Tuesday, December 25, 2012

(DAILY MAIL ZM) Political culture, imperial presidency in Africa

Political culture, imperial presidency in Africa
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Political culture refers to the attitudes, values and orientations that people have about politics. Because these underlying values and orientations affect how people behave in their political actions, they are important to understand. Indeed it is widely accepted that a country’s political culture is an important determinant of how well its political system functions.

A stable democracy depends upon having not only the proper political institutions but also a democratic culture. This includes for example high levels of interpersonal trust, political interest, and involvement in community and civic organisations, and tolerance of others.

In view of this characterization of political culture, can we conclude that the vast majority of people in sub-Saharan Africa really embrace a democratic political culture? The political landscape of sub-Saharan Africa seems to be dominated by political systems considered to be democratic simply because the ritual of elections is periodically practiced.

However what seems to be missing is democratic political culture. The usual script is about having an election, which, whatever its flaws, is pronounced to have reflected the overall political will of the people.
International observer missions are very good at couching their reports is such complicated double speak, that one is left confused as to whether they have certified an election to have passed international standards

Ritual of Holding Elections without Democratic Political Culture
Side by side the ritual of holding periodic elections; one observes the practice of hero-worshipping the political class or political elite.
This tendency has been brought about by the phenomenon of the imperial presidency in post-colonial Africa. Imperial presidentialism came about because the constitutions of many newly independent African countries simply transferred the immense powers of the colonial governor to the new president.

Legislatures that were meant to check the powers of the imperial presidency played a largely ceremonial role as the real power in Africa’s new republics was concentrated in the ornate state house or palais de la presidence in the case of Francophone countries.

Origins of imperial presidentialism in sub-Saharan Africa Africa’s post-independence experience shows that Africans seem to be inclined to a political culture that enables imperial presidentialism to flourish.
Let us consider the tendency of post independence leaders to acquire messianic titles. Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah was called the Osagyefo or redeemer. Tanzania’s founding president, Julius K. Nyerere was called the Mwalimu or teacher, while Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo) formed his Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution(MPR) Party in 1967, which not only pronounced him to be Patrice Lumumba’s political heir but also constitutionally declared General Mobutu to be the Guide of the Revolution.

In Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda was similarly raised to ‘demigod’ status with the famous cry; KK Wamuyaya. In Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie claimed direct descent from the Solomonic dynasty of the Queen of Sheba, and the constitution of the imperial state of Ethiopia decreed that Selassie was the elect of god.

In Ivory Coast, the founding President, Felix Houphouet Boigney was known as ‘Le Sage de L Áfrique’, or Africa’s wise man. In Malawi, the founding president was known as His Excellency the Life President Dr Hastings ‘Ngwazi’ Kamuzu Banda.

These messianic titles were loudly chanted by adoring crowds, thereby giving African leaders a sense of messianic destiny. The rants and chants of hero-worshippers however misled many African leaders to believe that providence had chosen them to lead their peoples until mortality would end their reign.

Africans also seem to be inclined to accept the political legitimacy of leaders who invoke ancient ethno-cultural symbolism. President Jacob Zuma in South Africa has projected his Zulu tribal origins in his political image, and this has helped him to buttress his political legitimacy among his tribesmen and women. As a Zulu king, he can legitimize his claims to imperial presidentialism. Ivory Coast’s founding President Felix Houphouet Boigney, when asked when he would name his successor in 1989, told his compatriots that it is against African tradition to speculate on who will succeed an African chief when he (chief) is still alive.

Political Culture of Worshipping the African chief

In Zambia, when UNIP lost the elections in 1991, politicians who had been singing praises to Dr Kenneth Kaunda, abandoned the party that attained self rule in Zambia to join the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD).

All of these politicians were tripping over each other to pay homage to Kaunda’s successor late Fredrick Chiluba. President Chiluba, like an African chief set up a discretionary fund to enable him to ‘generously’ give to ordinary people who would have audience with him because, as Mobutu Sese Seko used to say, ‘one cannot have audience with an African chief and leave empty handed’.

Now that the Patriotic Front is in government, we see a re-enactment of the 1991 scenario as former ministers in the MMD government are flocking to join the PF government. The rhetoric they use as they join the PF is eerily reminiscent of the 1990s.

Standard formulations like ‘MMD has lost direction’, ‘President Michael Chilufya Sata is a man of incomparable vision’ and that PF is the only party with a vision for Zambia are often repeated, accompanied by the enthusiastic applause and dance of political cadres.

However, when PF was in opposition, President Sata was a lonely figure who was shunned by MMD and other leaders, out of fear of the imperial MMD Presidency. Today, President Sata is perceived to be an ‘African chief’ by the vast majority of Zambia’s citizenry; he is expected to dispense patronage resources to his supporters and general citizenry.

Thus, Zambia’s political culture in its current form, equates political legitimacy and authority to the volume of patronage resources lavished by the political class to loyal subjects/cadres
Cadres of the ruling party may feel that one cannot be aligned to an African chief without materially benefiting from the Chief’s power and influence, and this may explain why they allegedly give themselves plots of land in flagrant violation of the law, just as those of the MMD did previously.

Ministers and members of Parliament are also considered to be African chiefs and this is why cadres aggressively demand gifts and material favours from them, because of the ‘big man syndrome’ in African politics. Indeed; how can you have audience with your MP and leave empty handed?


The current political culture around imperial presidential power cannot enhance a well functioning multi-party system because it invariably works against the strengthening of institutions of governance.

Opposition political parties are themselves dominated by domineering personalities surrounded by hero-worshippers who rant and chant praises that make the leader feel he is divinely destined to rule.

The pessimistic conclusion I draw is that this ‘political culture of hero-worshipping’ the political class in Zambia is so deeply etched in the national psyche, that it will be very difficult to install a truly democratic political culture regardless of the political party in power.

Dr Mulikita is a commentator on African Politics.

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