Democracy with Adjectives from an African Perspective

Democracy with Adjectives from an African Perspective

Democracy as a multi-concept approach explores various democracy patterns that accords significant comparative evaluation as opposed to a monolithic single concept. One may argue that authoritarianism concepts manifested with the second democratisation wave of decolonisation saw African leaders model the reclaimed states in-line with the already rooted colonial systems. Most states adopted systems with competitive political parties, constitutional democracy and universal suffrage with African leaders embracing self-government which democratically derived support of the people but was difficult to equate to personal freedom. The quest to determine how mass parties, political parties, competitive and national parties can be coined and survive in conditions of violence, mass scarcity, balkanisation, neo-imperialism, corruption and ethnicity remains an African dilemma.

African governance from a neo-patrimonial lens posits a form of centralised governance build upon a relationship between the people and leadership that is sustained on patronage, gift-giving and personal ties. Lack of a distinctive separation in the private and public sphere thus results in politics personalization. Max Weber in the Concept of Patrimonialism asserted that patrimonial traditions were grounded in religion, fatalism and belief. However, protestantism stressed one’s salvation and work shaping the ethics of capitalism as part of effecting a systematic rational re-organising moral life (Holton, 1985) which is a contrast to the African set-up. Schumpeter in the Theory of Democracy fails to address election manipulation thereby unveiling how elections lack a democratic regime rooting (Mitchell, 1984, p. 162) especially where political godfathers and dynasties control the system. Although Huntington in the Clash of Civilizationssuggested that democracy moves in waves (Kurzman, 1998, p. 42), the slide to dictatorship or revolution as witnessed in Libya is less convincing. The pre-occupation of decoding the nature of prolonged conflict and the persistence of poverty in places like Somalia and Congo equally arises. Ethnic fighting in South Sudan and Kenya rises concerns about the effects and effectiveness of elections and even about democratic politics in general.

The Cold War repercussion of increased intra-state warfare and the 1994 Rwandan genocide have re-shaped the neo-patrimonial position. Some scholars argue that the lack of democracy in Africa is bred by cultural, religious, economic and historical factors that become fixated on dictatorship and centralised clientelistic governance (Pitcher, Moran & Johnston, 2009). The political sphere in a state of competitive authority has paved the way for war-lordism (Somalia), hybridism (Tanzania, Kenya, Liberia, Zambia, Benin, Mali), hegemonic (Uganda, Congo, South Sudan), authoritarian multi-party (Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Ghana, Uganda, Mali, Lesotho, Rwanda, Niger) and quasi-democratic (Zimbabwe, Malawi, Nigeria) governments. Not only are government structures unstable in Africa, they also compete with other hierarchies of power such as religious institutions and clans. Therefore, the state’s contested nature and international inception of democracy abounded to avert the Rwandan situation becomes incompatible.

Elasticity of contemporary democratic wave suggests that authoritarian forms of multi-party electoral competition have increased with the third wave as compared to democratic ones. An analytical framework on a blended authoritarianism and democracy results to a push towards multi-party electoral competition which is a matter of extracting authoritarian elements of the domestic system while charging up electoral competition. Democracy in Africa considers democratic transitions against the standards of liberal-democracy and multipartism. As a failing concept that needs to be streamlined by transitioning states from authoritarian regimes towards democratic ones, it propels liberal democracy despite the prerequisite gap of security.

The hybrid or semi-authoritarian regimes as manifested across Africa are attributed to violence and patronage coupled with ineffective democratic institutions and thwarting among the civil society. Thus, where generalised coalition governments are at play, authoritarianism is inevitable since the need to hold onto power trumps other considerations.


Politicization {Ethnicity + Identity + Religion} ———-> Democratization Constraints.


African leaders habitually embrace politics governed by clientelism even where the rhetoric of the government is nationalistic. Therefore, the focus should shift from changing neo-patrimonialism to establishing an equilibrium where complexities brought forth by traditional and modern aspects of government are handled. The introduction of political parties has ushered in retraditionalised states rather than modernized. Political competition has resulted in an escalated frantic outcome where patrimonial majority secures votes. Thus, the concept of good governance cannot be equated to modernisation since loyalties inclined on the community do not recognize the modern transitional development. Protracted warfare due to the failure of government structures in accommodating domestic forces challenges incorporation into a central state as witnessed in the cases of Liberia, Somalia and Sierra Leone. However, this analogy suits ethnic warfare which continues to ripen due to the need of building domestic state structures upon existing realities and beliefs of the people.

Colonial ethnic legacies that allowed political party development, for instance, in Rwanda and Burundi with the Tutsi leadership can be linked directly with ethnicity. As a breeding ground for ethnicity, it fuels the quest for political power and mobilization of people on the basis of culture, language and territory. Formation of political parties aimed at modernising political participation in post-independence Africa was founded on a conscious connection to an ethnic group. Racial ideological approach thus pervaded colonial structures of the state. People’s relation to ethnicity guaranteed some form of security after evacuation of the colonial masters rather than have a politico-cultural bearing. However, ethnicity has become an ingredient in African politics where political parties are coined as an expression of identity crisis.

Sartori’s typology employed in sub-Saharan states focuses on the level of fragmentation and comparing non-democratic, multi-party and democratic multi-party systems (Nwokora & Pelizzo, 2017). Where a system has a high level of fragmentation, the multi-party system is undesirable and might steer up violence. The ruling party stretches its control over elections and multi-party democracy and becomes equated to elite democracy or elective dictatorship. Elite democracy is thus built upon reluctant non-elective dictatorship that eclipse wealth affluent, external donors and financial organisations.

Typologies of governance derived from Western experiences of government are a reflection of what African democracies will eventually evolve into. Blending of concepts has therefore generated a proliferation of new ‘adjectives’ to define democracy in Africa. However, they have not necessarily addressed complications with good governance or shifting donor-support towards democratic state-building.

Majoritarianism inherent in the multi-party system is intractable coined into the ethnic make-up of African states. Political centripetal instability force in Africa is influenced by diverse ethnic grouping. These groups have found themselves either a majority in the ethnic composition but a minority in the political field or a minority in both population and political realm thereby denying them annexation of power. Frustrations and disaffections with their disruptive consequences for the polity are a foreseen outcome (violence in waiting) especially after election.

The emerging expression of democracy since independence has been complicated by the one model presentation of Western democracy and modernisation of the African electorate. Therefore, the rather simplistic governance impression in most states is somewhere between dictatorship or multi-party democracy. However, bona fide grass-roots democracy across Africa is not created by or even associated with the state. If one believes “the worse, the better” one may embrace tenacity in pursuit of structural adjustments, for the political upsurge stifling associated with it spawns democracy movement in Africa.

African consensus-style democracy is back tracked to the pre-colonial “communocracy” system where governance was cemented in the Ubuntu communal pan-African philosophy. This clearly stipulates that the alleged lack of democratic traditions is a misconception. Efforts to implement democracy in Africa should factor the role of indigenous democratic systems and institutions in the states’ political systems where this type of authentic connection to governance structures is the only basis for democratic legitimacy.



Multi-party politics is elite oriented and neither necessarily representative democracy nor a polar opposite of dictatorship. The biggest hurdle of moving a hybrid regime to a multi-party democracy is the power bestowed on the executive arm. It is of essence to know when to say a liberator has conformed to dictatorship and how long is too long to rule, especially in phases of crucial political developments; or a shift from the attached democratic system to a hegemonic party system.

International development policy framework has bred inconsistency as witnessed with the mushrooming of neocolonialism by donors. Contradictions in multi-party governance in Africa have led people to vote less even as their countries’ constitutions become more liberal and democratic and at the same time, tribal loyalties have been cemented in recent decades. Positions challenging the status quo have set the stage for the debate over multi-party democracy on the continent thereby showcasing the international trends that affect African nations as they attempt to structure their own political systems.



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Holton, R. J. (1985). Max Weber, the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In: The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism. New Studies in Sociology. Palgrave, London 4, 103-124.

Kurzman, C. (1998). Waves of Democratization. Studies in Comparative International Development 33, 42–64.

Mitchell, W. C. (1984). Schumpeter and public choice, Part II Democracy and the demise of capitalism: The missing chapter in Schumpeter. Public Choice 42, 161–174.

Nwokora, Z. and Pelizzo, R. (2017). Measuring Party System Change: A Systems Perspective. 66(1), 100–118.

Pitcher, A., Moran, M. and Johnston, M. (2009). ‘Rethinking Patrimonialism and Neopatrimonialism in Africa’, African Studies Review. Cambridge University Press. Volume 52, Number 1, 125–156.

Marion Esm’eralda is a final year Masters student pursuing Political Analysis and Public Policy at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. With her major being public policy, her focus based on her internship and thesis has been on anti-corruption policy. Prior to this, Marion graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in International Diplomacy and Disaster Management where she specialized in peace and conflict studies. During and after her bachelors programme, she partnered and volunteered with various organizations like the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) and the Red Cross Society. She has also been part of girl child initiatives and non-communicable diseases campaigns.