14 Recalling the Significance of Local Governance to Human Security in Illiberal Sub-Saharan African Contexts

Christopher LaMonica

Learning Outcomes & Big Ideas

  • Local governance is crucial to human security.
  • Locally defined political liberalisms and human security are inextricably linked.
  • Africanists need to refocus their energies on matters of local governance to help identify how this can benefit human security.
  • Due to the deeply entrenched norm of central government empowerment, established during both the colonial era and the Cold War, strengthening local government institutions in sub-Saharan African states is not only challenging but broadly viewed as a ‘non-starter.’


The citizens of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) states experienced two waves of great democratic hope: the 1960s and the 1990s. Yet in the 21st century most SSA states are still troubled by undemocratic forms of governance, severe dependence on development aid, and poor human security across all four pillars. Population growth, environmental degradation, violent conflict, and corruption at all levels renders developmental prospects of all kinds less likely than in most other parts of the developing world. Indeed, many argue that SSA states are now worse off than at the time of independence, or what has been termed the “Year of Africa,” 1960.

Today, depending on who is asked, this developmental shortfall tends to be blamed on either internal (weak African state) or external (powerful state) actors. During the Cold War, the explanatory divide over Africa’s ‘development dilemma’ was largely ideological, broadly referred to as a battle between a ‘free’ (private property oriented) First World and a (Marxist-Leninist oriented) Second World. And while each ideological side was firmly convinced of its own moral superiority and practical worth, both tended to promote change of internal African (and all Third World state) conditions. This was of course achieved through a variety of coercive methods that included proprietary loans, (later) loan conditions, and infamously, the support of one or another ideological side in protracted ‘proxy wars’. Post-Cold War, in spite of claims to the contrary, this ideological divide continues to be influential and continues to dominate both politics and policy; yet, if one can see beyond the ideological lenses of yesteryear, the truth is that both sets of stakeholders (internal and external) are crucial to developmental success in SSA. Today we all need to move beyond the ideological divide that was so firmly embedded in our governing norms and institutions during the Cold War. Today, we must speak clearly about the ongoing challenge of centralized non-democratic norms — a powerful remnant of colonial history — that have led to illiberal authoritarian circumstances throughout SSA, with grave consequences for human security. This chapter suggests that greater attention to the development of local governance norms and institutions could make a significant difference at improving the prospects for individual livelihoods, democratic hope, and ultimately, human security. Doing so would help to provide new and necessary governance frameworks for locally defined forms of liberalism that would inevitably impact people’s day-to-day affairs and, more broadly, empower communities to address their own locally identified challenges.

Chapter Overview

14.1 Introduction

14.2 Post-Cold War Realities in Sub-Saharan Africa Versus Africanist Scholarship

14.2.1 History

14.2.2 The Rise of Illiberal Democracy

14.3 Assessing Value

14.4 Making Historical Comparisons

14.4.1 Falling into Extremes

14.4.2 Liberalism and Democracy

14.4.3 Liberalism Versus Democracy

14.4.4 Stumbling Blocks

14.4.5 The Future

14.5 Conclusion: Recalling the Significance of Local Government Institutions

Resources and References

Key Points

Extension Activities & Further Research

List of Terms

Suggested Reading


14.1 Introduction

In a provocative 1997 article entitled “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Fareed Zakaria convincingly argued that, despite holding formal elections, liberal democratic practice in most of the world’s newly declared ‘democracies’ remained elusive (Zakaria, 1997). Zakaria was asking us all to think critically of the sudden rise of democratic elections taking place in the post-Cold War context for, in his view, they remained illiberal or ‘not free.’ For many, this kind of critique of a Cold War victory of liberalism over Marxist-oriented ideas was not especially welcome; after all, liberalism — as Francis Fukuyama had so famously declared — was the ‘right’ answer to all governance woes (Fukuyama, 1989). Wars had been fought and untold millions had died in the defence of freedom! Gradually, yet surely, a growing number of defenders of liberalism (of freedom) have been obliged to concede that illiberal conditions now prevail among many of the world’s newly declared ‘democracies’ (Kagan, 2019).

In the 21st century, Africanists have been slow to respond to this new political reality. Stubbornly tied to state-centric norms within the field, the majority of Africanists have continued to speak of ‘democratization’ at the central government level and systematically ignore the challenges of governance at the local level. Ignoring local governance not only postpones potentially meaningful dialogues on democratization, it also detracts policymakers from developing “strategies that strengthen the protection and empowerment framework needed for the assurance of human security” as defined by the UN Generally Assembly (UNGA A/64/701). This chapter is written in response to both the 2009 UN Report on Human Security to the Secretary-General and to Zakaria’s academic challenge, for both human security and liberal democracy are inextricably intertwined. Moreover, the realization of both human security and liberal democracy in sub-Saharan Africa will require that policymakers at all levels place a renewed emphasis on local governance. Absent local governance, only the most superficial observations of SSA state democracy and human security can be expected.

14.2 Post-Cold War Realities in Sub-Saharan Africa Versus Africanist Scholarship

The end of Cold War patronage has had dramatic implications for governance in sub-Saharan Africa. Without US-Soviet rivalry, the kinds of support that corrupt[1] African state leaders had come to rely on is now gone, leaving central government leaders decidedly less at ease. What this could mean for the citizens of sub-Saharan African states is a new possibility for democratic hope, the kind of hope proponents of democratization have long had for the African continent. Unfortunately, to date, a good number of Africanists have continued their long-established pattern of remaining focused on politics at the central government level. Moreover, many are repeating the error that occurred during the era of Africa’s ‘first independence’: interpreting political events in an overly optimistic and, in the end, quite superficial manner.

14.2.1 History

Of course, Africanists of all political perspectives have maintained that the first real democratic hope for sub-Saharan Africa came with decolonization — the ‘Year of Africa’: 1960 — when thirteen African states gained their independence; from France: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte D’Ivoire, Gabon, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Togo and the Republic of the Congo; and from the UK: Nigeria and Somalia; from Belgium: the Democratic Republic of Congo. Others were soon to follow suit and many scholars of the time, such as the young Immanuel Wallerstein, were thrilled to partake in these great historical events and wrote of them with great optimism (Wallerstein, 1961, 1967). During the decades that followed, however, the subject of African politics was decidedly less popular among scholars and students alike. Even that previous generation that had expressed so much optimism in the 1950s and 1960s now deemed African studies as somehow less appealing, irrelevant, or even ‘too depressing’ (Kitching, 2000). And even Wallerstein, who has moved on to other areas of academic inquiry, now considers his optimistic language of the time to be unwarranted (Wallerstein, 1995).

The same can be said of the optimistic observations made by many observers of African politics in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War — what Colin Legum referred to as Africa’s ‘Second Independence’ (Legum, 1990). Writing for the Journal of Democracy, for example, Richard Joseph declared in 1991: “It is conceivable that by 1992 the continent will be overwhelmingly democratic in composition” (Joseph, 1991, p. 32). Carol Lancaster was similarly upbeat in an article written for Foreign Policy, noting that “three-fourths of the 47 countries south of the Sahara are in various stages of political liberalisation” (Lancaster, 1992, p. 148). The primary reason for these Africanists’ optimism was that democratic elections were suddenly taking place across the African continent after decades of single-party and/or autocratic rule. Yet, just a few years later, doubts were being expressed about the ‘wave of democratization’ that was taking place, not only in Africa, but also around the globe.

14.2.2 The Rise of Illiberal Democracy

It was in 1997 that Zakaria famously remarked: We see the rise of a disturbing phenomenon — illiberal democracy.” He explains: “It has been difficult to recognize the problem because for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy — a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.” Zakaria’s crucial insight that has clear implications for today’s new democratic states (and perhaps some of the older ones as well), is that liberalism is “theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy” (Zakaria, 1997, p. 22).

It could be argued that today the vague term of democratization, still in vogue in some circles, is gradually being replaced by the notion of democracy alongside political liberalisation — terms that, for many, are more meaningful and more easily subjected to scrutiny and measurement. This is because, as Zakaria points out, the sine qua non of democracy is, indeed, elections; and now that most of sub-Saharan African states are holding elections, they can be called formal ‘democracies.’ But there can be little doubt that observers of African politics have always had more in mind, when speaking of democratization, than the formal process of democratic elections. Many of the aforementioned observers of African politics were thinking not only of ‘democracy,’ but also the prospects for political liberalisation, that is, the various forms of political freedom. This post-Cold War concern is not only more ‘refined’ than what was typically argued during the Cold War; it has also made countless observers more sensitive to the need for local institutional support for liberal and other policy aims that directly impact human security. With human security in mind the pressing question for Africanists to ponder is whether neo-colonial norms of centralized governance, in this period of ‘Second Independence,’ can really be challenged. And there are reasons to be pessimistic because neo-colonial norms have prioritized the whims of those in central government and dominated the political culture in Africa for decades.

In the period of ‘First Independence,’ many Africanists refused to assign part of the responsibility to external powers such as those that helped to create the conditions for political monsters like Desiré Mobutu. Instead, they focused on the internal political realities and were freely writing about a ‘unique’ form of African political leadership that was patrimonial, patriarchal, etc. in form. Harvard’s Martin Kilson and Robert I. Rotberg are prime examples of Africanist scholars who based their entire careers on critiquing African leadership. With the implicit presumption that our external influence could only be benevolent, these Africanists argued that it was they — the Africans — who had a host of internal leadership problems. As early as 1963, Kilson was pessimistically describing the ‘patrimonial,’ ‘neo-patrimonial,’ ‘patriarchal,’ ‘authoritarian and single-party tendencies in African politics’ and Rotberg has been a consistent contributor to the ‘irresponsible’ and ‘corrupt’ African leader perspective. Since the Cold War these established scholars have not adjusted their thinking and in a 2004 contribution to Foreign Affairs Rotberg wrote that, “Africa has long been saddled with poor, even malevolent, leadership: predatory kleptocrats, military-installed autocrats, economic illiterates, and puffed-up posturers” (Rotberg, 2004, p. 14). And, of course, scores of others have remained in this ‘career-safe’ sceptical mode of talking about the internal shortcomings of Africa and/or Africans. To continue along the path of one-sided pessimism, I submit, is not only inaccurate, it is irresponsible scholarship that is good for careers in political science but hardly an accurate description of Africa’s political realities, past or present. The corrupt political phenomena that Kilson, Rotberg, and other experts describe do and have existed in Africa, but they cannot be attributed to only central government politics and politicians.

As Peter Schraeder and other Africanists have emphasized, responsibility for the lack of checks and balances in modern African contexts — that is, the abuse of political power — cannot be accurately portrayed as a uniquely African creation and that African political failures are and have been greatly influenced by external forces (Schraeder, 2004, p. 66). Indeed, the fact that Africanists have continued to make generalisations about African political realities based only on observations about central governments has only further aggravated the distortions that lead to misunderstanding. So ironically, both the optimistic and pessimistic views of today’s Africanists are much in alignment in that they both base their observations on central government events. Both, I contend, are largely superficial as a result and far removed from matters of local governance that impact human security for millions of sub-Saharan state citizens. As part of an effort to correct these distortions, the next generation of Africanists needs to have a more balanced perspective on the significance of both internal and external capabilities and influences, and to re-focus its energies on matters of local governance.

To do this, Africanists should also take a careful look at the clash of indigenous governing norms and the history of colonial efforts to implement new local government norms and institutions. Due to the Cold War tendency of focusing on central government politics, much of this local level discussion remains marginalized — addressed mostly, if not only, by the field of anthropology. Of course, there are also very real problems with the historical literature. For example, the writings of careful colonial observers of African politics, such as Lord Hailey, are problematic in the sense that doubtlessly they prioritized the interests and racial attitudes of the British Colonial Office. In retrospect, however, it should be recalled that Hailey’s local governance focus also aimed at achieving “the general improvement of the standards of life of the African peoples” (Hailey, 1938, p. 1600; Wolton, 2000). To date, the vast majority of Africanists has tended to ignore the fact that some improvements in local governance were achieved during the colonial era as — quite understandably — this would require ‘placing aside’ the racial attitudes and dramatic violence caused to African peoples and their pre-colonial governing institutions. But the same can be, and is, said of the histories of today’s free democracies, notably of the United States (consider Zinn, 1980). The point is, we can and should acknowledge the hugely flawed approaches to governance used in the early democratic states as elsewhere in the world, while simultaneously acknowledging some of the substantive gains of infrastructure, local governance, and political communication that were made. At present historical discussions on local governance in formerly colonized regions of the world are almost completely lacking; when mentioned they are usually dismissed as self-serving, wrongheaded, racist, or worse, with little attention to the sometimes mutually beneficial and potentially humanistic aims of those involved.

14.3 Assessing Value

As is the case in today’s liberal democratic states, changes of methods in governance are rarely made without some form of coercion or even conflict, but to summarily dismiss such efforts as colonial, as many Africanists are inclined to do, is not especially helpful. In the interest of having a frank discussion on local governance, it must also be said that there remains among many observers of African politics the idealization of pre-existing political norms and institutions, in much the same way as French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau is said to have spoken of the ‘noble savage’ that could do no wrong.[2] According to these scholars, all that was indigenous prior to the arrival of the colonizer was best and the ongoing encounter with the outside world has been only detrimental – akin to the unfortunate introduction of Original Sin to Adam and Eve or to the Christian doctrine of the Fall of Man (e.g. Asante, 2007). The fact is that many well known Western Africanists are direct beneficiaries of a history of colonial governance, though they scarcely give the issue thought. The problem, in their minds, is simply ‘over there’ in Africa and their colonial legacy.

Africanists, such as Bernard Lugan, who have attempted to suggest that some advances in governance were made during the colonial era, have been dubbed conservative révisionnistes or worse (Lugan, 2004). But even the most critical of the colonial era should agree that local governance and human security have declined in vast regions of sub-Saharan Africa since the 1960s wave of independence movements – notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where over 5 million souls have been lost in just a few years in a complex protracted war (Prunier, 2009; Stearns, 2011). Critics like Adam Hochschild and Michela Wrong have correctly noted that the circumstances at independence were far from adequate: in the entire Congolese state there were fewer than thirty African university graduates and only three Congolese were employed in the five thousand management level positions in civil service (Hochschild, 1998, p. 301; Wrong, 2002). Yet all agree that the infrastructural and other public service gains that might have been achieved within the Belgian Congo during the colonial period deteriorated over the many decades that followed independence. That is, in the literature on the history of the DRC there is an acknowledgment of colonial infrastructural gains, though the focus is generally on colonial violence and post-independence decline.

Michela Wrong, for example, highlights the desperate efforts of all citizens to just get by with virtually no income in former Zaire: “knowing how to ‘se débrouiller,’” she tells us, “that untranslatable French concept meaning to fend for oneself, to cope against all odds, to manage somehow…” became crucial to survival. She continues:

For public servants, juggling two jobs – the one that involved sitting in a dimly lit office reading newspapers and the real one that started at noon and, hopefully, brought in some real money — became the norm. The skill was finding a Darwinian niche in the ecosystem, the tiny competitive edge that meant one had something to sell, a means of survival in a ruthless world… (Wrong, 2002, p. 152)

Throughout the Cold War period this entailed the use and abuse of public assets and, as Wrong describes, any leverage that a government job might provide. With Cold War patronage, the State became a resource to latch onto if one was lucky enough to do so though the overall trajectory was of state decline.

The post-Cold War period has now challenged that previously entrenched norm of survival. Wrong describes the decline in terms of a gradual withdrawal from all formal sector jobs:

In 1955 nearly 40 per cent of the active population worked in the formal sector. By the 1990s, this had shrunk to 5 per cent and the official figures for per capita income had fallen to a laughable — and obviously impossible — $120 a year. (Wrong, 2002, p. 152)

According to the Gérard Prunier, author of Africa’s World War, the issues at independence were much like the adage so often attributed to Antonio Gramsci: the Old was dead but the New was not yet born — “a dangerous moment indeed” (Prunier, 2009, p. xxx). Whatever the exact reasons – Cold War patronage, fluctuations of the global economy, etc. — the gains of infrastructural development and local governance that took place during the colonial era were gradual and surely lost. Regaining an interest in the redevelopment of these areas is, upon reflection, eminently important to the realization of human security. Since the end of the colonial era these issues have been apparently lost in the overly optimistic first wave (1960s; second wave 1990s), and in today’s pessimistic literature of the postcolonial left and the corrupt-leadership-focused right.

Moreover, in policy circles the process of strengthening local government institutions in sub-Saharan African contexts has been viewed, largely within the context of internal ‘decentralization policies,’ as a drain on central government resources and power — but it need not be so. Proponents of such zero-sum views assume that the functioning of local governments takes place at the expense of central government authority and control. Indeed, the fact that Africa’s central government leaders have tended to hold onto central government political power is nothing new; what is dramatically different in the post-Cold War context is that external Cold War patronage that tended to support central over local government leadership, is now over. This new environment has already led to highly publicized political reforms, including the aforementioned ‘wave of democracy.’ Yet, as indicated above, most observers of African politics remain focused on central government events.

14.4 Making Historical Comparisons

Although today’s politically liberal observers vary in their views as to how central and local governments function, the assumption among them is that there are at least some positive-sum gains to be had between local and central governments. Considerations of these local-central government relationships, not only at present but throughout history, do matter to the realization of political liberalism in all contexts. One should not shy away from making historical comparisons of yesterday’s liberalisation experiences with the circumstances of today’s liberalizing states.

Political theorists of the post-independence era of the 1950s and 60s similarly emphasized the need for ‘order’ in African and other developing country contexts before political liberalisation can take place. For example, in his 1968 book, Political Order in Changing Societies, Samuel Huntington famously argued that ‘political decay’ was to be temporarily expected in developing state contexts as they liberalize (Huntington, 1968). Disorder, Huntington argued, was part of the process of change — in fact, disorder and the ‘promise of disharmony,’ he later argued, is what the practice of democratic freedom requires (Huntington, 1981). In retrospect, of course, such arguments can be seen as providing excuses for delaying progress towards political liberalisation in the developing world, such as the kinds of Cold War influences that supported dictatorships elsewhere in the world (notably throughout the Middle East). The human reality since that initial period of optimism for African political change has been decreasing standards of living throughout the sub-Saharan African region, as so vividly described by Wrong and many others.

Many observers of the left and right, who had been so optimistic at independence, now deem African development as a lost cause. In fact, some Africanists have been so discouraged by events of recent decades that they have simply chosen to walk away from the African area of studies (Kitching, 2000). Those who have remained seem to focus on either the development of an African ‘civil society’ (bottom-up) or a change in African ‘leadership’ (top-down). Yet neither of these groups, roughly representing the Western political left and right, respectively, dares to make direct historical comparisons based on the practical underpinnings of liberal democratic practice. Instead, ideological assumptions that they might have about political development anywhere are simply transferred to their observations about politics in Africa. Both developmental agenda, in other words, are prone to ‘one size fits all.’ The one group of theorists that does emphasize historical circumstances — the historical structuralists (Marxist-Leninists) – have generally deemed Africa’s developmental circumstances as a kind of lost cause due to the nature of the global capitalist system. Since Africa’s independence, the very idea of comparisons of political development North-to-South, or developed countries versus LDCs (less developed countries) has been largely discredited due to the earlier works of modernisation theorists such as Daniel Lerner (1958) or Walter Rostow (1960).

14.4.1 Falling into Extremes

Genuine debates on the matter of political development are, in a sense, confined to a rather superficial level, largely because of persistent differences of ideology. On the one hand, many progressive leftist Africanists simply dismiss direct comparisons of political behaviour and experience as ‘modernisation theory’ and/or dismiss the prospects for African development because of the global capitalist system; their inclination is to support the development of African ‘civil society,’ largely based on their own preconceptions of democratic development at home, whereby the people ‘rose up’ to check the abuse of political power (Chazan, et al., 1999; Cooper, 2002). On the other hand, many conservative rightist Africanists prefer to avoid any discussion of external influences on today’s African realities and focus on the failings of what goes on within individual African states, for example, irresponsible leadership and their lack of understanding of effective policy, and unethical or corrupt governing norms (Rotberg, 2002; Lugan, 2004). The fact of the matter is that both groups have an overarching interest in promoting ‘modernisation’ of African states and societies, as can be seen in the ongoing work of the development industry.

The majority of Africanists fall into the first three columns: the first two columns represent the broad differences of those involved in the development industry who tend to focus on the internal changes required within African states to achieve ‘modern’ developmental goals. The third column includes many leftist academics, both within Africa and elsewhere, and though there might be much truth to their arguments, there are few professions where one can be an advocate of them other than in teaching and/or scholarship within Western power structures. In sub-Saharan African contexts, by contrast, this kind of logic has received much political support! Change of the external power structure is where there is the greatest political resistance and, in fact, there are inevitably local beneficiaries of relationships with external actors (forth column). Local beneficiaries are the local powerful who tend to be on the more conservative side of the political spectrum, locally defined.

Table 14.1a Internal focus on reasons for developmental woes[3]
Political Orientation Left[4] Right[5]
Developmental Agenda
  • Civil society
  • Community
  • Education
  • Empowerment
  • Leadership
  • Governance
  • Policy
  • Anti-corruption
Table 14.1b External focus on reasons for developmental woes[6]
Political Orientation Left[7] Right[8]
Developmental Agenda
  • Anti-colonialism
  • Social justice against capitalist exploitation
  • Cold War
  • Against neo-colonialism
  • Power, influence, wealth
  • Establishment of joint ventures (African government, foreign investment)
  • ‘Order’/non-democratic government
  • Attracting foreign direct investment (FDI); supporting multinational corporations (MNCs), notably resource extraction industries

Given those diverse orientations about addressing African political concerns, it should come as no surprise that many African citizens themselves are losing faith in any ‘democracy’ that they might have had just a few years ago, in part because they have little faith in the development industry described above and because, for many, the meanings of democracy, democratization, liberalism and neoliberalism are too easily conflated. The work of Nigerian scholar J. Shola Omotola demonstrates, for example, that in African contexts ‘liberal democracy’ is generally equated with neoliberalism which is generally aimed at reforming markets in a reckless and ideological fashion (Omotola, 2009).

14.4.2 Liberalism and Democracy

Today, Africanists must address the shortcomings of formal ‘democracy’ and turn their attention to how their governing institutions can support locally defined forms of liberalism (understood as political freedom). This will require true historical comparisons that have thus far eluded the field of African area studies and mainstream comparative politics. But there are a few examples of this kind of effort. One is a 2001 book by Africanist Robert Bates, who undoubtedly wrote of the structure and purpose of Europe’s pre-liberal governing institutions with African political development in mind. For him, the original purpose of governing institutions was to control violence and, for individual citizens in the history of democratic states, this is experienced at the local level. ‘Political development,’ Bates argues, “occurs when people domesticate violence.… Coercion becomes productive when it is employed not to seize or to destroy wealth, but rather to safeguard and promote its creation” (Bates, 2001, pp. 101-102). For Bates, Europe’s pre-liberal governing institutions, by helping to deter violence, in turn aided European development. Again, with African development clearly on his mind, he argues rather provocatively, “Societies that are now urban, industrial and wealthy were themselves once rural, agrarian and poor” (p. 21).

To his credit, Bates does emphasize the importance of local government to political development in history. But like other conservative Africanists, Bates ignores the link between local governmental development and the new, and historically significant, external influences on African development. That is, there can be no doubt that local governance in sub-Saharan Africa has been dramatically affected by the dictates from outside actors (colonial, Cold War, developers, investors); the same could not be said of the medieval European village. On the other side of the political spectrum, leftist/historical structuralist Africanists are right to emphasize the role of history but, as in all schools of thought, the emphasis tends to be on ‘state’ development.

The rise of today’s illiberal democracy conditions that have direct significance to matters of human security is a direct result of today’s external/globalization pressures. Yet most observers continue to interpret illiberal conditions in the world through a superficial Cold War lens of a state-wide label of ‘democracy or not,’ rather than focusing on the needs of citizens on the ground. For example, in a 2004 article entitled ‘Why Democracies Excel,’ the authors provide a variety of statistics to make the point that democratic states outperform autocratic states in virtually every category of developmental change: economic growth, quality of life indices, and avoidance of humanitarian crises (Siegle et al., 2004). This is undoubtedly true.[9] But in doing so, they conflate liberalism and democracy. As Zakaria suggests, it is high time that we start moving away from ‘democracy or not’ superficiality and toward the important details that lead to liberal (locally–defined) circumstances that improve the prospects for human security.

As the Arab Spring (and other springs) demonstrates, Huntington’s 1968 argument that ‘political decay’ is only part of the process of change and that authoritarian regimes are a kind of necessary evil that promotes order amidst chaos, is now being challenged from all sides. That is, the policy of ‘order over democracy’ may not be as valid as previously thought and, following Siegle et al, we know that democratic states do consistently outperform ‘orderly’ autocratic or military forms of governance. But most discussions of what is required for newly declared democracies to work tend to remain focused on central over local governmental leadership.

Thus far the internal demand side of the debates on democratization has generally been portrayed in terms of ‘civil society.’ The prevailing logic of civil society proponents is that improved livelihoods, at the individual and local level, will lead to a variety of developmental improvements, manifesting in such phenomena as public political protest, which will eventually take place within the political system. In African contexts they have generally argued in terms of developing the demands of individuals and local representatives so that they may act, collectively, as a safeguard over otherwise authoritarian forms of government. This makes good theoretical sense but the efforts to improve livelihoods at the local level generally have little to do with locally-defined liberal ideals. Instead, discussions of civil society are overwhelmingly oriented toward the policy debates within ‘developmental circles’ that relate, specifically, to the provision of public services, such as water and electricity. While the provision of these public services is undoubtedly a meritorious venture, it is unclear that older democracies developed in such a fashion. Policy debates on democratization, framed either as an ideological quest or as a desperate call for water or electricity, are importantly neglecting the historical underpinnings of liberalism.

14.4.3 Liberalism Versus Democracy

The hard fact that Africanists have been slow to respond to is that democratic elections are limited in their impact. In today’s African context, a fundamental truth is that ‘democracy,’ as with previous forms of government, has been handed down from above without any political struggle by a large section of the people. While the media might portray urban protests as a positive sign of political struggle, a sizable percentage of sub-Saharan African citizens reside in the countryside where the kind of coordination required for effective political protest is generally lacking. This, in fact, may be very analogous to what happened in early democracies, where urban protest (later documented by historians) was where the debates of political theory took place, while the masses in the rural countryside remained largely removed from the process. ‘Democracy,’ in other words, can be thought of as an arrangement of the elites to keep the masses contented; all the while, liberalism is what the masses cared most about. ‘Democracy,’ conceived another way, was how then reigning elites maintained order, while simultaneously disposing of monarchy — obviously a direct interest of elites who were to usurp political power. Faced with an opportunity for establishing liberal state practice, elites were keen to do so, as it protected their own property (thereby avoiding disorder), but it also appealed to the masses in ways that Bates refers to (avoidance of violence) and, gradually, a sense of new possibilities for the future. In early democratic states then, as in new democratic states today, the vast majority of rural and urban residents continues to focus on day-to-day struggles and, if anything, generally has remained politically apathetic and disunited. This reality is not unique to Africa. Democracy is an important step toward political legitimacy but it is not what incites the interests of the elites or the masses in their respective futures; liberalism does.

The very fact that individual citizens have no real avenue to pursue effective protest is undoubtedly disappointing to many, but the disappointment stems from broader theoretical preconceptions about the historical development of democracy. Both Western and Marxist models of political development see promise in protest, in the ‘rising up’ of peoples, in an effort to hold their political and/or industrial leaders more accountable. But democracy is not a panacea as can be seen in the case of the ancient Greeks, where the masses were generally kept outside of any democratic experiment.

Upon reflection it is clear that the average democratic citizen in history has been less interested in theoretical democracy than in the day-to-day struggle for survival. This does not detract from the overwhelming virtue of democracy over other forms of government; the point is to emphasize the practical concerns of citizens at the local level. At this level of analysis, the individual’s struggle for political liberalism, viewed in terms of citizen demand, can be revealing. To the average citizen of pre-democratic and democratic states alike, the state did help to deter random acts of violence, but it also helped legitimize claims to private property ownership, a cornerstone of Western understandings of political liberalism. Because of their geographic proximity, at a time when travelling great distances was uncommon, local governments also fostered ties with the central government through, for example, collection of state tax or tribute and, ultimately, in matters of security. As Bates argues, contact with the state was considered worthy insofar as the state authorities provided a sense of protection from violence. Another crucial ‘spill-over’ effect, of course, was to affirm (through civil records of births, marriages, and deaths) a sense of national identity.

Most of these early local governmental tasks were largely administrative or jurisprudential and not, one might suspect, especially cumbersome, but they had revolutionary results in terms of their ‘liberal’ outcome. Accordingly, within today’s liberal democracies there exists a practical connection between government institutions and the citizenry — what Louis Hartz once termed a submerged Lockean consensus (Hartz, 1955). By this, Hartz meant a popular consensus within liberal states as to what political liberalism entails and what the role of government institutions should be, an interpretation that was first argued by the then radical John Locke contra the political philosophy on governance then promoted by apologists of illiberal state practice, such as Sir Robert Filmer. Locke’s argument that government institutions should protect our ‘lives, liberties, and estates,’ later interpreted as the protection of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ by Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, is fundamental to liberal practice. The U.S. Declaration of Independence has often been interpreted as an important stepping-stone toward ‘democracy’; it might better be thought of as a crucial step towards today’s predominant view as to what political liberalism entails.

14.4.4 Stumbling Blocks

For political liberalism to be realized in sub-Saharan Africa’s new democracies, local governmental institutions must assume, at a minimum, the administrative roles that they had in today’s liberal democratic states such as maintaining civil records (births, marriages, deaths), titles to property, judiciary power, and a locally accountable law enforcement authority. Thus far, they have not (LaMonica, 2017). Instead, when local governance is mentioned in sub-Saharan African contexts, and for understandable reasons, the focus is on the soaring demand for other more visible public services. As witnessed in South Africa during the campaigns prior to 2006, candidates in local government elections were quick to make unrealistic promises regarding the provision of improved public health care, education, and the like, while burgeoning issues that underlie improved local government administration were entirely neglected. In the party manifesto of the African National Congress (ANC) it was declared, for example, that their action plan would make local government ‘speed up the delivery of services.’ Other parties, including the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) similarly focused on improving ‘service delivery.’ While political organizers know all too well that this would appeal to the voting public, there is little visible evidence that this will actually happen. Citizens of other early democracies did not have these kinds of public service expectations and one can reasonably assume that the citizens of sub-Saharan Africa will only develop cynical attitudes toward ‘democracy’ in this sort of atmosphere.

To date, administrative challenges such as keeping track of titles to property, which generally falls under the heading of ‘land tenure” in the development literature, have been consistently marginalized in discussions of sub-Saharan state policy. To the extent that government records maintain land tenure, there is a tendency to rely on the records of central government authorities that often date back to the colonial era. These notoriously incomplete records require careful consideration if political liberalism of any kind is to be realized in sub-Saharan Africa. And, certainly in the short term, there is no guarantee that the process of increasing administrative austerity at the local government level will work without controversy. The harsh and even violent property redistribution policies of the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, allegedly justified on the grounds of an inequitable history of colonial rule (what the Mugabe regime described as ‘white’ over ‘black’ property ownership), has caused many throughout sub-Saharan Africa to fear reform in this area. Certainly, there is no intention here to support Mugabe’s approach to the problem; it is an exceptional case on the African continent. But the historical result of linking state power to property ownership in sub-Saharan Africa has been to alienate many locals from the administrative processes that underlie land tenure. Historically, all governing procedures at the local level had been viewed as linked to the interests of agents of the central government and, since well before the independence era, this has generally been something that local citizens would rather avoid. The impact of having the authoritarian Mugabe regime dictate land reform in a completely ruthless, violent and partisan manner (favouring ZANU-PF, The Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front) has been to postpone the prospects for true local government reform throughout the region.

14.4.5 The Future

Improved records of titles to property, and other forms of civil administration, would improve the relationship of citizens with their local governments, as has been the case in all-liberal contexts. Moreover, doing so would be perfectly in line with the goals of the United Nations Commission on Human Security, which defines human security as “the protection of a vital core of all human lives in ways that enhance human freedoms and fulfilment” (UN, 2009, p. 6). Doing so would also require closer attention to matters of local governance than the majority of Africanists have paid to date.

Within sub-Saharan African contexts, internal politics on local governance is characterized by general avoidance of the issue; because central government authorities view the needs of local government as an inept bottomless pit — incessant demands for costly services — local governance is rarely listed on the national policy agenda. Indeed, one is not surprised to see external actors, such as internationally recognized non-governmental organizations (INGOs), in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa aiding local communities in a variety of ways. Whether these external actors are motivated by humanitarian concerns, the provision of ‘basic needs,’ or an expectation as to what a modern welfare state might provide, there is virtually no support for what might be termed Lockean ideals at the local government level. Land tenure remains largely a concern of under-funded anthropologists, while internal and external policymakers frantically address more ‘pressing’ policy matters. As the successes of the Grameen Bank and countless NGOs have demonstrated throughout the world, central governments are not especially adept at responding to household level needs. In order to achieve the goal of locally defined political liberalisms within today’s newly declared ‘democratic’ states will similarly require the involvement of local citizenries and the strengthening of local government institutions; absent this, sub-Saharan states are likely to continue falling into the post-Cold War phenomenon described by Zakaria as ‘illiberal democracy.’

14.5 Conclusion: Recalling the Significance of Local Government Institutions

Today, the issues surrounding governance in sub-Saharan Africa ought not be portrayed as a blame game, as it so often is, pointing fingers at the Belgian colonizers, the Mobutu regime or Cold War (US or Soviet) supporters, or even internal failings of one kind or another. Yes, there are plenty of firmly embedded political and other norms to deconstruct and discuss but we must also think of the next steps. Today, Africanists must also frame the issues in terms of today’s human security needs of e.g. the Congolese people, as realized or not by the Congolese people and their existing governing institutions, operating as they now must, within a whirlwind of global pressures. Historical blame is far too often the sole basis of scholarship and teaching of African affairs; we also need to think pragmatically about what needs to be done because lives are at stake, and what can be done under increasing environmental constraints. Today one must lament the loss of traditional norms in many African contexts — as anywhere in the world. While the circumstances have been as horrific as anywhere in human history, there comes a moment when we all knowingly and respectfully move on to create what Gramsci refers to as the New. And, in many ways, this has to be done in ways unlike Africa’s colonial past, that is, to specifically prioritize the needs of humanity — human security — above all else. Today, to do this properly — democratically — will require the heightened involvement of sub-Saharan Africa’s local citizenry and of their own, heretofore marginalized, local governments.

In the geographically vast regions of sub-Saharan Africa, the proximity of government authorities can play a crucial role. Largely due to the history of capital-centred politics and the ‘national’ formulation of policy, many have considered local governments to be a burden or even a luxury. To the extent that local government was even considered by colonial administrators, it was to emphasize the maintaining of ‘order’ (through indirect rule, assimilation, or other) and not to establish local government institutions that had as their principal aim the local human security and security of local property. Moreover, due to the colonial history of sub-Saharan African states, local citizens have viewed local authorities as agents of ‘the state’. In these circumstances, ‘the state’ was something to be avoided at all costs, and unfortunately this legacy remains. To this day, it is certainly not assumed that local government authorities act in the interest of the local citizens. Much of this can be explained in terms of colonial history and the often corrupt practices that continued during the era of ‘neo-colonialism.’ This chapter has argued that a careful consideration of the limited roles of local government authorities in liberal democratic contexts could point the way towards improved human security. Within that context, local governance plays a largely unsung but crucial role in expanding human security and liberal practice. One of the most fundamental functions of local governments in liberal states, then and now, has been the protection of the ‘fruits of our labour,’ that is, citizens’ property.

As agrarian productivity improved locally, administrative ties with central government intensified along with the understanding that there could be positive-sum gains to be had by those involved. In the sub-Saharan context, central government leaders directly benefited from colonial and Cold War ties, to the detriment of local governmental development. The relationship then, has been viewed as top-down, zero-sum (competing for limited resources) and antagonistic. By contrast, in liberal democratic states, there have been political debates over the appropriate balance of local versus central state authorities, but cooperative connections have largely prevailed. By contrast, in sub-Saharan Africa, colonial history and its aftermath led to the development of governing institutions that consistently favored centralized over local forms of governance.

The concomitant realization of human security and of locally defined liberalism, in all historical contexts, is an ongoing process, not an event. And in all instances it has required the involvement and participation of local governance. In the post-Cold War environment this should be openly acknowledged for all democratic states in the world. For example, human security and political freedoms that accompany democratic practice today certainly did not apply to all residents of the United States in its early years. There were significant inequities regarding how the sizable slave population experienced those securities and freedoms, or the systematically excluded female citizenry. The inclusion of marginalized groups, a hallmark of progress in democratic practice, took place over time. Policy circles are becoming increasingly aware that this process is part of the challenge that new democracies must face. The argument that the process takes time offers little solace to those anxious to implement liberal democratic practice in new democracies. Yet historical comparisons that focus on the practical underpinnings of liberalism and human security demonstrate the indispensible role of local governance.

Resources and References


Key Points

  • Local governance is crucial to human security because it ensures representation.
  • Locally defined political liberalism (e.g. the protection of ‘life, liberty and estates’) and human security are inextricably linked.
  • In their observations of sub-Saharan African political realities, Africanists have remained focused on central government issues, leading to largely superficial conclusions that often neglect matters of human security.
  • Because of the legacies of both the colonial era and the Cold War, strengthening local government institutions in sub-Saharan African states is especially challenging.
  • In those states the prospects of strengthening local government is largely viewed with skepticism.


Extension Activities & Further Research

  1. How have the approaches used by Africanists been flawed in terms of their attention to liberal democracy and, in turn, human security?
  2. What are the historic and ongoing challenges to promoting the role of local governments in sub-Saharan African contexts?
  3. How are progressive left and conservative right of Africanists blocked in their conceptions of democratic development?
  4. Democracy is thriving, liberalism is not. Explain.
  5. Democratization is a process not an event. Explain.
  6. The concept of ‘modernisation’ is mentioned throughout this chapter. What do you think it means, in the views of Africanists, and in your own view?

List of Terms

See Glossary for full list of terms and definitions.

  • conservative révisionnistes
  • illiberal democracy
  • liberalism
  • neoliberalism
  • positive-sum
  • se débrouiller
  • submerged Lockean consensus
  • zero-sum

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  1. The term ‘corrupt’ is used in many meanings by many authors. In a post-colonial context the concept becomes even more difficult to define. Here it is intended to indicate any one or several of the following attributes: using one’s position of power or influence in order to gain personal wealth; accepting bribes or kickbacks in exchange for political favours; favouring or discriminating against particular groups in society for reasons of personal gain or patronage; misusing national resources for purposes outside the national interest.
  2. In fact, Rousseau never did refer to a “noble savage” in his writings.
  3. Advocated by many Western/ external participants, to whit: Africans must change internally.
  4. Liberal by US standards.
  5. Conservative by Western standards.
  6. Emphasis on many local/internal participants, to whit: the external is the source of our woes (left) or the source of our riches (right).
  7. Marxist-Leninist or anti-imperialist; local and otherwise.
  8. Conservative by African standards; local beneficiaries; often colluding with external powers.
  9. Editors' note: The reader is encouraged to explore the limits of this proposition under conditions of ecological overshoot. Chapter 21 offers an extension activity (#4) to that end.


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