Exploring elites and their relationship to institutions can enhance the understanding of politics in Africa. This literature review by the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC) summarises current knowledge of how elites work with and through political institutions. It focuses on the large volume of literature published in the last five to ten years on Anglophone Africa, highlighting a number of gaps in the research.
Elites are the people who make or shape the main political and economic decisions in a country. Institutions are the framework of rules, habits, customs and formal and informal routines that govern society. Democracy is a form of political regime in which citizens choose, in competitive elections, the occupants of the top political offices of the state. Elections do not on their own guarantee democracy. African countries are diverse in terms of their historical experience and local context, and while some have made substantial democratic progress, others have not.
The majority of African countries operate presidential rather than parliamentary systems, which can result in the personalisation of power, based on informal relations such as neo-patrimonialism and ‘big man’ politics. The legitimacy of African political elites derives from their ability to nourish the clientele on which their power rests. Ethnic mobilisation also underpins political interaction and conflict across the continent. Several other themes emerge in the literature:
- Effective institutions can discipline the patrimonial behaviour of political elites. However, African legislatures have historically been ravaged by ethnic fragmentation, personality driven factionalism or controlled by intimidation or clientelism.
- African common law systems have become more effective over time, but civil law systems have remained stagnant.
- While independent media can prevent elites from operating outside of the formal system, the media in many parts of Africa is merely a mouth-piece for the ruling elites.
- Because of the failure of many African states to institutionalise democratic politics, other actors are increasingly given a heightened role, although research into their capacity to challenge patrimonial behaviour is under-researched.
- The issue of how elites function within through civil society has been largely neglected. The power of women’s movements to challenge neopatrimonial structures is also characterised by a lack of in-depth investigation.
- The paucity of literature on trade unions in Africa is due to the predominantly agricultural economies of most African countries and the absence of powerful labour unions.
- Existing evidence on business associations in Africa is anecdotal and pessimistic regarding the potential for positive growth coalitions between business associations and government.
In general, there is a lack of reliable data and significant gaps exist in the body of knowledge about elites and institutions in Africa. Some questions identified for future research include:
- Are structural ties between elites and national populations weaker in developing countries than in ‘historical Europe’?
- Are new elites emerging? Is there a deepening of elites to include other ethnic groups, women and the private sector? Does creating space for these voices give rise to new voices or does this space also become dominated by elites?
- How ‘pro-poor’ are elites in Africa?
- What is the impact of international donor aid on elites and politics in Africa?
- What types of variables can be identified to measure the impact of ethnicity on democratisation?
- What are the implications of the HIV/ AIDS pandemic on elites and institutions in Africa?