Populism and representation in Africa

As Cheeseman (2018) notes, ‘it is not surprising that populist appeals are commonplace, given the context within which African political leaders operate’ (2018, 359). Weak party structures, the low political sophistication of most voters, and pervasive inequalities tend to emphasise the emergence of strong leaders with magnetic personalities and disruptive discourses. We examined four political leaders who have been successful in part because of these characteristics. Adding to these, they have also resorted to rhetorical strategies commonly known as populist, such as people-centrism, blame-shifting, or the ‘us versus them’ view of society. The populist, simplistic logic of the enemy is also prevalent in the discourse of all these political leaders. The identification of the ‘enemies of the people’, those who threaten the people’s rights and space, and exclusionary stances (e.g. against foreigners, religious groups, etc.) have been, in these cases, directly anchored in plans to revitalise the country’s economy.

The four cases described in this chapter also demonstrate how initially populism in Africa was mostly linked to anti-colonial politics and that later, it also emerged as a differentiation strategy and a response to governments that had become too detached from the population. The anti-elitism stance is thus consistently present, first against the colonisers and later against the ‘self-interested’ and ‘corrupt’ political leaders. The anti-colonial discursive appeal gave African populations promises of post-colonial glory in which racial tensions would cease to exist, and natives would have equal access to jobs and other opportunities. The belief that such promises have not been met has propelled a new brand of youthful political leaders, such as Malema, to prominence. But, as Sharra (2020) warns, the dominance of established mavericks like Malema has made it more difficult for many to come to terms with an emerging force of populist African political movements that are establishing themselves thanks to the advent of social media networks such as Facebook. These, he argues, need not be in the mainstream like Malema, but they use the internet to demand and sometimes secure change.

Notwithstanding existing prior identifications of populist political leaders in Africa (e.g. Resnick 2017; Cheeseman 2018), populism also has been used as an effective strategy for political mobilisation in different African countries (e.g. Thomson 2000; Resnick 2019). It is therefore useful to follow an approach that identifies the key characteristics of populist rhetoric and strategies and then investigate the extent to which different political actors make use of them (Stanyer et al. 2017), rather than just naming the examples of populist political actors who have been labelled as such. In Africa, where there is a tradition of strongmen leaders and instrumentalisation of the media is customary, elements that are deemed normal could be easily mistaken for populism if Western standards were applied.

As a belief-system influencing decision-making, populism can also be the idea that the people should be directly involved in political processes (e.g. the People’s Defence Committees in Ghana or the revolutionary committees in Burkina Faso in Sankara’s government). However, on the few occasions that such opportunity arose, governments held on to power and resisted the actual transfer of power to the people. Nationalist arguments have been used, too, but as excuses to strengthen national unity rather than to fragment the decision-making power, which could — in their view — jeopardise the country’s development or even peace. In fact, so far, this type of African populist experiments have proved to be more useful as a method for the state to penetrate civil society than for civil society to penetrate the state (Thomson 2000, 43).

Although this is still an under-researched area of study in Africa, we can observe that similar ideological methods that have been reported in the West, such as engaging in pro-people rhetoric and proposing a Manichean view of society, have also been used by African political leaders. They may also cling to repressive media laws and policies because they fear dissent or alternative voices could threaten their power. Economy and exclusion are also relevant elements in their populist approach to politics. But there are also important singularities in the manifestations of populism in Africa, which are clearly related to the specificities of the context: the history of colonialism and how that legacy has affected political structures and identities. The varied ethnic composition of most of these countries also adds to the complexity, particularly in attempts to define the unitary ‘the people’ and determine who belongs to ‘the people’. In view hereof, populist leaders have primarily framed ‘the other’ as an outsider, an immigrant, or from a different race or have applied morality standards pointing the finger at those considered ‘lazy’ or ‘corrupt’.

While populist African leaders could display some similar tendencies among themselves, remarkable differences in approach can also been noted. For example, on a continent known for its long-time leaders, a populist leader in opposition has to adopt different tactics if he or she is to be elected because access to mainstream media is either limited or not available. As in other parts of the world, the development of social media has brought new opportunities for fringe politicians and for unmediated forms of political communication in Africa. Although attempts to censor online content and to control the internet by ruling politicians have been reported in several African countries, it is also expected that, in time, online media will function as important tools for other types of populist manifestations, this time from the grassroots and populations who feel poorly represented and not from personalistic, strong leaders.

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