Revisiting liberalism in Africa

The liberal project is incomplete in Africa. The liberal project is a political project of social transformation that seeks to universalise the ideology of liberalism at the expense of other forms of social, political, and economic structures. In this sense, we see continued efforts by various actors to push the ‘development’ of African states into politically and economically liberal formations. However, in the context of continued weak economic performance, liberalism is arguably tearing at the social and political fabric of Africa, disproportionately impacting on the majority population, and paradoxically giving rise to illiberal forms of governance.

The liberal project’s most overt manifestation was European colonisation of Africa where the concept of ‘development’ was used to justify the colonial period through the rhetoric of the ‘civilising mission’. However, this ‘development’ was not based on some notion of European altruism; it was merely the justification for opening up African societies for exploitation to facilitate European capitalist expansion. Thus, during colonial rule, African societies were organised on the basis of resource extraction through the ‘development’ of resource-rich regions to ensure their integration into the global capitalist system. Furthermore, the modes of production were controlled by external actors and resources primarily produced for export. This effectively submitted African colonies to the position of dependent peripheral societies within the global capitalist system, resulting in underdevelopment. In addition to general underdevelopment, what development did occur was uneven. That is to say, colonialism had a disproportionately negative impact on rural and resource-poor regions.

The liberal project needs consent to be successful and during the colonial period it failed to mobilise this consent as it was imposed externally through force. As such, decolonisation occurred. Nevertheless, the liberal project continued into the independence period, particularly with the rise of the development industry spearheaded by the Bretton Woods Institutions. Prior to the economic crisis of the 1970s and early 80s African economies had been characterised by state-led development. The 1980s saw the revival of neoclassical economics in the Western development discourse in the form of neoliberalism. The hegemony of the Bretton Woods Institutions in Africa allowed for the imposition of aid conditionalities, resulting in the uptake of the externally constructed structural adjustment programmes which put neoliberal policies into action. However neoliberalism, mirroring colonialism, resulted in African under- and uneven development; widespread unemployment, poverty, inequality, and the cancelling of social welfare programmes which were the basis of state legitimacy in post-independence Africa.

The adoption of the neoliberalism in Africa was largely undemocratic and imposed on the population by external and internal elites. As mentioned above, liberalism needs consent to take root. The coercive nature of neoliberalism’s imposition coupled with its negative effects resulted in widespread popular discontentment. This in turn led to increasingly authoritarian tendencies within African states. Thus, the liberal project, as with colonial the period, gave rise to authoritarian forms of governance. Paradoxically, the one thing liberalism seeks to denounce above all else is authoritarian governments; the impingement on individual basic rights and liberties. Therefore, the failure of neoliberal policies and the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of African states led to a largely Western, liberal critique of African political systems. This, coupled with the end of the Cold War, resulted in the enforcement of political liberalisation. However, as we have seen since the 1990s, political liberalisation in the form of multi-party elections has resulted in widespread violence across Africa.

Having seen all this, for whose gain is the continued external enforcement of liberalisation in Africa? The above discussion has been general, but a focus on Rwanda here is representative. Historical contextualisation of Rwanda illuminates political liberalisation as a factor in the 1994 genocide. In addition, we have an effective, but illiberal state breaking with the past through providing cross-ethnic and cross-regional socio-economic development. Therefore, when scholars such as Filip Reyntjens, a so-called ‘expert’ on Rwandan politics, continually use various platforms to denounce the Rwandan state as a dictatorship and argue that it must liberalise, for whose gain is this actually?

The historical context of liberalism in Africa provided above illuminates how liberalism was, and is, the political theory of capitalism. It has been argued elsewhere that in the early stages of capitalist development, a ‘developmental patrimonial state’ (sometimes wrongly conflated with authoritarianism) could be a preferable form of governance to guide economic advancement. This would curtail free-market capitalism, hindering the prospects of foreign control of domestic markets and as such the perpetuation of the current Western-dominated global system. In this sense, contemporary political and economic liberalisation in Africa, externally pursued, can be seen as the continuation of the colonial liberal project that sought to expand European capitalism at the expense of the African people. From this viewpoint, liberalism in Africa is arguably only beneficial for continued Western dominance.


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Featured image | Genocide Memorial Sign with Passing Traffic – Nyamata – Rwanda | wikimedia commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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