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A modern view of Africa

Institutions and Democracy in Africa: How the Rules of the Game Shapes Political Developments
Forfatter: Nic Cheeseman (red.)
Forlag: Cambridge University Press (Storbritannia)
The anthology presents 13 texts written by several renowned Africanists. Editor and professor Nic Cheeseman succeeds in his goal of offering a new and modern understanding of the African state.


Then the book of French political scientist Jean-François Bayart L'Etat and Afrique. Let the politics you wait published in English in 1993, it quickly became an international bestseller and curriculum for African studies worldwide. The book shaped a whole generation of African scientists, whether they were political scientists, historians or anthropologists. Bayart argued that African states operated on completely different principles than states in Europe: personal relations, ethnic loyalties and traditional forms of authority, often referred to as "neo-patrimonialism", shaped and governed the African state. Formal institutions had no real influence and existed only as contentless facades. Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz reinforced this understanding with the book Africa Works (1999), where they insisted that it was informal institutions – norms, (un) habits, traditional ties, ethnicity – that made Africa work. We who studied Africa in the 90 century were fascinated, engrossed and strongly influenced by these ideas.

Now, finally, a little counterweight: Nic Cheeseman has invited 16 Africanists from renowned universities such as Cambridge, Oxford, LSE, Cornell and UCLA to write the book's 13 chapters. The result offers nearly 400 tightly written pages with empirically based criticism of the 90s understanding of the African state. Cheeseman himself contributes a very informative and binding introduction and conclusion, describing the need to establish a new theoretical framework for understanding the African state, based on the fact that both formal and informal institutions are important in today's Africa.


The anthology consists of very good chapters, all of which challenge Bayart, Chabal and Daloz's understanding of the African state: on bureaucracies (Anne Pitcher and Manuel Teodoro); financial institutions (Leonardo Arriola); the courts (Peter VonDoepp); police (Peace Media). The chapters on elections (Carolien van Ham and Staffan Lindberg) and on restrictions on presidential re-election (Daniel Posner and Daniel Young) make a special impression.

The best book on democratization in Africa that has come in many years.

Multiparty selection represents one sine qua non for modern democracies and is at the same time one of the clearest formal institutions in today's Africa, write Van Ham and Lindberg. They remind us that about half of the countries in Africa became military dictatorships during the 60s, most of the other countries became one-party states. Only three countries – Botswana, Gambia and Mauritius – remained formal democracies from the end of the colonial era to the present day. In his previous work, Lindberg has concluded that democratization only takes place if elections are held regularly. Now he and van Ham claim that too quality the choices are important. They have analyzed 277 elections in 45 African states between 1986 and 2012, and conclude that if the elections are poorly conducted – that is, they are manipulated, cheated in advance, along the way or in the aftermath – they weaken both democracy in the country and people's belief in democracy as a system. At worst, the result is violent uprisings and civil war.

On the other hand, if the elections are almost free and fair, they also contribute to increased democratization in the long term. If the first political election in a country was free and fair, van Ham and Lindberg found that there was a 75 percent chance that the next election would also be free and fair, and a 72 percent chance that the third would also be. If, on the other hand, the first election was characterized by cheating and manipulation, there was a 77 percent risk that the next election was also there, and 73 percent the third election continued in the same vein. They conclude that free and fair elections can have a significant impact on political life in Africa in the long run.

President Shifts

Posner and Young have studied how 286 presidential changes in Africa took place in the period 1960 to 2015. The majority of the presidential changes occurred as a result of the 60s and 70s coups. Gradually this changed: In the early 90s, it was seen that most presidents had won elections.

By the beginning of the 2000s, 36 African presidents had been sitting their appointed two terms. In most cases – 20 out of 36 – they agreed to leave, quietly and calmly. But in 16 countries, the presidents wanted to be seated. In five states (Burkina Faso, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria and Zambia), parliament and / or the population stopped the draft constitutional amendment that would allow more than two presidential terms. In the 11 other countries, the presidents managed to amend the constitution so that they could run for election for the third (and fourth and fifth) time.

An empirically based critique of the 90s understanding of the African state.

I have thought that these were examples of disrespect for institutions in Africa. In line with all the chapters of this book, Posner and Young argue that this, on the contrary, indicates that the institutions are respected; if the presidents did not respect the formal institutions, they could just as well have been seated – without having Parliament adopt the constitutional amendment that repealed the president's term restriction.

The market is flooded with books on democratization in Africa; This is the best book that has come in many years. It links democratization to the institutions of society and clearly shows how these work and positively influence politics in Africa. I will definitely read differently about Africa after reading this book.

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Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen is a professor of social sciences at UiS and a regular reviewer at Ny Tid.

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