Discussions: Bratton and Van de Walle

In the chapter "Neopatrimonial Rule in Africa" from their book Democratic Experiments in Africa, Bratton and van de Walle delineate the system of 'neopatrimonial' rule that seems prevalent in many African governments. While such systems outwardly resemble a democratic society governed by rules and laws, the underlying system has more in common with a patrimonial system, in which the society is governed by a powerful leader for whom personal ties are central. Democratic institutions are subverted in order to fit within this power structure. This system determines the manner in which power is transferred. In sharp contrast with other regimes, the collapse of the neopatrimonial government is instigated through the social unrest that the system naturally creates rather than extension of rights by moderate elites. The collapse is fierce, as the dictator must struggle desperately to retain power. While the specifics of such a political system vary widely throughout Africa, the operation of these neopatrimonial systems retains striking differences from country to country.

For Bratton and van de Walle, neopatrimonial rule is defined by the existence of a patrimonial foundation for the government itself. Though there are bureaucratic systems on the surface of such a society, the underlying relationships are basically the same as in patrimonial ones. In a patrimonial system, "an individual rules by dint of personal prestige and power' ordinary folk are treated as extensions of the "big man's" household, with no rights or privileges other than those bestowed by the ruler. Authority is entirely personalized, shaped by a ruler's preferences rather than any codified system of laws" (61). The neopatrimonial system modifies this structure while maintaining the basic relationships; while laws and bureaucracies do exist, the underlying system is little different from patrimonialism. Thus, neopatrimonialism can be described as "the incorporation of patrimonial logic into bureaucratic institutions" (62). The president faces little or no competition for control, making elections little more than a glorified ritual; if there is serious competition, the "big man" can prevent the election from taking place. "In many countries of the region, rulers could not countenance electoral challenge and used elections in an entirely self-serving manner... to provide the existing government a semblance of popular approval" (69). Bureaucratic officers are appointed and discarded on the basis of personal ties and obligations, and the leader also solidifies his rule through personal largess to his supporters. Though elections take place, the resulting neopatrimonial government differs little from a patrimonial system.

The features of this system also determine the manner in which political change occurs. Change is unable to occur from the inside, as insiders have no option but to lend their complete support to the status quo. "Stultified by years of obeisance to the official party line, they have exhausted their own capacity for original or innovative thinking... They are dependent on the survival of the incumbent [and] have little option but to cling to the regime, to sink or swim with it" (86). The unsound financial policies of neopatrimonial regimes lead naturally to civil unrest, and the common people are joined by ousted bureaucrats and emerging middle classes who are frustrated with state ownership. Tensions escalate between the opposition and the regime, which has little choice but to hold on for dear life, especially if it has abused its power. "Unchecked personal dictators are most likely to have committed egregious abuses, leading them to cling most desperately to power... they fear the opposition's promises to persecute them" (85). Successful oppositions, upon gaining control, rework the government with an emphasis on formal rules, undermining the powers of the previous elites.

Neopatrimonial systems, with their emphasis on the individual prestige of the leader, are inherently undemocratic despite the facts that democratic elections take place and may even have a very high turnout. Though ostensibly governed by rules and bureaucracy, they in fact employ these means in order to be instilled in society. Given the features of such a system, the characteristics of the fall of such governments are hardly surprising.

In Democratic Experience in Africa, Bratton and van de Walle discuss the experiences undergone by African governments the resulted in both the triumph and failure of democratic governmental systems. Comparing the processes of democratization throughout the continent, they are able to chart the process of political change and the factors that influence whether a country will be able to implement a successful democracy. Bratton and van de Walle identify trends in African urban protest movements, showing that these movements originally are less about a desire to fundamentally change the political structure, but rather indicate material problems which can be fixed, at least initially, by the nation's leader. As the process continues, the leader often tries to pacify people through attempts at political liberalization, though his reforms are often superficial. However, such actions are not enough, and dissatisfaction continues; at the same time, people are more able to offer criticisms of the governmental structure than before. Coalitions between the middle classes, students, and labor could often press for constitutional changes that would undermine the one party structure of the current government. However, Bratton and van de Walle note that this process is far from a linear one, and not all countries followed the same pattern; protests, liberalization, and democratic elections were far from inevitable. Instead, their analysis is a "detached and broadly comparative view of what is essentially a mixed situation of democratization in Africa" (97).

In many countries, the turn towards democracy begins as a diverse coalition of groups instigates protests against material hardships. "In most African countries before 1990, sporadic outbursts of popular protest were not directed at explicit political goals, let alone at regime change. More commonly, protests were driven by the economic concerns of urban groups over particular policy measures that directly affected their material interests" (101). Struggles could break out because of cutbacks in student funding, salary cuts, and other problems regarding economic issues. Protesting groups soon became more politicized as they formed coalitions with other urban groups that were affected by economic crisis. "Civil unrest gained momentum when diverse urban groups joined forces in loose protest coalitions" (102). However, these protests were still relatively disorganized, and clear leaders rarely emerged; "instead, early economic protests signified the existence of a pool of disgruntled urbanites who had been alienated by government policies and performance but who lacked leadership, organization, or a clear political agenda" (103). Though there was the potential for political change, the protest groups were not yet strong enough to pose a serious threat. However, protestors became increasingly political and pro-democracy as they saw their financial problems as a result of political incompetence: "Sporadic outbursts over economic grievances gave way to social movements with political agendas" (106).

When faced with protests, leaders reacted by either compromising with or intimidating the protestors, depending on the situation. When possible, leaders would attempt to win them over by giving economic concessions. This was usually the most desirable solution, at least in the short term, as it would not further exacerbate protestors. However, if there was less recourse to money and if the protests were political rather than economic, they would often resort to using force against protestors. Sometimes, however, neither option was available.

"In countries where the national treasury had been depleted by prolonged economic mismanagement, governments could no longer afford the luxury of buying off opponents by distributing patronage... Nor, for any number of reasons, was the alternative available of calling out the security forces: either the leader did not have the stomach for repression, or the army would refuse to fire on civilians. A critical consideration was whether the leader could retain support from loyal military units, which in turn was conditional on whether the government could continue to pay them" (104).

As a final recourse, the government began a process of liberalization in which the government, while still not democratic, had relaxed its controls. "Liberalization was an effort by embattled incumbents to belatedly legitimate their rule ... Leaders used political openings 'as a way of defusing opposition to their regime without fully democratizing" (108). Though these reforms were often meant to be minor, and cosmetic, they nonetheless allowed political struggle to grow. For one thing, such liberalization opened the door for political critique. Alternative viewpoints could be more easily expressed in newspapers and other formats. In these ways, the government's weaknesses were exposed to the public at large. "As the vulnerabilities of repressive regimes were revealed, ordinary citizens became less fearful of state power and were less inclined to remain silent and passive when civil liberties were trampled" (111).

As governments became more desperate to retain legitimacy, leaders either staged conferences during which constitutional reform could be affected or allowed opposition leaders to become part of the legislature. Chief among the changes that occurred was a push towards a multiparty system in which no single party controlled the state.

"Political parties were regularized, often accomplished by the single expedient of repealing the clause in the national constitution that endowed a single party with monopoly status... Reformers [also] sought to establish the separation of powers. Implicit in the relegalization of political associations was the severance of linkages between official parties and the state" (113).

Though leaders would try to undermine such reforms through setting election timetables and other means within their power, the opposition would often have recourse to a larger political base. Additionally, by demanding independent monitoring of elections, they could also make sure that elections were fair. "When observers were able to announce that elections has been 'free and fair', a foundation was created for a new political regime based on the rule that top political leaders were chosen by the people" (116).

While many African countries shared these trends, it would be a fallacy to state that African democratization followed a uniform process. Protest movements did not emerge in several countries, and liberalization was thus not always a result of an urban protest movement. Finally, while the introduction of political liberalization seems to be a prerequisite for the emergence of democracy, it does not guarantee that democracies will emerge; in fact, most of the countries in which liberalization has occures have not yet democratized. Thus, while trends can be gleaned, it is impossible to generalize the emergence of democratic government throughout Africa.

For Bratton and van de Walle, the structure of the postcolonial society inevitably affects how a particular country will make the transition to democratic government and the extent to which this transition will take place. In Democratic Experiments in Africa, they outline the range of transitions, demonstrating how the current political structure, as well as factors such as the economy and foreign aid, shape a nation's democratization. Unsurprisingly, the position and resources of the leader strongly determine the manner in which he deals with opposition movements and introduces democratic reforms. In these ways, democratization in Africa can be understood in terms of component countries' current political structures.

In military oligarchies, in which the leader has a high level of control over the army, the process of transition is most often a managed one in which the leader has almost total control. Democratic reform is often undertaken either a means to restore a regime's legitimacy or a response to protests, both current and incipient. Depending on the centrality of the military, the dynamic of change varied: "Where the military was not immersed in governmental affairs, they could more easily adopt a hands-off attitude; but where they composed, led, or participated in the governing coalition, they necessarily played a more directive role" (170). With the coercive power of the military behind him, a leader could manage to achieve a high level of control over processes, thus assuring that his power could remain relatively stable. Opposition leaders, bereft of power, were more or less forced to take what reforms they could get. This is the case of Rawlings in Nigeria.

"As the widespread support for multiparty politics became clear... [he] surprised even his own followers by unexpectedly announcing a two-year timetable to release political detainees, promulgate a multiparty constitution, and hold competitive elections. The proposed processes seemed eminently reasonable, yet was carefully designed to maximize every advantage for the incumbent... The opposition has little choice but to accept Rawlings's dictates lest their complaints provide the government with an excuse to discontinue the reform process" (172).

Thus military leaders are able to make circumscribed, controlled reforms for their own benefit.

Civilian leaders, who often had less power than their military counterparts, often tried to negotiate with the opposition, alternating their strategies between one of placating protestors and one of intimidation. The ruling elite, which relied more on legitimacy than a military elite would, would have to use tactics of reconciliation, particularly when resources were low. National conferences, among other reforms, were instituted, and since both sides had vastly different goals in the reform process, tensions were high. "The national conferences turned into forums in which opposition forces struggled to push liberalization reforms further forward and incumbents sought to hold them back" (173). Significantly, in such governments, reforms were attempted before multiparty elections. "Opposition leaders knew they were likely to lose an electoral contest in which the regime held all the cards. The national conference therefore appealed to the opposition for strategic reasons as a forum that would help to conceal its weaknesses" (174). Opposition leaders saw this process as necessary, as the incumbent would otherwise have the state apparatus at his disposal and would be certain to win an election; without reforms, democratic elections would serve as rituals to cement the leader's legitimacy rather than as a means to elect political representatives. With the exception of South Africa, the conflicts of the national conferences led to the complete victory of one group rather than compromise, as both sides went into conferences with vastly different goals.

In the case where the government consisted of a competitive one-party system, opposition demands varied from those of oppositions under noncompetitive systems. Multiparty elections, rather than reforms, were the primary demands in these countries, as their relatively competitive systems ensured that oppositional groups wouldn't face the same problems with elections that proved problematic in noncompetitive systems. "In general, these states moved directly to elections without convening national conferences because there was sufficient consensus among political elites that, with relatively minor adjustments to guarantee genuine competition, elections could be held without a major overhaul of the rules of the political game" (176). The greater danger was that incumbents could take advantage of conferences to delay the process of democratization. Elites reacted to the reforms differently, depending largely on the time they spent as leaders. Older leaders were more willing to allow competitive elections, as they saw their positions as less precarious and considered elections as a way to strengthen legitimacy. Second-generation leaders with a less established base were more likely to delay the democratization process or attempt to build a base through exploiting ethnic tensions.

While regime transitions in Africa were generally abrupt, with clear 'winners' and 'losers' emerging, settler oligarchies provide an exception. In such political systems, there were two strong blocs, neither of which had the resources to overpower the other. "The protagonists were deeply divided among racial and class lines into airtight corporate blocs. Each side could mobilize significant resources, with the opposition holding a clear political advantage but with settlers continuing to control the economy" (178). Such a situation made it likely that, even if there was heavy conflict between the two camps, negotiation would be necessary for the political struggle to end. As limited franchise already existed under such systems, the process of democratization was more straightforward; "the main challenge is then the simpler one of expanding the franchise to allow political participation" (179).

Thus, the political situation of a country played a determining role as a nation proceeded towards democracy. The situation and power of a leader or oligarchy proscribed the options that such groups could take in the struggle to retain the status quo; likewise, the opposition's strengths and weaknesses were to determine its strategies. Political legacies thereby cast a strong shadow on emergent democratic regimes, determining their structure.

In the final chapters of Democratic Experiments in Africa, Bratton and Van de Walle consider the long-term prospects for African democracies. Going beyond the endurance of a democratic system, they view consolidation, or the internalization of democratic ideals, as the ideal that new democracies should strive towards. However, they recognize that the development of a democratic political culture is a long process, and there must be a long and stable democratic regime before consolidation can begin. Bratton and Van de Walle examine the structural and institutional elements of African nations that predispose them towards either the maintenance of democracy, a cycle of democratic and authoritarian regimes or the instillation of a neopatrimonial 'big man' democracy.

Bratton and Van de Walle note that many of Africa's democratic regimes did not achieve a stable democratic order, either reverting to despotism or through a 'big man' democracy that is democratic in name only. They come to an understanding of consolidation of democracy in terms of the widespread acceptance of democratic values rather than in terms of electoral turnover.

"We draw a distinction between the consolidation of democratic rule and the mere survival of new democratic regimes. In our view, consolidation is the more or less total institutionalization of democratic practices, complete only when citizens and the political class alike come to accept democratic practices as the only way to resolve conflict" (235).

Consolidation goes beyond the mere survival of democratic institutions; it requires that participants in the system hold themselves accountable to the rules of democracy, eschewing patronage and corruption. For democratic institutions to become legitimized, they must have enough stability to survive for a fairly long time; "the longer democracies survive, the likelier is eventual consolidation. Over time, surviving democratic institutions will gain organizational strength and political constituencies" (236). With this in mind, Bratton and Van de Walle examine the components of African states to determine what is necessary if a nascent democracy is to survive.

Upon looking at the various elements that influence democratic regimes' survival, Bratton and Van de Walle stress the importance of the structural and governmental institutions which in many cases owe a large debt to the institutions of earlier regimes. The economy presents a challenge to consolidation in many African countries; the majority of these countries have little money, low economic diversification, and low industrialization. "The economic structure of most African countries gives rise to a weak private sector as well as small middle and professional classes that are likely to prove incapable of constituting an autonomous power base to balance and circumscribe state power" (239). As the economies are concentrated in a few key exports, money can be concentrated in the hands of the state, creating a threat of instability. Additionally, economic crisis can lead to the return of authoritarian government if the society is not sufficiently consolidated.

The institutions of the government also help to determine whether a nation will be able to maintain a democratic order. The military may remain a threat to the democracy, as it has the ability to intervene with the electoral process. The degree to which the military poses a threat depends on the importance of the military's role in the ousted regime as well as the closeness of ties between the past leader and chief military personnel. In the case where the military is closely linked to the ex-ruler, the government is undermined; "these kinds of linkages enormously complicate the transition and its aftermath, for the military will not countenance threats to their patron" (245). The existence and strength of state institutions such as the legislature, the judiciary, and the civil service are also important, as they can provide a check to a leader's arbitrary power. All three are able to check the executive by upholding the rule of law and holding leaders accountable for arbitrary abuses of power. "The more effective the permanent state apparatus, the greater its capacity to discipline the political class's patrimonial behavior and resist the latter's efforts to alter political rules to suit its own needs" (246). However, the strength of these institutions is largely determined by their strength before the introduction of democracy.

These elements are of chief importance in the survival and possible consolidation of democracies in Africa. Problems within the economic or political structures endanger a democracy, as they create the potential for a return to absolutism or the creation of a sham 'big man' democracy. However, the state of the economy and political institutions is largely dependent on their pre-democracy existence, as new democratic regimes 'inherit' their nation's infrastructure from their predecessor. Countries in which the infrastructure is poor face an uphill struggle towards established democracy.

Go back to my main page.