Leaders abuse governance to control citizens

Many African countries since independence from colonialism have operated under multiple systems of governance: the country’s formal institutions, laws and values, and, in parallel, informal ones, which often inform the day-to-day behaviour of elected and public representatives and citizens.

These governments have, on paper created formal overarching national institutions — such as democratic constitutions, parliaments, judiciaries and laws — which can be called “civic” structures.

But the informal governance systems — institutions, cultures and power structures — in practice govern the actual behaviour, both in public and private, of most citizens, rather than the formal or civic ones.

Having parallel systems governing people’s private and public life operating in competition with the formal constitutions, democratic institutions and laws has undermined economic development, growth and the building of inclusive African democracies.

Most of the African liberation and independence movements —such as the ANC, Namibia’s Swapo, Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF and Algeria’s Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) — that came to power after colonialism or white-minority regimes, have their own governance systems, which came from their days as clandestine, underground and military-like opposition movements.

African liberation and independence movements’ governance systems are often centralised, run along patriarchal lines and the leaders and their families have become the aristocracy.

Appointments are not made on merit, but based on status in the party. Ordinary members defer to leaders. Dissent is not allowed. Women are expected to be subservient. Struggle “accounting”, with no receipts or invoices, is often the bookkeeping norm.

In power, the governance systems of these liberation movements often run in parallel to the official national constitutions, institutions and laws of the countries they lead.

In general, citizens in most African countries that came out of colonialism also have two broad governance systems that govern their public and private lives — these may be distinct, or aspects of each overlap in different spheres. This was adroitly explained by the great African theorist, Peter Ekeh, in the 1970s.

He argued that post-independence African countries operate as “dual publics”, with two types of “publics” in existence: the formal or official “public”, represented by the “civic” realm, and the informal “public”, which drives the private “public” lives of Africans.

Ekeh called the formal and official national constitutions, democratic institutions and laws of an African country the “civic” public realm.

He describes the informal “public” as the “primordial” public realm — the precolonial African traditions, institutions and norms, which often govern the private behaviour of many ordinary Africans.

Many Africans, according to Ekeh, operate simultaneously in both the “civic” and “primordial” realms. In their private lives they may act according to the rules of the “primordial” realm — embracing African traditional norms — whereas in their public life they may embrace the “civic” realm.

Some Africans may totally reject the “civic” realm and only embrace the “primordial” realm in both private and public life.

Others again may similarly reject the “primordial” realm, and only embrace the “civic” realm in both private and public life. Yet others may combine aspects of the “civic” and “primordial” in the day-to-day affairs of both their private and public lives.

Importantly, large strands of the party governance systems of the left-wing African liberation movements such as the ANC, Swapo, Zanu-PF and the FLN are based on a combination of Marxist-Leninist centralisation and the “primordial” governance system — the precolonial African traditions, institutions and norms.

But sadly, Africa’s “primordial” governance system was often distorted, cherry-picked and had new aspects created to serve personal, partisan and self-enrichment interests by the colonial and white-minority governments, and this was continued by many liberation movements and their leaders, as well as by traditional leaders.

Colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments in Africa deliberately ran a dual governance system, as great African post-independence scholars such as Mahmood Mamdani, Akin Mabogunje and Mamadou Dia have pointed out.

The white-minority community was governed by a separate governance system — the formal constitutions, institutions and laws that emanated from the colonial home country or, in the case of South Africa and Namibia, were locally constructed.

The “natives” in African countries were in many cases predominantly served by a separate governance system, based on customary law, traditional customs and traditional leaders. This is what Ekeh described as the “primordial” public realm — the precolonial African traditions, institutions and authorities.

The colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments got the traditional leaders, chiefs and kings to oversee the implementation of the “primordial” governance system: the customary law, traditional institutions and customs, on their (colonial, apartheid and white minority governments) behalf.

But colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments would often endorse or reinforce the most autocratic aspects of “traditional” customs.

Sadly, at the end of colonialism, apartheid and white-minority regimes, many African liberation- movements in government and their leaders have adopted the colonial governance system for the “natives”, albeit mostly for those who live in rural areas, allowing traditional authorities to rule their local “subjects”, on the condition that they get their “subjects” to vote for liberation movement governments and leaders.

The problem is, the African liberation movements and their leaders have often adopted most of the distorted, made-up and autocratic elements of the “primordial” governance system as part of the internal governance systems of these liberation movements.

The irony is that such cynical post-independence African leaders and governments and traditional leaders have used African traditions, institutions and norms to control their “subjects” in exactly the same way that colonial, apartheid and white-minority governments have done.

Furthermore, unscrupulous post-independence political leaders and traditional leaders would often make up their own supposedly African traditions, institutions and norms. Or they would emphasise parts of precolonial African traditions, institutions and norms, which oppresses the ordinary individual.

The fact that separate governance systems — in competition with national democratic constitutions, laws and values — govern the private and public life of most Africans is certainly among the great challenges of our times.

There are many more parallel governance systems in individual African countries than these two, which run in opposition to the official or formal democratic governance systems represented by a country’s formal constitutions, institutions, laws and values.

For example, in many regions, cities or towns in African countries dominant gangs, warlords and crime bosses run the roost. The informal “laws”, “rules” and “authority” of the gang leaders, crime bosses or warlords become the real governance system in the area.

Citizens living in the jurisdiction of such governance systems — gang, crime or warlord governance systems — are condemned to follow their prescripts. For such pitiful inhabitants, the official country constitutions, laws and rights may as well belong to a foreign country.

Similarly, in many African countries, citizens in regions, towns and villages are under the yoke of fundamentalist religious — both Christian and Islamic — leaders, institutions and norms, which are often also a parallel governance system in opposition to the formal constitutional rules, institutions and behaviours.

In all these cases, we have situations where the individual private realm is governed by different systems that are often antidemocratic — that impinge on the individual rights, social equality and dignity of others — while, in the public realm, the individual may be governed by the country’s democratic constitution, values and norms.

Yet we cannot have a situation where thousands of Africans are forced to live by the governance systems of gangs, warlords and religious fundamentalists — depriving them of democratic rights, dignity and safety.

Under the informal governance systems, ordinary individuals often do not have equal power in social relations with traditional, religious, gang and warlord authorities.

The challenge for our times is how to create a new democratic public realm for Africans, which straddles both the “civic”, “primordial” and other parallel realms. Informal or alternative public realms that undermine individual human dignity, human value, rights and equality must either be abolished immediately or reformed.

Making the fundamental rules, institutions and behaviours — no matter whether they are primordial traditions, religions or gang and crime cultures — applicable to all citizens of African countries is crucial for development.

William Gumede chairs the Democracy Works Foundation. His most recent book is Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times

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