Why ideas and ideologies matter for politics in Africa

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Political ideas and ideologies shape how leaders behave and are central to efforts to legitimise the exercise of power. From Donald Trump’s exclusionary nationalism to Vladimir Putin’s warped understanding of Ukrainian history, it is clear that a beliefs shape policies and actions, often with dramatic consequences. The importance of ideas for legitimising a political agenda is also obvious. Why else would candidates consistently cloak their campaigns in historical terms and narratives – such as the liberation struggle and great national achievements – if not to give them a greater chance of resonating with the electorate?

Yet when it comes to African politics, ideas and ideologies are largely ignored. Accounts of elections rarely focus on the issues discussed, or the symbolism leaders invoke. One reason for this is African elections are often assumed to revolve around ethnicity, and political mobilization to take place solely through patron-client networks. On this model, leaders don’t need to persuade citizens to support them, they just need to organize their lieutenants and make sure that there is enough patronage to keep everyone happy. Elections are won by the “tyranny of numbers”, rather than the quality of arguments.

This is not how politics actually works, however. Ethnicity and clientelism are powerful forces, but their importance varies dramatically, and they are easier to mobilise for leaders who are seen to be credible and have a viable plan. A well-known Ethiopian proverb runs “When the great lord passes the peasants bow and silently fart”. Voters in countries like Kenya, Malawi and Zambia have always critiqued those in power – and that critique is becoming more sophisticated with every passing election.

Failing to recognise the power of ideas and ideologies can therefore be fatal, both for political leaders trying to hold onto power and for researchers and journalists seeking to explain how politics works.

I think therefore I win

One reason the importance of ideas is downplayed is that people tend to look for the ideologies that are common in the West. When a quick search fails to find examples of socialism, or elections that pit a “right wing” party against a “left wing” one, it is easy to conclude that Africa is an ideology free zone. But ideologies are not just economic theories – they are conceptual maps through which we understand the world. And if we look at how candidates present themselves in elections, and the popular ideas and concerns they appeal to, the importance of ideology cannot be denied.

Take the election campaign currently coming to the boil in Kenya. Often seen as the epitome of ethnic politics, Kenya now features a very different narrative. Playing on popular frustration with a lack of good jobs and economic empowerment, Deputy President William Ruto is presenting himself as a “hustler” willing to stand up for those who hard work for their money – what he calls the “hustler nation” – against the country’s exploitative political dynasties. This narrative is particularly smart because it allows Ruto, who has the second most powerful man in the government since 2013, to present himself as a radical opposition figure willing to take on a political elite that is increasingly seen as out of touch and corrupt.

The effectiveness of Ruto’s messaging – most credible opinion polls have given him a healthy lead, though this may be changing – demonstrates the power of ideas. As things stand he has fewer “Big Men” in his team than his main rival, Raila Odinga – who has the backing of President Kenyatta – yet enjoys more popular support.

It is not all about ideas of course. Ruto has also invested vast amounts of money in building up networks of politicians across the country, and would not be electorally competitive without them. But it is his ability to package these networks within the hustler narrative that has made it possible to rally support among the youth and across ethnic lines. So far, Odinga’s campaign team seem to believe that they can defeat Ruto by amassing a bigger coalition and attacking his credibility. What they don’t seem to realise is that these strategies only serve to strengthen Ruto’s claim to be a political outsider, and so enhance his appeal for those who are themselves marginalised.

To win hearts and minds Odinga needs to spend less time recruiting coalition members among the country’s political elite, and more time building a message that resonates with the masses.

Why ideas matter for policy

Politically important ideas can be found everywhere when you start to look for them. For example we cannot understand Thabo Mbeki’s HIV/AIDS policies, when his failure to introduce an antiretroviral (ARV) drug programme contributed to an estimated 330,000 unnecessary deaths, without locating them thinking within a broader search for “African solutions to African problems”.

In turn, his personal commitment to this mantra and rejection of certain aspects of “Western” science needs to be understood in the context of the medical racism of apartheid South Africa – which encouraged a natural scepticism of “white” expertise with regards to African bodies – and Mbeki’s personal belief in the concept of the African renaissance. Appreciating why the idea of an African renaissance has resonated with so many leaders also requires us to head back through time; back to the 1940s and 1950s and the ideas of Cheikh Anta Diop – and, through his thinking, to négritude and a long intellectual tradition that has foregrounded the value of indigenous African knowledge.

In other words, sometimes the only way to make sense of a government policy that on the face of it appears to be completely irrational is by placing it in the context of the history of ideas.

This is not to suggest that Mbeki’s policies were justified given what had gone before. There are many others whose search for “African solutions to African problems” did not end up causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their own people. There are also ways in which Mbeki’s approach was shaped by his own political needs. Most obviously, as a highly educated technocrat who spent much of the apartheid struggle outside of the country, rejecting “Western” wisdom on issues such as HIV/AIDS and how to handle the “Zimbabwe crisis” protected Mbeki against his populist critics. Had he gone the other way, it would have been easier for his rivals to depict him as an out of touch elitist willing to do the dirty work of Western powers.

But while the choice of political ideas and ideologies is never free of self-interest, it is also true that ideas can capture the imagination of both leaders and citizens in ways that have profound effects for everyday politics.

Bringing ideas back in

Overlooking the role of ideas doesn’t just lead to bad analysis and unsuccessful election campaigns. It also contributes to a situation in which African countries are routinely overlooked as places of important knowledge production. Bringing ideas back in to our analysis – and doing the continent’s rich intellectual history justice – is therefore also important for the current struggle to decolonize universities, international relations and minds.

This month a remarkable group of researchers, many of whom have been writing about this for much longer than myself, are launching a new research network to pursue this project. All are welcome to join the Ideas in African Politics network, and to enrich our discussions with the ideas and intellectual traditions that have shaped their own thinking.

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is the Professor of Democracy and the Director of the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation (CEDAR) at the University of Birmingham

This piece was first published as part of Nic Cheeseman’s column for The Africa Report.

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