do not overlap. To talk about western politics in general assumes that most western countries are the same but the UK has a unique system of government in that no separation of the powers exist and there is overlaps between the three powers of government. To study Western politics we essentially just examine the institutions of government, the constitution etc. and how they operate but by applying this to African politics we will learn something but we will inevitably miss an awful lot. The origin of contemporary African politics is based on Western colonial political systems and the two therefore do have similarities.
Because the modern African State has adopted multiparty and democratic forms of government it is a clear indication that the study of the two can generally be approached in a similar manner. The framework that is used in Western politics stands as a basis for comparison as it does provide the foundation of the structure of African Politics but to lump states together and talk of 'African politics' is somewhat misleading because there are important differences between them. William Tordoff puts forward the view that 'There is a wide cultural gap between the North African states and the black African states south of the Sahara. The geographic and demographic differences are also striking as witnessed by the huge Sudan and Zaire on the one hand and the tiny Rwanda, Brunei and Swaziland on the other. There is also an immense divide between stable and prosperous Botswana and states including Angola, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan which are torn apart by civil war and face collapse'. (Government and Politics in Africa, pg 1) Ultimately comparing African political systems to those of the west to form a true basis of understanding will prove to be unsuccessful.
It would be justified to assume that a national political culture and a set of local public institutions in Africa as in the rest of the world. But comparing institutions in the West to those of Africa suggests generalizations and a lack of understanding as to the complexity and difference within the African continent. As outlined above by William Tordoff the continent of Africa proves to have countries with vast differences within its boarders and they should not be collated together as one example or compared to any other example. What I have noted so far is that Western model of politics and government does not provide a basis for understanding African politics.
Firstly where African politics differs greatly to Western style politics is in the nature of ethical, religious and territorial issues that have been evolving for a long period of time and they provide the basis of importance among African States. The study of African politics is unique and in a continent where corruption and weak states exist the ideologies of national self-determination and development provide areas of importance for the African people. The result of this leads me to think that the analysis of African politics must depart from that of Western models of state sovereignty and national authority. A defining principle in Western politics is that the government is accountable to the electorate in several ways and it is the job of that government to carry out the interest of it's electorate. In the event if this does not happen then, in Western style democracies they have the power to remove that government and elect another.
However, over the course of history Africa has proved to be an example where this procedure does not take place. Before the 1990's, many undemocratic one-party systems with poor leadership dominated the continent and proved to be disastrous. It is thought that after independence the multiparty system imposed by Western democracies gave way to the formation of too many regional parties not representing the country as a whole. This in turn led to the establishment of military coups in many African States Nigeria is an example of this; 'In January 1966 the first military coup brought General Irons i, and ibo to power. It destroyed the old political system and killed the north's leading politicians as well as a number of southerners. But no ibo leader died' (African Politics and society, Markowitz, pg. 249) By 1975, approximately half of the continent's states were led by military governments.
This of course has profound implications on the notion of legitimate government, and it is safe to say that these regimes became a very prevalent political phenomenon, which by stark contrast to Africa is an essential feature of Governments in the West. This provides evidence that the systems of government and rule in Africa and the West are at two different poles of the same spectrum and they therefore need to be approached differently to encompass the different ideological and cultural backgrounds of the two. In the study of Western politics we tend to look at the formation of the government and it's institutions and by doing so we are able to grasp a sound understanding of it. In contrast however, if we do the same when studying African politics we will essentially miss an awful lot. To fully understand the study of African politics it is essential to look at ethnicity, religion and nationalism to fully understand what it is about. This is where I will answer the second question posed in my introduction about if we need different concepts and methods to study African politics.
I feel that we do not need different concepts or methods to study African politics but that we should approach it from a different perspective. African politics is much more localised in nature and ethnicity is a central theme now more than ever to many African states. This has happened because since the 1990's and the re-emergence of multiparty elections, many overtly ethnic political parties have been formed. Ethnic politics in the 1990's is not the same as ethnic politics in the 1960's, in a sense there is a new ethnicity in Africa today. In African states because they are so vast and interests tend to be localised individuals associate themselves with tribes. A tribe is 'A culturally, linguistically, politically homogenous unit, united under a single leader with deep primo doral roots' (Seminar notes 19th Feb 2003).
African politics can be described as tribalistic in nature and tribalism continues to be a key variable of African politics. African's are seen as tribalistic because they belonged to natural groups, but since their groups are considered more primitive, they are thought not as nations but as 'tribes'. In comparison western political systems such as Europe are viewed in terms of nations as they are identified by their country such as French etc. as opposed to their local community which is the case in Africa. In Africa, a combination of socio-economic change, anthropological studies, and deliberate attempts by the colonial authorities to establish a workable administrative framework caused Africans to move beyond narrower identification with lineage or a clan to see themselves as members of large and newly invented tribes. Politically, most African countries had been unable to develop systems that maintained stability while respecting the rights of the citizens and giving them a measure of protection against arbitrary acts by their leaders.
Single party systems and charismatic leaders had long since gone. Many countries were caught in endless cycles of military coups and half-heartened attempts to return to civilian rule. The result of the combined political and economic crisis was that there was very little reason for most Africans to feel an attachment to their governments or even their states. Since the 1990's their has been a revival of 'ethnicity' among African states which has allowed for ethnic conflict to become more visible along with the development of ethnic political parties, the emergence of the ethnic state organized along ethnic lines and the collapse of the state. This provides a stark contrast to the Western model whereby ethnicity plays a secondary role in the formation of governments, as people tend to look to a more national basis for identification as opposed to a regional one. Religion in Africa also plays a vital role, and this can also be used as a tool to allow us to understand African politics.
Throughout African history religion and politics have overlapped but in Western countries there is typically a separation between the church and the state with religion largely relegated to the private sphere. Religion like politics is concerned with power and the two have been linked over time, in Africa they believe that an invisible world underlies the visible world and many of them consult witchdoctors whom they believe are intermediates between the visible and invisible world. In Africa witchcraft is often used by ordinary people but it is also used by leaders and many African presidents turn to the a cult to keep themselves in power as they are enormously superstitious and believe by doing so they will be guarded from evil. To understand African politics the world of religion and the supernatural need to be taken very seriously, however in the West nowadays it would be dismissed as just stupidity. Soweto is an example of an African state that indulges in supernatural activity. Since transition in 1994 their has been a decrease in political activity but a huge increase in witchcraft haunts.
It seems that now with apartheid gone people are at a loss for explaining their misfortune and therefore blame others. Due to the decline of the state among many African states ordinary people have now turned to other religions in order to fill this gap. It seems that religion in Africa offers a hope for political renewal in a continent where secular state structures have failed to acquire widespread legitimacy. In response to the third question posed in my introduction I believe it is now clear that the study of African politics cannot tell us about politics in the west. I believe this because although the ingredients are the same between the two the methods that are used in African politics are very diverse from those used in the west. Concepts that are of a secondary nature in the west such as religion and witchcraft provide sound foundation in African politics for the basis of political co-operation.
So it is clear now that although African politics did originate from the west and does have some apparent similarities it is also extremely different. In conclusion to the question posed I feel that the study of African politics should be approached very differently to that in the West. I feel that In this essay I have outlined some of the important points that distinguish African politics from that in the West. African politics needs to be approached differently because it is not just based on concepts of government, sovereignty, constitution etc. but rather is based around religion the supernatural and ethnicity.
The concepts that are used in African politics may be interpreted differently than they are in the west but they are not essentially different concepts. The key to approaching the study of African politics is to use different methods than the ones to understand Western politics, in essence a more anthropological approach is needed to understand African politics than is required to understand Western politics.