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  • Transformation of political parties in Africa today
  • Raymond Suttner (bio)

So fundamental are political parties to the operation of modern politics that their role and significance are often taken for granted. As political machines organised to win elections and wield government power, parties came into existence only in the early nineteenth century. Now, however, they are virtually ubiquitous. The only parts of the world in which they do not exist are those where they are suppressed by dictatorship or military rule. Quite simply, the political party is the major organising principle of modern politics. Whether they are the great tools of democracy or sources of tyranny and repression, political parties are the vital link between the state and civil society, between the institutions of government and the groups and interests that cooperate within society. Nevertheless, parties and party systems have increasingly come under attack… (Heywood 2002:73)

When one considers the problems of Africa today and the prospects for realising and consolidating democracy, it is by no means obvious that the question of political parties should be high on the agenda for consideration. Certainly, the centrality attributed to political parties in the quotation from Heywood is not easily applicable to Africa, with or without the qualification made for periods of military rule.

The situation some 30 or 40 years ago would not have been the same because many political parties, or congresses, had been crucially involved in the process of achieving and consolidating independence, or still enjoyed legitimacy. In addition, many of the adverse economic conditions in the world at large that have affected African exports especially harshly, had not yet started to bear their full impact, although the problem was always there. That was also a period when a particular model of the African political party was in vogue, a party depicted as representing the nation as a whole. This [End Page 1] was exemplified by slogans like 'CPP is Ghana, Ghana is CPP', CPP being the Convention People's Party. Or, later, 'SWAPO is the nation, the nation is SWAPO', this being the South West African People's Organisation of Namibia. In Kenya one had 'Kenya African National Union ni mama na baba', meaning KANU is the mother and father of the nation.1 And a slogan to be found on a wall in South Africa declares 'ANC is the People!' (African National Congress/Mayibuye 1994). The problems with this model were not always evident, partly because the leaders of many of the parties propounding these views were then popular in their countries and enjoyed prestige on the continent.

The National Liberation Movement (NLM) 'model'

Many of the political parties that came to rule African states were originally constituted as liberation movements. It will be argued that this predisposed them towards a particular type of politics, self-conception and relationship with other organisations and the people or nation as a whole. It is a model of organisation that is now in crisis. Many of the assumptions of the colonial and immediate post-colonial period, which held them together, are no more.

The reasons for the rise of nationalist movements and their unifying quest in Africa were intimately connected to the overlordship of colonial authorities. As that experience has receded in the public consciousness, the reasons for unity behind a national liberation movement have had less resonance. But generalised references to the crisis in the national liberation model in existing literature remain insufficiently specified, partly because the nature of NLMs, as such, has not been adequately theorised. While important writers like Fanon and Cabral have intervened on questions, tendencies and strategies of NLMs, this has not been to characterise what a NLM is or the range of features it may possess (Fanon 1963, Cabral 1979).

But this lack of specificity in references to the concept 'national liberation movement' may also be because there is a great deal of variety within the set of organisations that fall under the heading NLM, variations not adequately accounted for in some of the literature. From this failure to note or adequately consider the consequence of the variations, there is sometimes a tendency to point to alleged inevitability in their trajectory and their...


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