Impact of Colonialism, and Legitimacy on Africa’s Politics

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 7
Words: 2070
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: Master

Colonialism has contributed to the authoritarian and undemocratic nature of African politics. Thomson argues that the African government’s character of exploiting peasants and the proletariat was derived from a recourse of classism introduced in the continent by colonialists. The colonial regime was characterized by authoritarian governments and exploitation, which was later adopted by self-centered, post-colonial elites. Ethnicity in Africa has contributed to political development, civil unrest, and conflicts and influenced Africa’s voting patterns. It has positively contributed to the political development of both the state and civil society.

Although ethnicity was traditionally perceived as a hindrance to economic and political development, various studies have shown that this argument is false. Ethnicity proponents claim that it is a legitimate tool that allows different ethnic groups to aggregate demands and mobilizes political support.

Political leaders recognize the ethno-regional power derived from the social heterogeneity of the African community. Each ethnic group has a cultural broker in the state who advocates for their interests and wants. Failing to satisfy a given ethnic group’s needs can lead to a challenge of the leader’s regime. To this end, the state strives to acquire legitimacy from each ethnic group to avoid political challenges to its rule. This approach allows each ethnic group to bargain and demand for their rights, whereas the state is forced to respond to civil society’s needs to acquire legitimacy and political support.

This hegemonic exchange leads to political and economic development because the state can only acquire ethnic endorsement if it distributes resources uniformly to each ethnic group. Compliance with the government’s authority is exchanged for an ethnic community’s representation. Hegemonic exchange refers to a mutual accommodation of parties’ interests based on accepted procedural norms and rules. With a degree of legitimacy and conformity, these political channels are being traded for a degree of representation.

It is not always possible to extend sovereignty to all ethnic groups. Additionally, other ethnic groups are so powerfully mobilized that leaders cannot impose their will on them. The failure to balance resource distribution among the ethnic groups can lead to civil unrest, ethnic rivalries, and leadership inefficiencies that emanate from hegemonic exchange. When one civil society feels it has limited representation in the state, it creates rivalry and civil unrest. For example, the genocide in Rwanda was caused by tensions between the two major ethnic communities. The Tutsi tribe dominated over other ethnic communities, leading to land competition, falling coffee prices, and economic malaise.

Social Class

Social class constitutes an important dimension in post-independence African politics. Usually, social class is associated with material resources and production, which provides the means of exploitation and political power. The traditional society operating under the capitalist model was divided into two main social classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Due to material resources, the bourgeoisie class formed the ruling class by taking advantage of their material resources to secure ‘good living’ and political power. On the other hand, the proletariat class consisted of struggling members who lacked production means but needed to work in order to meet their basic needs. These circumstances forced the proletariat to depend on the bourgeoisie making them vulnerable to exploitation.

The bourgeoisie, the ruling class, is naturally exploitative because they rarely pay for the proletariat’s full value of labor; they only compensate them enough to ensure a constant manpower supply. Although the proletariat generates a substantial number of profits, the surplus is taken by the bourgeoisie and very little to the workers. This exploitation is typical of many state structures in Africa – the bourgeoisie commands most governments. Hence, naturally, the government or political systems are geared towards serving the ruling class’s needs and interests. Due to classism, many will always protect and prioritize the bourgeoisie’s interests at the proletariat’s expense.

While the colonial economy drew mining and agricultural farming into capitalism mode, other African economic activities retained their status quo. The peasants make up the African populace’s largest population. Therefore, they are the most vulnerable to state exploitation. Their small-scale farming can sustain their basic survival, and they only depend on external markets for goods that the farms cannot produce. This production mode makes the peasantry class self-sufficient and less vulnerable to bourgeoisie exploitation.

Experts have specified that this classism does not exist in Africa. Capitalism has not fully penetrated the continent due to the lack of widespread industrialization. Africa is characterized by communalism, where land rights for all and community cooperation are still valued. Instead of the typical bourgeoisie and proletariat classes, Africa has different social levels, including the peasantry class, the proletariat, the commercial bourgeoisie, and the bureaucratic bourgeoisie class. The peasantries (the majority of the continent’s population) are small-scale farmers who use simple equipment and family labor to produce resources for their consumption and fulfill their political obligations.

The proletariats are informal sector entrepreneurs and wage-earning or salaried individuals who sell their manpower for survival. The petty bourgeoisie is at the lower rank of the state bureaucracy, while the national bourgeoisie is the ruling class and comprises landowners, commercial farmers, and entrepreneurs. The bureaucratic bourgeoisie includes state decision-makers, political class (ministers and party officials), military officers, and public sector professionals.

These social groups have influenced the nature of African politics, which is characterized by hegemonism and shifting alliances within the ruling group. The bourgeoisie commands most governments; hence, the government or political systems are naturally geared towards serving the bourgeoisie’s needs and interests. However, unlike other states where the bourgeoisie is the ruling class, Africa’s ruling class comprises a coalition of social categories.

Each ruling class has members from different social groupings. However, it is worth mentioning that these strategic alliances are not formed based on group solidarity. Rather, they are established based on an individual’s willingness to cooperate with the allies to seek state resources. Therefore, social leaders identify each other and create political parties to serve their interests. Because each social class has its own needs, interests, and desires, internal conflicts in Africa’s ruling class are common. Competing interests in the ruling class cause the frequent military coups experienced in many African states.

Legitimacy in African Politics

Legitimacy refers to the leader-follower relationship guided by followers’ perception of the leader’s right to lead and exercise authority over them. It is a basis of power that enables leaders to influence and lead their followers without coercion or force. Legitimacy has contributed to the culture of monopolization, clientelism, and personal rule in African states. The legitimacy granted to the government by the constitution is referred to as a legal-rational authority.

A legal-rational authority is constituted to develop, execute, and enforce laws to advance the collective good. Therefore, citizens are expected to respect the government because it was specifically developed to protect their needs and interests. Unfortunately, most African governments lack this kind of legitimacy. Therefore, most African leaders rely on political strategies such as clientelism, political monopolization, and personal rule to acquire this legitimacy and political support.

A political monopoly is a form of coercive leadership in which the government is the only provider for social and economic goods and services. All forms of competition are abolished by law in a monopoly system. Political leaders in Africa stole power away from the civil society by adopting the liberal democratic institutions left behind by colonial powers and then centralizing and “patrimonializing” them. Although many African governments have constituted institutions, such as parliament and judiciary, these institutions are a facade of the legal-rational authority. Constituted institutions derive their power, control, and legitimacy from the constitution or the rule of law.

The facade results from government centralization, where power is concentrated in a specific area, including the executives. Because state power is accumulated in an area controlled and manipulated by top government officials, the constituted institutions cannot fully exercise their constitutional obligation to protect the civil society. In contrast, the executive, managed by the ruling class, can oversee the state’s political processes, state resources, and economic functions.

The ruling class can remove power from the civil society and the established institutions and grant it to a single individual or group. When a government is centralized, authority and resources cannot be equally shared between the state and civil society. Because the power is concentrated in the executive, the political leaders feel inclined to disobey the constituted institutions when their self-interests are threatened.

Political monopolization in Africa is characterized by one-party states and the executive’s bypass of constituted or peripheral institutions. In a monopolized political system, state resources are used as private property, and arbitrary/personal rule replaces the rule of law. One-party states reduce the link or connection between the state and civil society, worsening the internal conflicts. Usually, civil societies use political parties to air their demands to the rulers. However, with the lack of political competition caused by the one-party policy, many political leaders and bureaucrats take civil society’s needs for granted. This kind of monopolization has led to violent regimes, civil wars, coups d’états, human rights abuse, and inefficient governments.

As a result of centralization, most state power is concentrated in the executive, where political leaders can manipulate laws to their advantage. In a legal-rational authority, enforcing personal rules is impossible because accepted statutes and practices govern the society. Officials cannot interfere with their public duties to serve their private interests because and the whole governing process differentiates between private and public roles. However, patrimonialism is common in Africa’s political sphere due to power centralization and monopolization. Patrimonialism refers to a government where decision-making and authority are concentrated on a single person. Patrimonialism has led to permanent regimes (political systems where an individual permanently holds a single office position and encourages intra-government faction competition.


Ideology relates to a life-guiding system consisting of goals, values, and beliefs that impact political action and models or styles. The different ideologies that characterized African nationalism include African socialism, scientific socialism, populism, and state capitalism. Many African states embraced a socialist perspective following independence; this outlook was adopted to minimize the over-reliance on the West and oversee their economies’ restructuring to promote local development, reduce poverty, and enhance social welfare.

Many African leaders disregarded liberalism and capitalism and assumed a more egalitarian socialism approach to achieve the aforementioned objectives. African socialism acted as a ‘political talisman’ believed to generate material gains and progress to the continent. This ideology attempted to restore the conventional values such as equality, humanism, and cooperation and merge them with the advancing technology and the state. Through African socialism, the state was granted a central role socially, economically, and politically. Many African nations established one-party governments typified by minimal opposition. However, this leadership ideology was associated with significant drawbacks, including the inability to minimize poverty.

African socialism faced several criticisms, including alternative viewpoints’ repression and civil liberties’ suppression. This led to the adoption of scientific socialism, an ideology based on Marxism-Leninism, an approach that emphasized the development of working-class governments, who would rule in alliance with the peasant masses. However, due to the impact of difficult economic realities, African states, including scientific socialist nations, started liberalizing their public policy. Governments accepted structural adjustment programs controlled by global pecuniary organizations.

Populism is based on the notion that every person should engage in the political procedure and that government-affiliated institutions must be more responsive to their people’s needs. Examples of nations previously impacted by populism include Ghana, Sudan, and Burkina Faso. This ideology is typically linked with military federations, particularly in the African continent. Officers often launch a coup d’état to remove the previous corrupt and dictatorial jurisdiction. The military regime then tries to consolidate its authority by building or reconstructing new public organizations that terminate the gap between civil society and the state. Ideas emphasizing accountability, probity, and morality are highlighted, and new democracy levels and participation are promoted within the political procedure.

State capitalism is another ideology that was adopted by nations including Gabon, Morocco, and Kenya. Rather than overseeing a command economy, whereby the state directly controls economic production, exchange, and distribution, these regimes encouraged private businesses. These states also welcomed foreign investment, and the self-reliance perspective was relatively absent. As opposed to civil society, the government was the senior-most partner in any political or economic activity. These nations were not more democratic compared to their neighbors and were typified by self-centered political elites. Economically, these states succumbed to the global financial organizations’ demands, despite their attempt to thrive economically after independence.