The problems of post-colonial politics

238And isn’t that alliteration just delicious!

This post is going to attempt to very generally cover the issues of politics in the post-colonial state, and won’t focus on any one nation in particular. It will attempt to tackle the question of whether these issues are legacies of colonialism, and whether or not they could have been avoided in the post-colonial period.

Some historical generalisations: the political state of Africa post-1960

With very few exceptions, the states that now comprise Africa are new states, having only achieved independence from colonial rule in the 1960s. Talking about their political history in a general way is obviously highly problematic (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: they’re repeat after me not homogeneous); and applying theories of political science to them is a challenge because polsci theories were created for Western states, for norms and trends which simply do not apply in Africa.

Despite the inherent differences between African nations, their politics had many common factors in the lead-up to independence. The most obvious of these factors is that they were now mostly all ex-colonial, and therefore searching for new identities as nation-states. Colonial rule had made up only a tiny part of their history, but had alleviated much knowledge of the pre-colonial period. These states were mostly very poor, and had to meld together a variety of peoples from different backgrounds, negotiating tribalism and difference in order to create a coherent state.

In the majority of post-colonial African nation-states, the extension of the universal franchise occurred at the point of independence, meaning that there was an enfranchised working class in the cities, many of whom were suffering in shanty towns and were unemployed. The problems this caused for new leaders were obviously numerous. In most cases, political parties had only been created post-1945, and so there was not a strong history of political engagement anyway. The idea of democracy was undermined further in many of these states by the very fact that for a democracy to function, a degree of education among the populous is assumed.

The lack of state institutions was also a problem, given the fact that the majority of African states suffered from a weak private sector which placed more pressure on the state. The gap between the elites and the masses was therefore widened significantly, and the propensity of post-colonial states towards cultures of corruption is understandable.

One of the most obvious trends in 1960s Africa was away from political pluralism and towards the one-party state. However, it’s fairly evident that there were vast differences in the variants of one-party rule which came about, and it is also true that military coups intervened to prevent this in many cases. Often, the lack of previous party politics created a cult of personality around a leader who often consolidated power in to his hands alone. Tordoff has made quips about the “divine right of Presidents” – but in the right hands, this was not always a bad thing. The cases of Nkrumah and Nyerere are evident polar opposites in those terms, although Nyerere enacted a lot of authoritarian legislation which was very similar to Nkrumah’s more totalitarian policies.However, Nyerere understood the need to maintain popular support in a way that Nkrumah appears not to have.

Much of post-colonial Africa claimed some link to socialism, although the ways in which this was practised across the continent was very different. Few African socialists claimed any affinity to Marxism, but by the mid-1960s, much of the continent was practising some degree of economic socialism, through state-controlled industry.

There was a quite obvious post-colonial trend towards military rule and coups d’etat. Civilian governments, when they became too dictatorial, were often supplanted by the military, who claimed to be filling the role of a guardian of the national interest, who intervened to save the country from corruption. This was the claim made in Ghana in 1966. However, some coups were because of the army attempting to safe-guard itself against a rival force which may have been created by the President to serve him alone, as occurred in Uganda. The Nigerian example is different again: in 1966, the army stepped in with the legitimate political aim of ending the country’s widespread regionalism.

The introduction of Structural Adjustment policies (SAPs) in the 1980s largely liberalised both economics and politics, although these policies were by no means as successful as some might have claimed. It was, for the most part, only from this period onwards that the West became remotely concerned about the lack of democracy across Africa, and as such SAPs often included political clauses.

African democracy: so, what went wrong?

There were innumerable factors which prevented African democracy from working efficiently in the post-colonial period. One of the most obvious is ethnic division within nations, which led to voting along tribal lines, and divided the basic structure of the nation-state. The lack of economic development also hindered democracy, as it left Africa open to Western involvement and neo-colonialism, as well as leading to excessive state intervention in economies.

The problem of internally-focussed militaries is something I feel like needs more than just a cursory mention. In the colonial period, the military was primarily a defensive force, used to put down internal rebellions and act as a kind of police force. This continued in the post-colonial era, given the 1963 decision to maintain colonial borders, and often led to coups or excessive political involvement in the military, as armies felt useless and began to create problems in order to maintain their positions. Many African nations also face problems from war-lord politics, with Joseph Kony in Uganda perhaps being the most famous of these. The instability this kind of problem creates has forced government to move away from democracy in order to secure their states and maintain their positions.

This problem is linked to the issue of corrupt ruling elites, and self-interested dictators. I feel like this requires little analysis here, and that most of my readers will feel patronised if I bother explaining this aspect to them. The fact that elites often stepped in to the shoes of colonial rulers is one cause of this: the ways in which colonial rulers worked was not conducive to any real degree of democracy.

There is also a case to be put for democracy being a Western imposition that was never going to fully function in Africa. I have struggled to get my head around this idea, because the alternatives don’t seem to offer much in the way of a better future for Africans, but my liberal lefty soft-heartedness means that I am inclined to think that most things are Western impositions, and that Africa might have been better left alone from the beginning, y’know? Obviously, writing this in my exam is not going to help me, but it’s just the way I see it.

There are two political science theories which work well in relation to the above point, and question the notion that modernisation is also a Western imposition. Modernisation theory states that Africa needs more Western-style ideas and infrastructure in order to succeed effectively, in terms of economics, social issues, and politics. If the nation-state is the pinnacle of democracy, then linear modernisation in Western style is necessary. This theory could also be seen (by people like me) as making the best of a bad situation.

Development theory, on the other hand, states that Africa needs to be allowed to develop its own structures. There is, after all, an arrogance about the situation of the West, and China is currently proving us all wrong by going its own way: surely there are other successful models for development available to us?

Of course, following Western models blindly – as many post-colonial African leaders did – almost makes the repercussions inevitable. Things were always going to go wrong when not even the leaders understood the situation – let alone the ordinary person.

The fact of the matter is that economics is intrinsic to post-colonial African political systems in a way that it isn’t in much of the rest of the world. This is largely because of the extent of state intervention and dependency, as well as the extreme poverty of many of the countries in question. One of the selling points of nationalism, after all, was a decrease in poverty levels.

I interrupt this broadcast to inform you that there are freaking hailstones falling from the sky. In May. Late May. It is almost summer. Get it together, United Kingdom. Thank you.

So, are these problems legacies of colonialism?

In a word, yes. I think so.

Africa faced many of its political problems post-independence because of the fact that mass politics had been suppressed for so long: people did not understand political institutions, and the very workings of indirect rule had made them identify far more strongly with their communities and tribes than with any national project. The ways that these political parties were forced to work under the colonial project forced the cult of personality on to them; and the insecurity of post-independence ruling parties led leaders to enact totalitarian legislation in order to secure their positions. If the colonial governments had been more willing to allow Africans to express their grievances through legitimate political manners, the concept of mass politics would not have been so alien, and the workings of democracy would have been better practised and understood.

Many states also suffered because of policies of Africanisation. These were almost essential to the maintenance of a secure position among new African parties: keeping Europeans in the civil service and the professions, although it might have been a more strategically good plan in the long-term, would have caused uproar among newly independent peoples, and have left leaders open to accusations of neocolonialism. The fact that the colonial governments often out-right refused to allow Africans in the civil service, or to train and doctors or lawyers (etc) meant that the post-colonial state was left with senior positions to fill and no one well enough trained to fill them adequately. The impact of this upon post-colonial Africa cannot be underestimated.

Africa’s economic problems in the post-colonial era are also heavily linked to the policies of European colonial rulers. Monocropping and the problems it brought with it were a common complaint; as was the total lack of infrastructure.

African nations, when they became independent, were left struggling. The colonial governments could, realistically, have done a lot before the coming of independence to help the developing states of Africa to be in considerably better positions when independence arrived. But, as so many commentators have suggested, no one saw independence coming – least of all the new leaders.

Controversial opinion: colonising people is bad. I am not suggesting that Africa would be in a better position now if it hadn’t been colonised… but I am saying that it would be in a more African position, and would have found its own path towards modernity.

With love from your friendly neighbourhood lefty. xx

If you would like to know my sources, leave a comment. :)

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15 thoughts on “The problems of post-colonial politics

  1. Pingback: (African) Debt Crisis 101 | African History Blog

  2. Hey i found your information really helpful, but i need the sources so that i can use the info for my assignment

  3. I have a paper that is due and I can write pages just on your blog. If you do not mind sending me your sources so the teacher would not think that I was cheating. Thank you so much

  4. Thank you for providing relevant and good information about History. At the same time, I wonder WHY an “african history” blog uses animals pictures as illustration. I can’t find the link between Animals and History of Africa. Would please explain this to your readers?
    Many Thanks.

    • Thanks for your comment – I’m glad you like my blog.

      The reason for the image is mostly that I set this blog up in a hurry, without much thought for design: it was to help me revise for my exams and I didn’t really care what it looked like. The animals were cute and traditionally associated with Africa, so there we go.

      • It might be time to change it. Don’t you think. The animals are cute indeed but we all know that the association (“traditional” only for the west because constructed by them) Animals – Africa is definitely a negative and bad one.

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