What has happened to ideology in African politics? This is not an idle question. Anyone observing the political scene in Africa is bound to conclude that ideology is dead. Was it actually ever alive in the first place?
By convention, the organisation of society (politics) is based on ideas or programmes about how best to manage a given society – moving it from point A to point B. Political parties are, therefore, built on a shared core of beliefs and programmes by members about how to transform society, provide public goods and attain a higher standard of living for the people.
And because, ideally, there should be different programmes there should also be many choices. The availability of different programmes to choose from and the ability to exercise that choice is what is commonly called democracy.
Now, I will be excused if I say I don’t see much of that choice in the politics of most African countries – even those hailed as democratic. I don’t see much of that, either in ideology or programmes.
My lack of faith is not for not wanting to trying to believe. There is nothing to believe in. Even the leaders of political parties don’t have that much faith either. Notice how, at the slightest excuse – be it personal differences with some members, rejection by members or simply spite – they jump from one party to another, ditch one for another only to abandon that and form or join yet another.
For many of our politicians a political party is not a vehicle of ideas and programmes for the transformation of society. It is rather a platform for ascending to power for personal reasons.
How else can one explain the following phenomena that have come to characterise African politics?
First, there have been the all too familiar attempts to fiddle with the constitution to extend term limits. Attempts to hang on to power have often been based on the leader’s unique ability to deliver to his people. In our region, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has successfully removed term limits and been re-elected several times.
Then there have been attempts to create elected dynasties. To our credit most of these attempts have been foiled – sometimes by the people, at the polls, as in the case of Senegal, or in street protests as in Egypt; other times somewhat fortuitously as happened in Malawi with the death of President Bingu Wa Mutharika.
Still, we have dynasties in Togo and Gabon, and there will be efforts to create more.
The best examples of the death of the ideological party are in East Africa, especially Kenya.
Since the return of multi-party politics in Kenya in the 1990s, there have been formations, permutations and reconfigurations that are mind-boggling even to historians and seasoned commentators.
For instance, if it suits him, Raila Odinga will join KANU. If that does not work, he will not hesitate to leave and form an alliance with other politicians whom he did not see eye to eye previously. Should that alliance not deliver power, another political arrangement will be formed.
Already, his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) has seen the departure of influential member, William Ruto to start his own party. Party vice president Musalia Mudavadi, who also harbours presidential ambitions, is on the verge of leaving ODM.
Uhuru Kenyatta is now prepared to ditch KANU, which is like throwing away a priceless family heirloom. If the historically prized party stands in his way to power, he will jump and start or join another one.
A similar trend can be observed in Uganda and Tanzania. In the latter country, dissatisfied individuals have sometimes broken away from the dominant political party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) – not for ideological reasons, but to further their personal ambitions.
In some instances, some of these individuals have moved from party to party – like some political journeymen – looking for one which will serve their interests.
In all these cases individual interests of party leaders take precedence over ideology. Actually ideology is non-existent.
Twenty-five years ago, a younger Yoweri Museveni championed a brand of politics he called no-party democracy where competition for political office was based on individual merit. His argument was that there was insufficient base for most political organisations in Africa.
He may well have been right. Political competition in his own country bears him out. Even in his National Resistance Movement (NRM) there is little by way of ideology that holds party members together. In recent times there has been a growing tendency for members to go their separate ways.
Often it takes a retreat to Kyankwanzi to bring them back in line. The president either dangles some carrot or knocks heads together to secure a semblance of party unity and common purpose.
There is little indication that anything has changed in the last twenty five years. We see individual interests passing for party programmes. And as long as this situation obtains we shall see more political journeymen and a much longer transition to real democracy.