Africa: Building More Viable and Democratic Political Parties in Africa


Many governing African political parties have critical internal organisational defects that undermine their ability to run their governments efficiently, build viable democracies and peaceful societies.

Although African opposition parties often rightly criticise the deficiencies of governing parties, they themselves, however, sadly often as opposition parties, and when they eventually take over as government, mimic the deficiencies of the governing parties they opposed.

The defective organisational structures, cultures, and strategies of many African political parties inhibit their ability to govern effectively.

The first of these is that most African political parties are highly centralised with a powerful leader at the head. Power within African political parties is often in the hands of either the leader or a small leadership group, centered on the leader. The small leadership core is often from the same ethnic group, region, religion or class of the leader. They are often mostly men and exclude competent, talented and dynamic women.

This means that African political parties do not use the full capacity of the vast talent, skills, and ideas available among their own members, supporters and voters to respond to the complex challenges these parties and their countries face, because they exclude critical human capital on the basis of ethnicity, gender, region, religion, and class.

In many African political parties, merit is often not the basis for nomination, election or appointment to party leadership or as public representatives. Leaders are often elected or appointed by a small clique, often in secrecy. Party barons often determine who become leaders or public representatives based on ethnicity, region of origin, religion, maleness and class affiliations.

Democratic leadership elections within African political parties are often discouraged and uncontested elections are the norm.

Or, if there is an election for a leader within the party, party barons decide who members and supporters should back, with the choice often presented to the membership, as the best option.

Such small leadership pools in African parties are often the repository of almost all decisions, policy-making and appointments. When the leadership decides, the members are expected to obey.

Because policies and decisions are made by a small group, from a very narrow demographic sector, without broader input from members, supporters or voters, and so without the benefit of critical scrutiny that wider debate brings, governments often produce astonishingly poor quality policies.

Leaders of African parties are often put on a pedestal, are rarely publicly criticised by members and supporters, and deferred to on almost all matters, whether they have the expertise or not. Inner party rules are often not evenly, consistently and fairly applied. There are often two sets of party rules: one for ordinary people, and one for the leader, his family, and close allies.

Ordinary members and supporters are often excluded from decision-making, policy-making, and idea-making. This means that members and supporters do not, or have little role to play in actually governing. Rather, the leaders act as a vanguard, on behalf of them. The crucial role of members and supporters in providing ideas on policies, monitoring the delivery of public services, implementation of policies and the actions of elected and public representatives, is missing.

Most African parties have been unable to diversify their original ethnic, religious or regional and language constituencies. Colonial powers drew up most African country borders arbitrarily, across language and ethnic groups. Many African political parties started as ethnically, language, religious or regional based organisations, lobbying for the interests of specific sectors within these groups and regional boundaries drawn by colonial powers.

However, many African political parties have in the post-independence period remained, drawing their support from one ethnic, religious or language groups with many of them having not actively sought out new, more inclusive constituencies.

African political parties have also been run on doggedly patriarchal lines, excluding the energy, ideas and human capital that women bring. Women are often excluded from significant leadership positions. The patriarchal, sexist and chauvinist organisational culture of most African political parties makes it difficult for women to achieve their full potential within these parties. This exclusion deprives political parties from critical human capacity which is crucial in overcoming the complex challenges governments, countries and societies face.

All African countries have typical developing youth bulges, with young people being the largest section of the population. Yet, African political parties are often also very youth unfriendly. They are rarely represented in leadership structures, with their input on policies, ideas, and leadership choices being rarely sought.

Many governing parties in Africa have often morphed into "party-states", where the party and the state became interchangeable. There is no place for the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, checks, and balances between branches of government or limits on power.

Independent democratic institutions are seen as an extension of the party, and not only are the heads of such institutions 'deployed' there by the party leadership, they are expected to defer to the party leadership. This means that parties have few qualms about changing laws and constitutions to fit short-term party interests.

African political parties in power are often intolerant of opposition. Sadly, even parties that in the post-independence period started off as opposition parties, when they subsequently become governing parties, frequently also discourage opposition parties. Yet, competent opposition parties are crucial for generating new policies, monitoring and evaluating implementation of policies and for holding governing parties accountable.

African parties are often hostile to civil society groups, especially those working to promote democracy and human rights, promote accountability, campaign against corruption and educate ordinary citizens about their rights. Parties either want a civil society which is appendages or sees them as the "enemy".

African political parties are often also highly hostile towards the media. Civil society and the media are crucial for generating new policies, monitoring and evaluating the implementation of existing government policies, and holding governing parties accountable.

They are also important for educating citizens about their rights, and how to assert them, hold their governments accountable and how to behave as democratic citizens. In this way, civil society, opposition parties, and the media, by promoting accountability and democratic citizenship likewise strengthen the capacity of the state.

To create more effective political parties, African nations will have to start with setting clear democratic rules, in their national constitutions, on how political parties should be organised. When political parties are undemocratic or corrupt, their leadership incompetent, and policies become personalised, their governments become so as well, stunting a democratic, development and public service delivery.

African governments must introduce rules which make it compulsory for parties receiving public funding to be internally democratic, ethnically diverse, practice gender equality and have democratic decision-making and elections.

Because members, supporters and voters have been so extraordinarily lenient to African parties, the internal organisational defects of these organisations are rarely addressed. Political parties, form governments, which determines whether societies are democratically or autocratically managed, therefore, they should be seen as public institutions, which are not solely the preserve of their members and supporters.

Everyone, whether they are members or not, should, therefore, have a stake in ensuring African political parties are democratically, ethnically and gender inclusively run, manage their finances prudently and elect leaders transparently.

Unless African political parties, whether in government or in opposition, overcome their internal organisational defects, they will not able to run governments efficiently, build viable democracies and peaceful societies.


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