Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

Patronate-Based Elites in African Societies: Responsive or Reactive?

Elites are considered to be a personalized type of political players.  It is common knowledge that the role of elites in the development of a country is projected in economic sector, in political and social spheres.  Elites exhibit their role as actors in a complex of intertwined economic, political and social interactions between citizens.  Modern economic and political elites conduct activity in a new global configuration, produced by the emerging post-Westphalia world order.  The present state of affairs suggests changes and challenges posed to the present international system – most evidently, by the gradual decline of state as a key player in the chessfield of international affairs.  The shift of focus is thus evident, as domestic economy, which is one of the classic domains of state prevalence now is likely to come to the hands of new players.

The Post-Westphalian era creates a new framework of action for elites, as the role of the State as a key player has been decreased.  The State as a player gradually steps away from the intense market interactions in certain areas, and this gives way to the activisation of alternative players.  In developed economies, this new configuration contributed to the expansion of the role of political and economic elites in post-Westphalia conditions, whereas in underdeveloped economies the situation is not so obvious.  In underdeveloped political systems, the structure of industries and markets is still largely dependent on the State as a regulator of economic transactions.  These markets exist in conditions of traditional society, where the component of personal interaction may at times be more important than the rule of conduct, introduced by the State.

The type of economic and political elite in a given country depends largely on the regime type, which exists in it.  The type and essence of regime predetermine the type of governance in the country, which, in its turn, influences the functioning of the country’s economy in general.

In underdeveloped economies, major economic subjects – elites – conduct their economic activity under strong influence of the system of interactions, which is typical for traditional societies.  In these traditional economies, patronate-based elites play the role of key economic and political actors on both the economic market and the political arena.

Globalization increases elites’ competition and widens the prospects of modernization in these economies.  The governments are induced to maintain the “opening” of these societies, develop the economy and thus limit the regulating capacity in a country.   However, this entails a potential of fragmentation of a weak state, because in many post-colonial African states their survival as independent states depends solely on the international recognition of their sovereignty.

Africa is associated with particular political and economic development mechanisms.  The internal security configuration in Africa is under strong influence of clientelism, which may be defined as dissemination of ethnic, religious, clan-based, family-based and other liaisons in the political sphere.  Clientelism remains one of the basic principles of recruitment of elites in underdeveloped countries (such as Somalia and Ethiopia).  Political and economic tradition still plays a foremost role in these societies.  In countries of Africa in general the process of state-building has never been accomplished according to western standards.  As a result, it is these countries where all mistakes and miscalculations of governance are most visible (see Zartman 1995).  Studying elites as political and economic actors in Africa can be conducted within the framework of discussing personalized actors of intra-societal interaction.  In Somalia, the analysis of elites is complicated, because a single economic subject may be represented in different elite strata.  This results in constant internal uncertainty and hinders economic development.  In underdeveloped societies polarized elites rest on the same social base, and this contributes to permanent instability in the political sphere.

One of the key differences between western and oriental practices of creating intra-state political structure is visualized in the tradition of recruiting the ruling elite through political parties’ competition.  Political parties in African societies are often formed on the basis of “patron-client” relationship, which excludes the consideration of political platforms and manifestos of the parties.  The political relations between parties are substituted by the vulnerable system of personal and often family- or relative-based relations between leaders and party members. In certain cases, this system is based on relationship between ethnic clans, local communities and religious groups, which are related neither with party policy, nor with party manifesto.

Organizational structure in such societies is based on authoritarian principles.  The key political leader (often an incumbent president) creates a ruling “presidency clan” – an informal network of professional politicians and businessmen, who hold key posts in the government.  This structure rests on the system of personal relations between its members, which may be based on religious, ethnic, family unity, as well as on connection in business liaisons and common political interests.

Internal security configuration in these countries is haunted by the problem of power distribution and means of adapting traditional institutions of regulating national economies to new formats.  During the whole post colonial period traditional economic and political institutions of these societies have been transforming in order to adapt to liberalized markets, fast-track democratization and structural transformation of political and economic systems of these countries.  Nonetheless, political elites failed to deal with the focal problem of power transfer, which is crucial for maintaining the process of democratic liberalization and opening of national economies.  Political elites were eventually substituted by alternative elites – that is, patronate-based elites, which were formed on the basis of clan relationships between different ethnic groups.  It is these “new old” political-economic elites that one needs to consider while assessing any political process in an African country today.

Natalia Piskunova, Russia
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2014 Session


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