When Does Patrimonial Politics Reach its Peak?By Paul Mensah // Monday, March 17, 2014
African countries, generally and historically speaking, have a track record of weak performance on all fronts of development. Many African countries are now poorer than they were at independence. The continent is often described in and associated with negative terms like conflict, corruption, poverty, and disease. Many are often referred to as ‘failed’ states. In response to the many development challenges facing the continent, international development partners, notably the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the African Development Bank, have proffered several reforms on the continent. Programs such as economic liberalization, democratization, decentralization, and public sector reorganization have been implemented, yet overall, recent assessment reports (e.g. The World Bank and The African Development Bank) have recorded mixed results.
Several hypotheses have been provided to address the African development predicament: bad leadership, corruption, conflict, over centralization of administration, patrimonial and clientele politics, and overarching powers of government.
In this piece, I seek to run a commentary on the arguments related to patron-client relations posited by analysts as being the catalyst for state formation. I do not intend to light a perpetual flame of debate on patron-client relationships. Neither do I want to rekindle old debates on the merits and demerits of such informal structures in state-building. Nonetheless, I ask the question, at what stage of state-building and democratization process should informal structures, also understood as patron-client politics, give way to formal, legal, rational/liberal institutions of democratic governance? I will then query the “lifespan” of patron-client relations in state democratization and development process.
Informal Structures as a Catalyst for State-building
Early scholars on state-building, as well as contemporary political thinkers, recognize informal structures as the catalyst for state formation. Analysts argue that efforts toward state-building were made easier with the creation of reciprocal bounds with existing and potential adversaries by the inducement of a stake in the success in the emerging state apparatus. These arguments bolster state formation as an expeditious process in instances where informal structures already existed. According to Gould (1996), one of the most common and best-known tools early state-builders employed was patronage, a political system that consisted of offering offices, privileges, and honorific titles in return for allegiance.
Other arguments buttress the early historian assertions, but also emphasize that patron-client politics is part of human behavior. Indeed, Brinkerhoff and Goldsmith (2004) see benefits in clientelism and prescribe a containment strategy when initiating public reforms. Their analysis suggests that clientele politics will erode once legal rational institutions have been firmly established, there is strong political will and elite support for reforms, and there is a positive civic response to change. However, after over 50 years of African independence, informal structures, based on patron-client relations, have deepened and become the mode of governance on the continent.
Current State of Play for African Governance
The hope for a well-established democratic system that provides equal opportunities for its citizens seems a phantasm if Africans remain reliant on governance systems that sustain and perpetuate informal structures. In fact, I do not foresee clientelism and patrimonial politics naturally giving way to legal rational institutions in African countries in the near future. Gyimah-Boadi, Crook, Killick, Luckham, and Nana Boateng (2005) emphasize that the immediate obstacle to a more dynamic process of economic change is the political environment. They cite the absence of conditions for doing business in a more modern, competitive way in a global system as a basic factor and argue that there is a continued tendency for government-business relations to be conducted on patron-client terms.
There is little or no faith in politicians to change this attitude. Politicians favor quick-fixes to pay off political debts and shy away from addressing long term problems, such as the Indirect Rule system implemented by the British to administer the Gold Coast (now Ghana). The system used the existing and more organized traditional authorities.Patron-client relations and patrimonial politics have survived all kinds of reform programs in many African countries, from economic liberalization and structural adjustment to decentralization, democratization, and public sector reforms. Patron-client networks re-establish themselves after every reform program, usually more forcefully than before. Ascribing to the arguments on the fact that the existence of informal structures served as catalyst for early state formation, modern governance in most African countries evolved through informal structures and traditional systems of administration. Chiefdoms, tribal and ethnic groupings, warlords, land owners, and religious sects organized their own systems of administration prior to independence.
In most instances, colonial administrations functioned within the existing traditional structures to govern their colonies[vii]. In fact, these structures still exist alongside modern governance institutions – even after independence. Brinkerhoff and Goldsmith argue that some of these traditional social institutions are helpful, complementing the development efforts of governments. The harmful residual effects of these traditional institutions, however, are the corruptible patron-client networks and the manipulation of the existing informal structures by politicians for their private and parochial interests. Indeed, the political elites, especially in Africa, loot the state and use the resources to service these clientele networks. African clientele politics responds solely to private interests as opposed to the will of the public. African political elites manipulate pre-existing, deep-seated social cleavages to form their loyal political support base (e.g. Posner 2005), using coercive means to maintain these relationships. The relationships are based on mutual benefits, and exist only in as far as the patron continues to service its clients, and the clients in return continue to give their political support to the patron.
However, similar to the coercive strategies espoused by the early state-builders, citizens are either “with us” or they remain “our” enemies. Popular figures and leaders are either coopted or “destroyed.” It is not surprising therefore, that African elections and politics in general are always chaotic. Most conflicts in Africa – electoral, ethnic, chieftaincy, and land – are the machinations of politicians and their followers, either directly or through manipulative tactics. It is therefore important to be circumspect in judging the importance of informal structures.
The question, then, is: How do we deal with this canker in Africa? At what stage of state-building and democratization would informal structures “naturally” give way to formal, legal, rational, liberal institutions of democratic governance?
Paul Mensah is currently a Southern Voices African Research Scholar with The Wilson Center. He is also a Researcher with the Center for Democratic Governance in Ghana.
Photo Credit: futureatlas.com via Flickr
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