The Dialectics of Loyalty in African Politics: Rule of Law and Corruption

Sierra Leone, 2018 elections
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The story of politics in Africa is often too familiar, or so we think — corruption, bad governance, dictatorship, etc. Even more we often read that the causes of these problem are poor leadership, greed, tribalism, neocolonialism, etc. Well, all of that is true. However, how do these diabolical features of African politics work? What is their hook? What are the antidotes? We have all been pondering these issues. A recent post on a WhatsApp political forum on Sierra Leone captured my attention. It was all about loyalty and the upcoming election.

Loyalty was expected from the kinds of people on that forum and also presented as good for them – in this case it was about the All Peoples Congress party. In other forums, I have also seen similar things about the ruling Sierra Leone People Party. Interestingly, both political parties have been failing the people of Sierra Leone, yet people have to be loyal and support them. But there is more to the posts than just party loyalty. The forums are also ethnic forums. The posts evoked a lot of questions for me: what is loyalty? Loyalty for what purpose? Loyalty to who? At first, my thought was that here again we go – a politician trying to manipulate people for support. But then, I started to ponder on loyalty and its connections and impact on governance in Africa.

So let us think deep about it. Can we make loyalty right?

Of course, loyalty is deep and entails a whole range of things. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “Loyalty is usually seen as a virtue, albeit a problematic one. It is constituted centrally by perseverance in an association to which a person has become intrinsically committed as a matter of his or her identity. Its paradigmatic expression is found in close friendship, to which loyalty is integral, but many other relationships and associations seek to encourage it as an aspect of affiliation or membership: families expect it, organizations often demand it, and countries do what they can to foster it. May one also have loyalty to principles or other abstractions?”

Drawing from economic behavior, Richard Brooks’ 2019 piece on Loyalty and What Law Demands: Self Interest, Sole Interest or Best Interest points to the pragmatic aspects of loyal in the everyday world. Brooks categorized loyalty into: a) structural loyalty, b) self-serving loyalty, and c) allegiant loyalty. Structural loyalty is an incentive-based approach, while self-serving loyalty taps into people’s apriori preferences. Allegiant loyalty rests on adherence to the conduct rules of the community.

Importantly, “When socially called-for conduct goes against the demands of self-interest, agents under the allegiant loyalty approach may comport themselves with the approved rules and abnegate their self-interest.” Brook’s categories point to an interesting issue in the dialectics of loyalty – indeed, “a virtue, albeit a problematic one.” Loyalty comes in good and bad forms, right and wrong ways, helpful and destructive ways. Allegiant loyalty, which is principled and virtuous, stands in contrast to structural and, especially, self-serving loyalties.

Diabolical Loyalty in Everyday Life: Politics and Corruption

In Sierra Leone, as in many African countries, politics and the system of corruption generally rest on loyalty, notably structural loyalty and self-serving loyalty. As a start, consider the multiparty democratic process through which citizens are normally given the opportunity to select candidates and political parties that are most able to govern their country in ways that enhance human development and civil and political rights. But in reality, elections are reduced to ethnic and regional loyalty, which often degenerate into some form of conflict.

As Francis M. Deng observed, “virtually every African conflict has some ethno-regional dimension to it. Even those conflicts that may appear to be free of ethnic concerns involve factions and alliances built around ethnic loyalties.” Of course, there are plenty of examples of the meshing of ethnic loyalty into elections, such as in in Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, and Kenya. Invoking ethnic loyalty is common place in Africa politics. One example in Sierra Leone is former vice president Victor Foh’s visit to the Temne heartlands of Port Loko and Kambia where he “spoke to the Temne people about the importance of the loyalty shown by the late son of the soil – former vice president S.I. Koroma to Siaka Stevens.”

In a recent article, “Don’t Abandon Maada Bio, Your Mende Brother, Despite Govt Misrule,” a member of the ruling SLPP is reported to urge Mende people to support Maada Bio by stating: “Even if he is bad don’t abandon him. He is your brother.” This kinds of loyalties based on self-serving and structural factors have essentially rendered the multiparty elections almost meaningless in bringing about positive changes and enhancing democracy.

Beyond elections, corruption is a rampant problem — from stolen monies, misappropriated funds, and briberies. As the U4 Anticorruption Resource Centre notes, “Corruption continues to permeate almost every sectors of Sierra Leone’s public life, compromising citizens’ access to basic public services and institutions such as health, education and the police.” Despite its nefarious nature, corruption too requires some form of loyalty. In the first, corruption often entails more than one participant – be it the persons collecting or paying a bribe or a small groups people who connive to defraud the state or an organization.

For those forms of corruption to materialize, they require the participants to maintain some form of loyalty to one another by not disclosing the actions of the other person. In Sierra Leone, for example, the Anti-Corruption Commission has a process for reporting corruption. Yet, very few cases of corruption are reported despite the widespread corruption. Self-serving loyalties binds people involved in everyday acts of corruption, notably those extorting bribes, those paying the bribe, and those who connive in defrauding the state or NGOs.

Why not Allegiant Loyalty? Lessons on the Virtuous Side of Loyalty

The prevalence of ethnic politics and corruption does not necessary imply that there are no virtuous forms of loyalty in Sierra Leone and Africa at large. Loyalties to families, friends, and religion are very common. These forms of loyalties go beyond structural factors and self-interest. They are rooted in values of compassion, responsibility, and community. Allegiant loyalties exist in the personal sphere where we take care of family and relatives, be honest with people, and follow the virtuous teachings of our religions, notably Islam and Christianity.

In the public sphere, especially in matters relating to the state, there are also virtuous principles and laws that prohibit corruption and ethnic politics. Despite these principles and laws, there is a deficit of allegiant loyalty. Allegiant loyalty rests on loyalty to principles and rules – the rule of law so to speak. Of course, this is what civic education, civil society, and even anti-corruption commissions do – they remind us of the rules, our obligations, and wider social good of upholding core principles and rules of democracy and the rule of law.

As William Gumede noted with respect to voting in South Africa, “the most important point to get across to all voters through voter education programmes, not to vote for parties and leaders based on loyalty, whether struggle, ethnic or colour loyalty, but to vote for them based on merit, competency and honesty. Voting for parties, other than one’s own, force the delivery of public services, bring accountability and responsiveness.” Allegiant loyalty would require us to tap more into the values and morality we exhibit in the private sphere into the public sphere, notably the state.

Evidently, a key problem of loyalty in African politics is the discrepancy between the rules and the practices; what Harriet Martineau called the gap between morals and manners and the way it undermines human happiness. We see this all the times in good laws and constitutions whose contents are really not practiced. Ultimately, loyalty has to be tied to ethics. Loyalty, in the absence of ethics, simply leads to the problematic side of loyalty and less toward its virtues. Ethics is the foundation of laws and the basis of social harmony.

As noted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The ethics of a society is embedded in the ideas and beliefs about what is right or wrong, what is a good or bad character; it is also embedded in the conceptions of satisfactory social relations and attitudes held by the members of the society; it is embedded, furthermore, in the forms or patterns of behavior that are considered by the members of the society to bring about social harmony and cooperative living, justice, and fairness.”

Conclusion: Loyalty to the Rule of Law

Ultimately, the African state needs loyalty to the rule of law. The laws are never perfect, but the general laws (e.g. those on corruption) often draw upon the common good. Of course, in speaking of the rule of law we must make a clear distinction between the principle of the rule of law and mere laws. The rule of law rests on principles of human rights, due process, supremacy of the law, and equal and fair application of the law.

As the Rule of Law Education Centre notes, the rule of law embodies all those principles of law and governance that make a free and democratic country. The rule of law does not mean draconian laws aimed at undermining freedom and/or democracy. Loyalty to the rule of law would actually require resisting those kinds of draconian laws—as civil rights activists often do. Fortunately, the rule of law is imbued in the constitutions of African countries that have adopted multiparty democracy.

The constitutions of nearly all African countries draw upon the noble principles of democracy, human rights, peace, and progress. In addition, there are abundance of laws that prohibit corruption. Upholding these laws require more than just a draconian government, which is often corrupt and selectively applies the law. Rather, it requires a citizenry that finds the right place to exercise loyalty, notably loyalty to the principles of the constitution and the laws prohibiting corruption—notably to the rule of law itself.

Certainly, it is incumbent upon members of the judiciary, legal profession, and law enforcement to exhibit allegiant loyalty to the rule of law. This is certainly a matter of training and ethics. Beyond those categories of persons, the inculcation of allegiant loyalty to the rule of law would require critical reflection about loyalty and drawing upon the virtuous manifestation of loyalty from the private to the public sphere.

Abu Bakarr Bah ( is Presidential Research, Scholarship and Artistry Professor of Sociology.

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