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  • Africa:The Failure of One-Party Rule
  • Peter Anyang' Nyong'o (bio)

The African Association of Political Science holds this conference at a critical, even epoch-making, time. Not only does our conference mark the first anniversary of Namibia's independence, it is also held at a time when important changes are taking place in the Republic of South Africa—thanks to many years of unrelenting struggle for liberation by the South African people. Elsewhere in Africa, struggles for a much needed "second independence" from various postcolonial despotisms are beginning to bear fruit. We therefore come here not only to celebrate these triumphs, but to pause for reflection upon the past, present, and future of Africa. In order to build on the past and prepare for the challenges of the future, we must eschew pessimism; at the same time, however, we must not give way to euphoria or claim victories that we have not yet won.

There is more to the story, however, than the "good news" that the peoples of Africa are awakening from years of slumber under authoritarian rule to take their future into their own hands—to make their own history, as it were. There is also "bad news" concerning regimes that have enjoyed absolute power over "terrorized natives," and are now proving most reluctant to let go; they are doing all they can to hold back the rising democratic tide. But as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the interim chairman of the emerging National Democratic Party (NDP) of Kenya, said recently regarding the situation in his country: "The clock cannot be turned backwards; democratic changes will be homegrown." [End Page 90]

Apologists for Africa's single-party regimes argue that traditional African societies were always akin to the one-party system. Despite some self-critical statements that he made in 1990, some more recent comments of Tanzania's former president Julius Nyerere indicate that he remains adamantly wedded to this view. While it is true that political parties as such did not exist in so-called traditional African societies, it also follows logically that the concept of political party cannot be used in analyzing politics in such societies. Those who justify the one-party system on the basis of our cultural heritage have, therefore, been doing so by means of false analogies and the use of anachronism.

The advent of European colonialism wrought several changes in the structures and dynamics of African societies. Among these was the introduction of production for the market, superintended by a modem state complete with all its complex institutions of power and authority, as well as its demand that society produce surpluses sufficient to maintain administrative and ideological superstructures.

Obviously, there was general resistance to the establishment of state structures that engaged in the political oppression and economic exploitation of the African peoples. This resistance led to the modification of colonial rule over time as indigenous elements were recruited to serve as active agents of the colonial powers. These beneficiaries of colonial rule, not surprisingly, became its key supporters.

Africans were no longer culturally homogeneous people living under benevolent chiefs who would sit with the elders under a tree discussing decisions for hours and hours until consensus emerged. Instead, Africans found themselves divided into multiple social groups and categories with different interests and different attitudes toward the colonial state. That is why the struggle for independence became so difficult—Africans did not start with a united front against the colonial regime. Painstakingly organized political parties were needed in order to mobilize the people and cultivate a strong constituency for independence. These parties represented diverse interests in society, and often agreed on very little other than the need to be rid of the colonial yoke.

It was only after independence that the nationalists—now enjoying state power—began to tell people that one-party politics would be in their interest. In a nutshell, here are the arguments that were advanced to support the single-party project:

  • • the single party would promote national unity;

  • • people's efforts would be directed toward nation building, not dissipated in fruitless politicking;

  • • given the popular consensus that the government should mainly concern itself with development, party politics would be...


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pp. 90-96
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