Why some African Autocrats love Political Decentralization

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Lovise Aalen and Ragnhild Louise Muriaas explain why political decentralization should not be confused with democratization in Africa. On the contrary, widespread popular political participation at the subnational level can help sustain the power of certain autocrats.


Interpretations of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front that has ruled Ethiopia since 1991 vary wildly, but one thing seems clear: They are not afraid of citizens that participate vigorously in local elections and community councils. As the anecdote goes, the leadership in EPRDF has altered the definition of ‘to participate’ by going out publicly and stating that to make citizens active, ‘we must participate them!’ Popular participation, within the frames of the ruling party, is not a token of dissatisfaction but an indicator of the regime’s capacity to mobilize and control large sections of the population.

The EPRDF is not the only ruling autocrat in Africa that to some extent thrive on political decentralization. Yoweri Museweni and his ruling National Resistance Movement in Uganda has since the movement seized power in the second half of the 1980s built its strength on an elaborate five-levelled-local council structure. With representatives elected to councils all the way from the village to the national assembly. At different levels of government there are even special seats reserved for women, youth, people with disabilities, elderly persons, workers and the army. Multiparty elections are held on a regular basis. The opposition sometimes win, sometimes not, but what is certain is that Museveni will be elected as the President.

In our new book Manipulating Political Decentralization: Africa’s Inclusive Autocrats, we argue that although national governments use their power to develop systems of local government that are favorable to their rule, some use strategies that open up for some level of meaningful contestation and participation whereas others do not. This contributes to a rather fuzzy relationship between regime type and decentralization as some of those that score high on an index of representative subnational government scores low on indexes on democracy, and vice versa. Some countries have managed the transition from authoritarian rule to multipartyism fairly well, like Malawi, but despite this, local democracy has never really been institutionalized.

Political decentralization is seldom regulated properly through constitutional provisions. This has caused the development of representative subnational government to remain in the hands of national governments. National governments rarely develop policies that can harm their rule. Instead, they will opt for policies that boost their power. Most ruling parties therefore tend to manipulate the process of political decentralization the way that suits them best.

We contribute to our understanding of this by demonstrating that relatively weak national governments, democratic or autocratic, with weak ties to large societal groups, are likely to be less eager to decentralize power to elected local assemblies. They often engage in political decentralization without embracing all the requirements needed for the outcome to qualify as a representative subnational government. For instance, there might be elections, but they are not held regularly, or parties are not allowed to nominate candidates. Similarly, elections may be conducted in some areas of the country, but not in other places. While local assemblies may exist, elected members are outnumbered by appointed ones, or the executive arm is hand-picked by the national president. This manipulation strategy can be identified as one that is creating institutional gaps in the system to prevent the system to work effectively.

Relatively strong national governments, however, have more incentives to decentralize than the weak ones, regardless of regime type. Governments that have electoral confidence nationally and which may rely on support from large groups in, maybe due to their history as liberation or freedom movements, do not necessarily see vibrant local governments as a threat. They can rather make sure that they capture most of these local units through their powerful party engines. Yet there are different strategies that such governments can make use of.

The national government can use subnational elections and institutions as a system of dominance, control, surveillance and information gathering. With elections, the national ruling party keeps track and gets information on who is with – and who is against – the ruling party. This is a strategy that the EPRDF in Ethiopia has particularly relied on over the last few decades. However, political decentralization can also be used as a less repressive tool. If the national ruling party has a strong standing in the population and has more access to financial resources than opposition parties, they can use the implementation of political decentralization to overwhelm the opposition.

For instance, the national government, like in Uganda, can introduce a hyper-inclusive system of governance that is so overwhelming that it is impossible for the opposition to participate with same intensity. The opposition might be strong in certain enclaves, but will have problems with participating at a national scale. Opposition parties do not have to be barred from participating in elections. Either way, they will only be able to win a few elected offices scattered across the country. By using the strategy of overwhelming the opposition, all formal requirements for having representative subnational governments could be fulfilled.

Furthermore, if the support of the opposition is composed in a way that only makes them effective in certain geographical areas, political decentralization may not affect the ruling party’s monopoly of power at the national level at all. This ‘regionalized opposition enclaves’ strategy can be played out in countries where the main opposition parties are weak at the national level, but has a stronghold in one or more geographically limited areas. For instance, the national government can design a system of subnational government that creates enclaves where the opposition governs, or they can create electoral systems or municipal borders that discriminates against the opposition and favor the ruling party.

Although this is a way of manipulating political decentralization and weakening the opposition’s chances of winning, it is an example of how governments may use institutional set-ups to defeat opposition rather than by brutal force. If an opposition party is fairly successful in one region of the state, like the Democratic Alliance in Western Cape in South Africa, certain opposition parties could put their main political muscle into governing key city municipalities rather than in the national parliament. If the opposition’s support is tied to an ethnic minority that lives in a part of the country, the voters might even discourage acts that make the opposition party popular outside its region. Consequently, the governing of an ethnically defined enclave never becomes an incubator for electoral success at the national level.

The question is nevertheless how dangerous such manipulation strategies can be for a government in the long run. Could we think of scenarios were the multiple opportunities for participation and sometimes also contestation contribute to the government losing control? In the Ethiopian context, the widespread popular protests and the quest for more genuine subnational autonomy from some regional units in the wake of the protests may indicate that the manipulation of decentralization may be an efficient, but not everlasting strategy. Yet, it is worth mentioning that for almost three decades now, some of the most successful ruling parties are also those that have developed the most inclusive local governance systems in Africa.


The blog post is based on the book Manipulating Decentralisation: Africa’s Inclusive Autocrats (2018), recently published in the Conceptualizing Comparative Politics series (Routledge).

Lovise Aalen is a Research Director at Chr. Michelsen Institute.

Ragnhild Louise Muriaas is a Professor in Comparative Politics at the University of Bergen in Norway.

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