A system of organized political parties is part of social regulation in late capitalism. If universal suffrage is added, such a system, in which “politics” is confined to the boundaries of electoral, parliamentary and governmental action, is less than a century old in the most advanced societies. As Polanyi and modern anthropology has showed, societies in which “politics” appear as an autonomous sphere are historical exceptions. In pre-capitalist societies, other relationships such as kinship, religion, etc. framed the entirety of social life and encompassed what would later appear as independent systems of work relations, political organization or the reproduction of mental representations.
In the 20th century the contact fringes of these two social systems became disruptive areas. Capital exports and the (formal or informal) rule of the “developed” societies over the “traditional” ones dismantled the ancient systems of social regulation (“native law”) but not enough to allow for replicas of the “modern” class structure to be implemented therein. The expected result of this half-way change was that most of the imported political institutions would necessarily work differently in the tropics: from the division of powers (absent in all colonial administrations) to political parties, electoral systems or civil services. To colonial administrations this was evidence that the natives still needed longer periods of apprenticeship before independences. After decolonization, and especially after the deceleration of capital exports and the rise of public debt in almost the new states, most of African cases were to be labelled as “failed” in different degrees, from “failed economy” to “failed States”. The present issue attempts to shed some light about the impact of these political changes in Africa, clarifying what kind of political organizations are ongoing during the last decades.
The long recessive wave (from the 1960’s to mid 1990’s) brought along the creditor’s demand to change once again the African political structure: it should be the time, they said, to break the one-party monopoly prevailing since independences. In fact, as the infant Welfare State was falling apart and social regression spreading among urban strata and the moneyed peasantry it was difficult to keep the former elites in power. A faster political turnover seemed necessary and a multiparty system was allowed (although the one-party de facto rule remained in place). Fredrick Kisekka-Ntale’s survey of the Uganda transition is clear about how it worked during the implementation of the IMF program. In the meantime, the sociology of African parties was becoming increasingly different compared to their historical models outside the continent. To begin with, African parties are not easily identified with social classes because either underdevelopment never came to produce them as elsewhere or the long regression wave destroyed those which were growing. Maciel Santos’ description of the late colonial years in Angola attempts to show one of the most striking regression cases. Similarly, Alexander Shipilov’s explanation of the power struggle in Ivory Coast is based on the effects the failure of the country’s growth model on the rearrangement of the political forces.
One of the outcomes of these developments is a trend which drives Sub-Saharan Africa closer to a bipolar model of classes in which the most visible cleavage separates the State class and the rest of the population. Max Weber had pointed out the similitude between public officials and the remaining wage workers: they all shared” the “separation” of the worker from the material means of production, destruction, administration, academic research and finance in general”. The African peculiarity arising from its underdevelopment is that formal wage work almost became an exception outside the State payrolls. For some authors, this narrowing horizon reduces the possibilities of social change and leads oppositional parties to see themselves mainly as State-staff replacers. The paper of Tatyana Denisova and Sergey Kostelyanets shows what happens when armed movements become institutional parties. And if there is just one pattern of social mobility this may explain why the ideological differences of African political parties seem so hard to tell. The papers of Issau Agostinho and Augusto Nascimento present two case studies of near symmetry among competing political parties, be it under the ideological point of view or of their support base. It is yet to be seen whether the protest movements that have flourished at the periphery of the system of rotating “state-parties” can consolidate new paths. Just how far the FixTheCountry movement in Ghana might go in its refusal of the rotating parties is discussed by Gerald Emmanuel Arhin.
The blurring of distinctions between State and State parties in Africa makes them hard to fit into the organizational patterns established by political scientists. One of those cases is the outcome of the State building efforts of the Polisario Front in Western Sahara, the focus of the paper by Isabel Lourenço, Jorge Teixeira’s. The State-party confusion has another important side-effect in international relations: it also turns state-parties into international partners as regards foreign policies. The trouble is that revolutions come and go and it is not always easy to tell which will remain as stable interlocuters: that was the dilemma faced by the US administration when 2011 events in Egypt brought to power the chronic oppositional Muslim Brotherhood, as Mourad Aty‘s paper describes it. And this is surely the reason why a rising power in world politics like China prefers to amalgamate the State-to-State relationships in a party-to-party relationship, assembling dozens of parties in its diplomatic fora and diplomatic network, as Tatiana Deich clearly analyses it.
As a well-known handbook would put it, political parties represent a “recent but complex phenomena” (J. Charlot, 1971). The illustration of some African variants presented in this issue is far from conclusive. Political parties are elements of a much more complex data system: African societal trends. In fact, this compilation of papers is just a milestone of the international network for the study of African politics organized since 2017 by the African Studies division of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the African Studies Center of Porto University (CEAUP) and the Douala Center of Research of Contemporaneous Africa (Cameroon). Subsequent to its first publication, on “African elections” (Africana Studia, 2020, n. 34), and of two international conferences, this file on African political parties attempts to update recent research and clear the way for future cross-linking data. The current organizers aim in 2024, with preparations for the 3rd Series Conference, to expand both the scope of the subjects and the magnitude of the collective efforts to better understand of African politics.