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‘Power sharing’ and not ‘shared responsibility’ is the problem with African politics

The dirty face of politics in Africa is the abnormal fixation on sharing rather than distributing responsibilities in managing the resources and the sovereignty of states. This seems to be the main underlying problem in the current Zimbabwe impasse, for instance. The same is still true of Kenya, and other hot spots in the continent. Even the current crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo is an ambition by Laurent Nkunda to be included in the sharing of political power; which in itself is a direct line to state and national resources. One can go on and enumerate all cases in the continent that have gone either to full-blown war or to some civil strife as a result of the politics of exclusion in sharing what my friend calls the ‘national pie’.
I am in my mid thirties and I can barely refer to wars that have not been driven by callous greed on the part of politicians, save for a few liberation struggles. But even then, some of those liberation heroes have blurred the line between the struggle for freedom from colonialism and the struggle to capture state power for their own interests. This is an embarrassment and a complete negation of our human values.
Even in progressive democracies like South Africa, the politics of exclusion drove the formation of a new political party. The current brouhaha about the ‘Shikota Movement ‘or what has come to be known as the Congress of the People in South Africa is nothing but an outcry by those who feel excluded from political power in the reconfigured African National Congress. We are still to be convinced that the new formation will be representative of the nation’s interest. My view currently is that this is a mechanism by the excluded are getting back into mainstream politics to have a piece of what they left. The Freedom Charter is the last thing in their minds. The arguments presented that the ANC was purging ‘Mbekites’ and the contention that the ANC has diverted from its values are void of substance. To begin with, any new administration brings its own personnel. This is not unique to South Africa: it is a global phenomenon. Just like a new broom, the new ANC is expected to sweep effectively, and so it was given that a few people would be swept away. The second argument is even more interesting given that the very people who are accusing the ANC of deviating from its values were senior leaders themselves for more than a decade. It is unconvincing that they have suddenly had a ‘Damascus experience’.
Be that as it may, the question is what is wrong with the nature and character of politics in Africa? I am of the view that the way we have framed our political concepts and processes contributes to the current malaise around negotiated political settlements in Zimbabwe, Kenya and elsewhere, where political flames have been burning consistently. Of-course there are other fundamental contributing factors. But in these cases; recent and distant, the very notion of sharing power has implied a scramble to divide or distribute whether equally or otherwise the resources of the country, including political power. As a matter of fact, political power has been used as a mechanism to assume economic and at times cultural and social power. Very often do we see economic power used to gain political power? And if this were to happen, the aim would be to control both; and not to govern democratically and develop the citizenry.
To illustrate the consequences of this ‘sharing of power’ disposition, the struggle within the mediation process in Zimbabwe, for example, is not just for ministries of home affairs and finance as we have been made to believe. It is a scramble to loot national resources. This is a messed up mentality given the state of the country. One would have thought the political elites would focus rather on wealth creation and the general reconstruction of the country as opposed to ‘looting’ the very little that is left of that country. Unfortunately, this is not how politicians think: theirs is the further depletion of the remaining resources. The constant bickering over the allocation of ministerial positions is indicative of this ‘distorted’ mentality.
It is amazing how politicians cannot take a leaf from other contexts. The just ended elections in the U.S should teach us many lessons. Not only is Barack Obama younger, he is also not as experienced as most African leaders. Yet he shines more than all of them in his democratic credentials and developmental aspirations. By contrast, the older John McCain, who is perhaps their age, accepted defeat in the most graceful ways. Did McCain take up arms? No. Were there dead bodies as a result of Obama’s resounding victory? No. Did McCain request a government of national unity? No. Instead he congratulated Obama and urged his constituency to support the new president elect. Will we live to witness such ‘politics of acceptance’ in Africa in the face of defeat? Maybe my grandchildren will?
Ironically, most presidents in Africa, including those involved in contestation of positions, like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe sent congratulatory messages to Obama. Isn’t this paradoxical?
Why can’t our leaders see that they are now an embarrassment to their citizens, Africa and the world? Why can’t we have smooth transitions in our political systems? One would be forgiven to think there were no elections in the U.S. President Bush has moved swiftly to introduce Obama to the White House in order to facilitate a smooth transition. There is a sense of continuity and respect for the institution of presidency. But if Obama had won an election in Africa, he would have immediately booted Bush out of office, got inaugurated promptly and not taken the opportunity to learn and be briefed about key issues. The trend in our continent is that as soon as one is elected fairly or unfairly, there is a rush to be inaugurated. Nowadays, president’ elects are sworn just hours after the announcements of results. We might even argue that some are inaugurated even before the election is held. There is no period for ‘induction or reflection’. Our people are in a hurry to get to the highest office in the land. This is due to the fact that a political position is seen as a ticket to national resources and not a responsibility to protect citizens’ rights and deliver quality services to them.
At one moment in the Zimbabwe crisis, the argument was that there is an impasse because one group wanted a transfer of power as opposed to sharing. It never occurred to the warring parties that people voted them not to share power but to rebuild the country. The focus should therefore be on shared responsibilities in reconstructing the country and not on who owns or controls what. The intransigence that has characterized both parties (ZANU PF and MDC) is shocking and beyond any normal description. Given the current deteriorated systems in Zimbabwe, one would have thought the parties would at least have some humility and restore dignity to Zimbabwe. Just last week, we understand that one of the South African Airlines could not land in Harare due to lack of lights at the airport. We also understand that the main hospital closed its doors due to lack of medicine, water, electricity and other basic needs. It is no secret that Harare is on the verge of a very disastrous cholera outbreak. These are just few of the anomalies in Zimbabwe and yet when given an opportunity to solve the crisis, as it happened over the last weekend, the political heads bask in political bickering.
Unless we change our language and mentality from sharing power to sharing responsibilities, Africa will drown further in political malaise.


  • Bhekinkosi Moyo is trained in political science and currently shuttles between Southern Africa and West Africa. He works for TrustAfrica-a Pan African oriented foundation that works to secure the conditions for democratic governance and equitable development. In 2007, he edited a collection of chapters: Africa in Global Power Play. He has just completed editing an 18 country book on DisEnabling the Public Sphere: Civil Society Regulation in Africa.