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Nature of Relational Governance

In the relational governance approach, the decision-making of any society is a collective endeavour; the capacity to steer society, or govern, any society is the responsibility of the entire community. The concept of governance in relational terms can be detected in the African humanist core ideal ubuntu and its understanding of the person, which is considered to be the connecting thread of the people of Bantu, the largest of the four main linguistic groups in Africa (Gyekye 1987; Kamwangamalu 1999). Most of the ethnic groups spread throughout the so-called sub-Saharan African region belong to the Bantu cultural and linguistic group (Iliffe 2007; Colins and Burns 2007). The ubuntu idea of the person, or what Archbishop Desmond Tutu described as the very essence of Africans' understanding of humanity, is wittily expressed in the saying that 'humans are humans because of other humans' (Smith 2011, p. 33).

This understanding of the individual in which 'I am because we are, and because we are therefore I am' (Mbiti 1969) is based on the idea that actors such as persons and states in collectivist societies are not independent entities; rather, they are 'integral members of a group animated by a spirit of solidarity' (Okere 1984). The reasoning goes, collectivist cultures prioritize the social over the personal and group preferences over individual interests and goals, and they marginalize differentness, as well as uniqueness (Hofstede 1980; Kim etal. 1994; Markus and Kitayama 1991; Oyserman, Coon and Kemmelmeier 2002). In such cultures, individuals are deemed interdependent, and their self is assumed to be inextricably linked with the selves of others (Markus and Kitayama 1991; Oyserman and Marcus 1993; Triandis 1995).[1] The key identity markers that follow from this perspective are group membership, such as kinship relations and obligations. This leads members to cherish group harmony and the public show of unity by members of the 'in-group', however shallow that harmony might be.

Within studies of personhood in Africa, some scholars have argued that indigenous African societies exhibit strong features of collectivist cultures. One finding even argues that some indigenous Africans 'show practically no self-awareness' (Stagner 1961). Ma and Schoeneman have suggested that the 'individual in a traditional African society does not aim to master himself or other things but instead aims to accept a life of harmony with other individuals. According to this reading, the ideal of village life is correct behaviors and relationships to other people' (Ma and Schoeneman 1997). At the same time, African political systems are marked by checks and balances, and relationships that ensure that rulers do not become dictatorial (Dunstan Wai, referenced in Cobbah 1987).

While we have begun to sketch out some intellectual roots of relational governance, it is important to note that, within African philosophy, there are contested and diverging positions. We cannot provide detailed overview of the debate; rather, we offer a glimpse of the diverse perspectives that exist on the roots of relationality. Another stream of thought, for instance, agrees that AU institutional politics can surely be read as relational, but relational more in the sense of Africa's historical and discursive position vis-a-vis the colonial legacy (Appiah 1992). This means that identities, and constructions of collective identity markers, are always also relational. And drawing on Homi Bhabha, it can even be said that there is nothing essentially African. According to Bhabha, complex and indeterminate processes of negotiation always take place between the social difference of one group in relation to another (Bhabha 1994). Culture, for Bhabha, resides and thrives in the 'in between space', where one supposedly settled notion of culture encounters another and both are disturbed (Bhabha 1994, p. 2).

The idea of relational governance that holds so much influence in today's Pan-African politics draws its roots from the debate about African identity. Scholars such as Appiah and Mudimbe have demonstrated the dynamism and diversity of African cultures, arguing that the very idea and felt need to construct a particular African position is a response to colonialism and global power configurations (Mudimbe 1988; Appiah 1992). These scholars noted that such politics often tend to reproduce colonial stereotypes and may close down the political space for exercising genuine African agency.

In debates about African philosophy and culture, there is an enduring clash of thought between collectivism and individualism. This debate is beyond any supposed Western-African dichotomy and is rather an enduring topic within the philosophy of science. Individual autonomy precedes social relations and society in classic liberal thought. However, a critique of individual autonomy argues that a human being stripped of society and culture is a mere abstraction. The reductionist conception of the human in a prepolitical and non-cultural 'state of nature' contribute little to understandings of complex society, because the very essence of the human has been taken out (Cobbah 1987).

Globalization, colonial history, and formal education are processes which weaken the political influence of collectivist traits in African political life. Indeed, contemporary political elites seem to have fused the collectivist behavioural persona with more individualist self-awareness and self-interest. Nonetheless, discourses about collectivist cultural practices still, to some extent, shape political behaviour in Africa in general, and in Africa's international politics more specifically.[2] Unlike the projection of individualist behavioural traits widely documented by global governance scholars, Pan-African diplomacy is rife with African elites speaking of themselves and portraying themselves not as independent, atomistic, isolated, and abstract entities, but as related, dependent, parts of a greater whole. They speak not of having relations; rather, one might say, they claim they 'are' relations (Piot 1999). As result, it is important for in-group recognition and legitimacy for African political elites to be seen as behaving in relational terms.

The mixture of individualism and collectivism in practices and decisionmaking by political elites is what we call relationality. In other words, the concept of relationality sits somewhere close to the intersection of collectivism and individualism. It is deeply socialized into African organizational cultures. The relational approach to governance therefore holds the potential of contributing new insights to the social scientific study of governance. The influence of relationality in the thinking of African political elites is often at the heart of tensions between African governments and their Western counterparts on global issues (Tieku 2011; Grovogui 2011). Moreover, relationality helps us to explain why African ruling elites deploy certain strategies: prioritizing group preferences over the specific interests of the states they represented at the international level; employment of consensual decision-making procedures rather than frequent use of competitive voting systems to reach agreement on major global governance issues; and a tendency to prioritize group harmony and solidarity in dealing with global governance issues.

  • [1] For a comparative worldview schematic, see Wade W. Nobles (1976).
  • [2] In regard to the specific value of ubuntu, see South African Government White Paper in 2011on the ubuntu-infused foreign policy.
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