By Mwalimu George Ngwane*
When the majority of African people went up in arms against one party rule in Africa in the early 90s, it was to expand democratic space and provide alternative voices that would impact on a sustainable democratic development. That hunger for change was orchestrated against the backdrop of a lethargic mono-party culture whose fossilized dictatorial architecture had metamorphosed into one man high handed rule even if in some cases it bred positive economic growth. To avoid the pendulum of power from oscillating between civilian anarchy and military tyranny, a new dispensation was jettisoned to allow for popular access to power and equitable distribution of the country’s resources.
In some countries these factors are unique and distinct while in others they are cross-cutting and overlapping.
The patronage factor
Seek ye first the party kingdom and all other private benefits shall be added onto you
Here the system focuses on party hegemony with most of its adherents carrying a vulture mentality. The ruling or incumbent party which in most cases began as an offshoot of the one party system spreads its tenacity to every facet of the state. Having recruited an army of militants from the rubble of a defunct national party, the patronage factor becomes an opium where patriotism is measured by unconditional loyalty to the ideals of the party and where power gradually becomes an aphrodisiac. In return, such loyalty modeled on fear and favour, is shielded by crime immunity, financial sinecure and upward career mobility. The mantra of the patronage factor is control, command and clientelism. With a mass base that is mesmerized by a herd mentality and a middle and apex that is occupied by a predatory elite, the dominant party feeds into state machinery to the point of state paralysis. With a permanent and exclusive exposure to the perks and prebends of the state, the rent seeking elite stifle any voices of dissent within the party apparatus, tear into shreds official opposition parties and criminalize the activist elements of the civil society.
The patronage factor survives basically on a monolithic prism that is fuelled by its ability to render either by coercion or coalition the institutionalized opposition or what is left of it impotent. Indeed the veneer of democracy is sustained by a conglomerate of irrelevant and fragmented opposition parties which themselves lack vision and leadership to trim the excesses of the dominant party. In the end having appropriated to itself the apparatus of election management, having ‘succeeded’ in persuading the fickle masses that ‘the devil you know is better than the angel you do not know’, having fragmented the opposition and civil society into mere political sparring partners, the renewal of the dominant party’s mandate in every election is always a forgone conclusion.
The personality factor
Thou shall worship no other ruler but me
Here the dominant party survives at best on a hero cult or at worst on a personality cult with its leadership exhibiting a peacock mentality. Most African parties that were created to fight against colonialism and on which nominal independence was won always identify with a hero. The dominant party enjoys both compassion and genuine support from the masses based on the liberation theology of the hero and a nostalgic sentiment of conquest and freedom. The hero image is derived from faith. The dominant party continues to benefit from this hero image long after the hero must have departed and even when the post Independent scenarios do not speak to the bread and butter issues of the people. The dominant party has a chance of longevity where it accommodates internal competition, democratic reforms and leadership renewal and where its hero image is related to concrete development agenda.
On the other hand, a personality cult is the antithesis of the hero cult. Here the dominant party clusters around a giant with clay feet with a governance style reminiscent of European absolutism. Power becomes an addiction based on fear and force, formal institutions become ineffective, the leader is a mere pawn used to shore up the treasures and immunity of a parasitic elite. Internal opposition is anathema, frivolous sycophancy is the trademark and illicit accumulation of public wealth is the rule. The pawn leader is cordoned off fresh and new ideas as he or she is propelled through vain flatteries to the status of a party monarch, a prisoner of power or a demi-god. No matter how long the pawn leader is made to elongate his or her tenure in office, the endgame is in most cases tragic.
The performance factor
Give us this day our democratic development
It is the best of the three factors where the dominant party is voted and stays in power because of its service delivery accruing from a hen mentality. It believes in internal democracy where leadership change is encouraged though a limited term of office within the party and through free and fair elections. The dominant party separates party business from the state, formulates a robust vision that is periodically fine-tuned, but most especially espouses performance, policy and principle as the benchmarks of democratic development. Guided by a pro-poor development vision, an empowered private sector and the respect for competing views within and without its circle, the dominant party survives through popular demand and grassroots support. Rather than instrumentalising opposition parties, the dominant party believes a respectful institutionalized opposition serves both as a watch dog and a government in waiting.
While the patronage and personality factors use propaganda to lubricate their wheels of power, the performance factor uses the lubricant of program and people-driven manifestoes to shine the rust of inertia. While the patronage and personality factors dwell on what happens before and during elections (fighting at all cost to access and stay in power), the performance factor dwells on what happens after and between elections (knowing that development speaks louder than democracy). While the patronage and personality factors see citizens as mere expendable voters, the performance factors sees citizens as functional partners. While the patronage and personality factors believe in politics by impulse, the performance category believes in politics through planning. While the patronage and personality factors celebrate power as ‘chairmen of the board of a society of impatient profiteers’, the performance class dispenses of power as an ephemeral weapon in the hands of the people. While the patronage and personality factors appropriate resources for the mendacity of a bureaucratic gentry, the performance class creates opportunities for the furtherance of the common weal. It is therefore not surprising that the dominant party that focuses on performance, wealth creation, capital and youth investment, internal competition and national politics, periodic leadership change at the helm of its party stays in state power for a long time.
Most dominant party systems begin with a hen mentality but gradually slide down the path of a peacock and a vulture mentality-hence the need to hold any of the factors in check through internal democracy, vibrant opposition and robust trade unions. In fact most ideological fortune reversals from patronage and personality to performance factor are engineered by organic intellectuals, organised people power and altruistic citizens who refuse to be cloistered in the opaque chambers of party discipline. This is not to sound the death knell of party systems but a wake-up call for them to reconfigure their rationale and relevance to the democratic and development rhythms of the masses in this continent.
*Mwalimu George Ngwane is Senior Chevening Fellow on Conflict Prevention and author of the book “Way Forward for Africa” www.gngwane.com