From similar beginnings to different outcomes: a look at coalition politics and institutional transformation in contemporary Africa – Fellows’ seminar by Moses Khisa

8 April 2022

Why do rulers and regimes that have fairly similar political motivations and social backgrounds, under relatively similar sets of conditions and timings, produce contrasting institutional outcomes? And how do we account for the sources of institutional change and the foundations of political order in contemporary Africa?

These are some of the questions that STIAS fellow, Moses Khisa, of the School of Public and International Affairs, North Carolina State University probes in his book project which encompasses a theoretical analysis to understand how power is organised in some African countries today. “It’s about understanding political developments and the dynamics of institutional change across the African continent,” he explained.

STIAS Fellow Moses Khisa during his seminar on 5 April 2022

By conducting detailed case studies of four countries – Rwanda, Ethiopia, Ghana and his home country of Uganda – he hopes to understand current institutional arrangements and how they came about.

“It’s an important political conundrum for Africa,” he said. “These institutional pillars were aimed at establishing order, long-standing peace and stability but this is not always the case.”

“Of course, political order and stability is not just an African issue,” he added. “Many parts of the world are wrestling with change and transformation, and stability remains elusive in many regions – as the current European crisis is showing us.”

It’s also important at a global level that we understand how state institutions come about and how more democratic institutions are created to understand events in countries undergoing similar processes like Afghanistan currently.

Khisa pointed out that much of the scholarly work in this area tends towards cynicism and pessimism pointing to “African politics that is about big men and politics characterised by disorder”. It also highlights cultural determinism emphasising the uniqueness of the African cultural system, as well as the overriding impact of colonialism and external influences like the Cold War and structural adjustment programmes.

In contrast his hypothesis is that a lot has to do with coalition politics particularly in the early years of regime formation.

In many of these states initial post-independence governments were challenged in the 1970s and 80s by military coups and civil wars resulting in the near collapse of some. Many of the leaders who captured power shared similar features – they were young, often charismatic, had military backgrounds and were schooled in leftist Marxism. They had grand agendas to review politics, establish new states far from those of colonial and post-colonial governments and to restructure and engineer society. “They were seen as a new breed of leadership on the continent,” said Khisa.

The institutional arrangements in these four countries started with a critical junctures or big turning points – a new government comes into power either by civil war or military coup – and all were reformist regimes with ambitious agendas.

“There is often an idealism underlying these initial quests for power but this changes during the course,” he said. “We have to ask why? State building usually has trade-offs underpinned by internal power struggles and contestations.”

“Almost all groups that militarily capture state power, face a daunting legitimacy dilemma,” he added. “Thus, they tend to seek coalitions with other social and political groups for practical and instrumental purposes”.

Decoupling power

Khisa described two levels of power – power as infrastructure and power as despotic.

Infrastructural power relates to the state’s capacity to function, implement its agenda and enforce rules and the extent to which state institutions function effectively and efficiently. Despotic power is more procedural and related to how decision making is done. It refers to the range of institutions for decision-making and accountability.

“They are the two sides of the institutional rubric and often don’t go together,” he explained. “Some countries attain high institutional power but infrastructural capacity remains tenuous. They may have a variety of democratic institutions but their capacity to function is weak, constrained and poor. By contrast some states are functional but procedural institutions are absent or don’t function well. You can also have high capacity but democratic accountability is absent.”

“Ethiopia, for example, is seen as an authoritarian state with aggressive intervention in society and economy. Ghana is a consolidated liberal democracy but has less-developed state capacity. Rwanda is run like a co-op, business orientated and highly authoritative. While Uganda is seen as stable, semi-authoritarian and semi-democratic but state institutions are weak despite pockets of bureaucratic efficiency. Civil society organisations have proliferated but are not strong enough. The state as a whole is fragmented, afflicted by corruption, with political influence overriding other considerations.”

“If we consider World Bank ratings for accountability and voice – Ghana does well, Uganda falls somewhere in the middle and Ethiopia and Rwanda are rated low.”

Inclusivity vs. exclusivity

Khisa explained in detail his theory about the politics of coalitions which he believes is an important base for these contrasting outcomes.

“Inclusive coalitions bring in a bigger spectrum of actors and public participation, an opening up of the political arena, with some delegation and power sharing, multiple centres of power and decentralisation. This gives the potential of stronger national legitimacy and more checks and balances but can also fuel patronage relationships which leads to more corruption and undermines bureaucratic efficiency. “It’s difficult to control a bigger set of actors,” he said.

“On the other hand, if the founding coalition is less inclusive, more procedural and despotic there is an exclusive, limited elite which tends to be associated with official elite corruption. Exclusion creates risk to the top which tries to pursue legitimacy through other means. Exclusionary regulation creates enemies and reduces the ways of profiting by official corruption.”

“Broader, more inclusive governing coalitions produce relatively more functional decision-making institutions such as national legislatures and local councils. But the downside is that such inclusive politics undermines decision-implementation institutionalisation and state capacity, owing to the demands and competing interests of different elite groups and varied constituencies. Empirically, the cases of Ghana and Uganda fall under this category of democratic institutionalisation,” he said. “By contrast, less-inclusive ruling coalitions result in regimes that take the institutional trajectory of less institutionalised decision-making but are able to build more robust implementation capabilities. By excluding some sections of the political elite classes, the ruling group monopolises the political space and imposes its socio-political agenda. The cases of Ethiopia and Rwanda represent authoritarian institutionalisation.”

“But there is no single magic explanation,” he said. “It’s organic evolution with failing and flaws until a sustainable direction is reached. Of course, other countries took hundreds of years to evolve. You can’t midwife a system of government overnight.”

Asked what he thought the influence of the COVID pandemic might have on state-building in Africa, he replied: “The African Union has done a lot regarding COVID – there have been positive steps but I’m sceptical about whether the AU can play a role in the transformation of African systems. There are limits to the AU, and a lot depends on what states can do internally.”

“In some cases COVID was the perfect excuse for re-establishing repression by rulers who don’t want accountability. But is this sustainable?”

“I’m critical of attempts to find global templates that Africa should fit into,” he concluded. “We don’t need standards brought from elsewhere. Practical questions of managing society, in particular, don’t need a European template. We shouldn’t use a Western lens to judge African outcomes. We need to see what the internal processes tell us.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu




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