Joe Trapido: Elections, politics, and power in central and southern Africa

The conference “Elections in central and southern Africa, dynamics of exclusion and participation,” at SOAS on 26 June 2015, prompts me to some personal reflections. Elections in central and southern Africa are marked by a paradoxical dynamic of participation and exclusion. Ostensible rituals of mass participation and of legitimation by civil power, electoral processes in the countries of the region have often made recourse to forms of exclusionary violence during campaigns. This is not, of course, unique—elections in Africa should not be seen as sui generis events. This exclusionary dynamic is well understood as a regional variant on a wider theme.

Elections everywhere mark a liminal moment for political classes, an unpredictable space, betwixt and between investiture. There is no doubt that such unpredictability holds dangers for elites and possibilities for subaltern groups. But at the same time, as with many other rituals of power, elections are most often techniques for containing this danger. Indeed, for elite theories of democracy (the classic example being Schumpeter [1943] 1983)—which, I would argue, also express the private wisdom of political classes in most parts of the world—this comes close to being the point of elections: the use of mass participation in electoral rituals to legitimate the subsequent exclusion of the demos from the political process.

In the contemporary Anglosphere, for example, first-past-the-post systems, which give large majorities to parties with well under half the popular vote and have purposefully unrepresentative second chambers like the Senate or the House of the Lords,1 have almost always been sufficient to put an effective block on the brief coalitions of popular classes. Indeed, first-past-the-post is one of the most effective solutions to the “problem” of democracy for elites, and it underlines how stable and successful such systems can be at containing popular demands. It is surely no accident that this is the system employed by the most important electoral polities in the world—India and the United States—both of which combine exuberant electoral rituals with extraordinary levels of repression and inequality.

So elections in central and southern Africa are not unique in using mass participation as a mechanism of elite power, but they are a particular and revealing variety of electoral politics. For example, many of those who play an active role in electoral campaigns—most especially young men and women from the lowest socioeconomic groups—are invariably those who are most excluded by governments brought to power by such campaigns. At the same time, one of the primary advantages of elections for elites in other parts of the world—the capacity to manage the rotation of personnel in a way that obviates the need for intra-ruling class violence—is also weaker here than almost anywhere else. In extreme cases, candidates resort to what Bazenguissa-Ganga describes as the “electoral war” (2015).

As he points out, in the Athenian conception of democracy, office holders were chosen by lot, with luck and the arbitrary obtaining a kind of legitimating role in sorting candidates. Bazenguissa-Ganga (2015) argues that a similar spirit helps us to understand the election of the leader in Congo-Brazzaville. In this context, election has become a necessary but not sufficient condition of victory. An important context to this is that multiparty elections were new in Congo-Brazzaville in the 1990s, and they arrived on the scene after the holding of a “sovereign national conference.” This kind of process was a familiar accompaniment to the demise of the party state in many parts of Francophone Africa in the 1990s.

In the aftermath of several elections in Congo-Brazzaville in the 1990s, youth militias—“cobras,” “ninjas,” and “zoulous, ” grouped behind the three main national leaders Denis Sassou Nguesso, Bernard Kolelas, and Pascal Lissouba—went to war. Victory in the “electoral war” then became a sign of the blessing of the universe—as Bazenguissa-Ganga pointed out, drawing on Clausewitz, war is the zone of the uncertain par excellence, where luck, and the leader’s ability to ride his luck, is central. Thus, Sassou Nguesso, who achieved very poor scores in elections during the 1990s and arrived in power during the electoral war of 1997 only after securing the military support of the regional hegemon Angola, was subsequently really elected in 2002 by a large margin. His hunger for power, manifested by his willingness to plunge the country into bloodshed, and his actual victory in this bloodshed, seemingly confirmed for the despairing electorate that the mandate of heaven was bestowed upon “Papa Nguesso.”

President of Republic of Congo Addresses General Assembly
Denis Sassou Nguesso, President of the Republic of the Congo (Photo by UN Photo/Marco Castro, via Flickr, 2009)

Taxonomies of politics in the region
A notable political contrast in the region is between states where the party is a vital political force and where it is not. Much of the reason for this is, no doubt, to be found in the history of decolonization. In most of francophone central Africa, hurried independence settlements led to recently formed political entities inheriting the state, generally with a strong degree of neocolonial co-optation and manipulation. Such co-optation came above all from France, which kept garrisons throughout the region and frequently intervened to support leaders congenial to the west. The decline in state revenues, which reached crisis proportions in much of Africa in the 1990s, driven by capital flight and the austerity of structural adjustment, was here marked by the decline of parties—such as Zaire’s Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR) or Congo-Brazzaville’s Congolese Party of Labor (PCT)—that had never really existed outside of the state. The PCT persisted, and the MPR was replaced by the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD—another party, like the MPR, formed in office by groups already in power), but both formations are now little more than vehicles for powerful leaders. Even in the case of parties with a longer pedigree and a history of mass membership, like the Unified Lumumbist Party (PALU) or the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), it is hard to see these formations surviving the death of their aged leaders.

In contrast to this in southern Africa and some other states, strong, quasi-Leninist parties emerged—the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF). These remained strong despite often plunging economic fortunes and the end of Cold War clientship. The most intuitively plausible reason for this difference is that these parties were hardened in the fire of adversity long before they took power. Unlike in much of central Africa, in southern Africa strong resistance to national liberation by settlers, colonial powers, or ethnic oppositions (bankrolled and armed by the USA and Apartheid South Africa) delayed independence and enforced certain imperatives around party discipline. A somewhat adapted version of this story also holds true for other places where “the party” is a powerful force. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), for example, held its shape through many years fighting the French-backed regime in Kigali, and something similar could be said of regimes in Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Individuals are still important, and much “party” behavior can be understood in terms of intra-ruling-class rivalries, but party structures are a more important vehicle for individual progression in these “strong party” states. It would probably be wrong to over-extrapolate the consequences of this for the polity—everywhere the ruling class is engaged in the most phenomenal looting machine (see Burgis 2015), which, in collaboration with financial capital, undermines capital development. In both regions, recent high growth rates appear to reflect the vagaries of commodity prices more than any broad-based development.

But this difference with regard to parties does have a serious effect on the way elections are conducted and the kinds of ideologies that are deployed. As elsewhere, paradoxical notions of debt are central to the kinds of ideological claim being made, but there is a clear divide between “strong party” and “weak party” states. In the weak party states of central Africa, the notion of debt is heavily concentrated on the person, or even the body of the leader. Ideologies center on the leader as the distributor of goods or as a maintainer of peace. Both of these notions of debt are paradoxical—distribution relies on theft of the commonweal, within a context where most of this theft is moved offshore. Likewise, the claim of being a peacemaker is grounded in the leader’s own capacity to bring about war if he does not accede to power. It is not by accident that many leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are referred to as “fireman-pyromaniacs.”

Such tendencies are not absent in the strong party states, but they are supplemented by important ideologies relating to political liberation. Thus, in the strong party states, frequent recourse is made to the notion of a “struggle debt,” particularly at election time. The premise behind this is that the people “owe” the party for their liberation. Rather like original sin, this debt can never be redeemed, only forgiven through the grace of the party. Outside of South Africa—where, despite the very real deficiencies of the African National Congress (ANC), the rhetoric of liberation does have some developmental content—it is doubtful that such ideologies of struggle debt any longer exert much hold on wider populations. Where they are still immensely significant is as a galvanizing ideology within the ruling party—though as several scholars at the conference pointed out (Dr. Sumich in particular), the force of such party narratives, even for cadres, may be waning.

Populist politics and opposition
A surprising absence in much of the region is a counter-narrative articulated around economic populism. There are many opposition groups, many of which are extremely courageous. A fair number of these oppositions have probably also won the popular vote on at least one occasion and were only denied power via violence and widespread fraud—the Move for Democratic Change (MDC) in Zimbabwe, or, more speculatively, the UDPS in the DRC being the most prominent examples. Yet even these rather large opposition movements have made the main ideological plank of their opposition alternation of power and a move away from autocratic rule. While the public is not indifferent to such claims, one suspects that forms of economic populism would resonate more deeply with popular concerns and ideologies. When such a strategy was tried at an election—by Sata in Zambia—it was extremely successful (Larmer and Fraser 2007), though Sata’s populist program was not really pursued in office. Another significant caveat to this is that Zambia’s rather gentle political culture is something of an aberration in the region.

Trapido - Katumbi
Moise Katumbi, Governor of Katanga (Photo by Kaukab Jhumra Smith/USAID, via Flickr, 2015)

Looking immediately north of Zambia, to the Katanga region of the DRC, it is not difficult to imagine the hugely wealthy governor of the province, Moise Katumbi, “doing a Thaksin” (i.e., striking a bargain with the little people over the heads of rival elites). For the moment however, his (ever more overt) posturing to be the next DRC president seems more directed toward reassuring international capital.2 Given the history of violent interference by outsiders in the DRC, this is perhaps not surprising—and for the moment, the petit peuple have nowhere else to go.

Joseph Trapido did his doctorate at University College London. He has taught at the University of Pretoria and the School for Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He currently teaches at Birkbeck College in London.

1. Both institutions were explicitly intended from the outset to put a brake on the demands of the “mob” (see Ackerman 2011 and Watkins 2004). The appointed European Commission fulfils a somewhat similar role at the level of Europe.

2. This has won him a series of hagiographic tributes in the Financial Times, and the newspaper seems curiously uncurious about his “colourful” backstory or the genocidal tendencies of some in his entourage.

Ackerman, Seth. 2011. Burn the Constitution: The pitfalls of constitutionalism. Jacobin magazine, issue 2.

Bazenguissa-Ganga, Remy. 2015. “Guerres electorales” et mobilisations violentes au Congo Brazzaville. In Kadye Talle, Marie-Emanuelle Pomerolle, and Michel Cahen, eds., Collective mobilisations in Africa. Leiden and New York: Brill.

Burgis, Tom. 2015. The looting machine, warlords, tycoons, smugglers and the systematic theft of Africa’s wealth. London: Collins

Larmer, Miles, and Alastair Fraser. 2007. Of cabbages and King Cobra: Populist politics and Zambia’s 2006 election. African Affairs 106(425): 611–637.

Schumpeter, Joseph. [1943] 1983. Capitalism, socialism and democracy. Unwin: London.

Watkins, Susan. 2004. A weightless hegemony: New Labour’s role in the neoliberal order. New Left Review 25: 6–33.

Cite as:
Trapido, Joe. 2015. “Elections, politics, and power in central and southern Africa,” FocaalBlog, 2 September,