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Are ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ Outdated Terms in African Politics?

[All links lead to French-language pages unless otherwise noted.]

The classification of the political spectrum into “left” and “right” dates back to the French Revolution (1789-1799), when members of France's revolutionary assembly who supported the monarchy sat on the right side of the hémicycle (semicircular debating chamber) and revolutionaries who opposed it sat on the left. These terms gained wide currency throughout the Western cultural sphere.

Simply put, right-wing politics prioritize national identity, security and economic liberalism, while left-wing politics emphasize social progress, equality and solidarity. These classifications continue to be used worldwide.

But some experts think that they no longer reflect the complex political, economic and social dimensions of African politics.

Reagan and Tutu - Public Domain

Archbishop Desmond Tutu meeting US President Ronald Reagan in 1984 to advocate the introduction of economic sanctions on apartheid South Africa. Public domain

In Jeune Afrique, Charlotte Cans discusses the dominance of left-wing thought in Africa:

En Afrique, dans la plupart des pays, un ou plusieurs partis se réclament du socialisme. Mais très peu s'affichent clairement à la droite de l'échiquier. Le clivage gauche-droite, quoi qu'il en soit, ne renvoie pas aux mêmes réalités que dans les pays industrialisés.

In the majority of African countries, most parties call themselves socialist. Very few openly identify themselves as right-wing. The left-right divide, whatever it may be, does not exist in the same way as in industrialized countries.

For instance, the 2013 parliamentary elections in Madagascar featured the election of 25 independents as MPs, making them the second largest group at the country's national assembly. These MPs could side with any party on any proposed legislation. Bill in Antananarivo discusses the potential issues with the MPs’ undefined political standpoints
Ils ne souhaitent pas adhérer à une formation politique ni être embrigadés pour ne pas trahir leurs électeurs qui les ont élus au nom de leur indépendance. Si cette attitude manifeste le peu de crédit des partis politiques aux yeux des électeurs, elle ne facilite guère l’application de la loi. 

[The independent MPs] are unwilling to join a specific political party or be indoctrinated [in an ideology] to avoid betraying their constituents, who elected them because of their status as independent. Although this situation might reflect the fact that voters do not trust political parties, it does not facilitate the implementation of legislation.

In Central African Republic, the ongoing political crisis has led to a highly polarized political environment. However, religious and regional differences, rather ideas about left and right, have been the main political dividing lines.
History of left and right in Africa

From the 1950s through the 1970s, African independence struggles were generally led by leftist revolutionaries who rejected the colonial status quo. The right-left cleavage reached its height during the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, with both superpowers competing for control and influence on the continent.

Caricature de Tim de la guerre froide en Afrique paru en 1977 - Domaine public

Cartoon of the Cold War in Africa by Tim in French newspaper L'Express. Published in 1977. Public domain 

With the end of the Cold War, external powers no longer took such an ideological interest in Africa, as Julien Assoun of Djibouti explains:

Avec la fin du clivage Est/Ouest, l’Afrique cesse d’être un enjeu géopolitique, et se trouve marginalisée. Ce continent autrefois « convoité » est désormais l’objet du désintérêt des puissances mondiales.

With the end of the Cold War and the competition between East and West, Africa found itself marginalized. The previously “coveted” continent was now an object of disinterest for the global powers.

Che Guevara et Laurent-Désiré Kabila - Domaine public

Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and former Congolese President Laurent-Désiré Kabila in 1965. Guevara led an ultimately unsuccessful small Cuban force in an attempt to spark a left-wing revolution in D.R. of Congo. Public domain

After this period, the political landscape in Africa changed substantially. Belgian writer Raoul Marc Jennar suggests that the left/right distinction becomes less important when economic problems are as severe as those in many African countries:

En période de crise, le rejet du clivage gauche-droite en tant qu'expression de la lutte des classes, la condamnation des partis politiques, le dénigrement du parlementarisme, l'exaltation de l'unité nationale sont des thèmes récurrents. 

In periods of crisis, the rejection of the left/right distinction as the expression of class struggle, the condemnation of political parties, attacks on parliamentarianism and the exaltation of national unity are recurring themes. 

Charles Blattberg, a philosophy professor at the University of Montreal, proposes making ideological distinctions between groups based on how they respond to conflict:

A new conception of the political spectrum is advanced, with its basic terms reinterpreted on the basis of how people should respond to given conflicts: those on the left would have us do so with conversation; those in the centre with negotiation; and those on the right with force.

What's next for African political parties?

Chiek Oumar Sissoko in Mali thinks that the continent's problems require a response based on the principle of solidarity and advocates a union of leftist parties. As he explains:

La situation actuelle de l’Afrique oblige à un constat désolant. Mais je reste convaincu que la situation inacceptable de l’Afrique est la conséquence des politiques néolibérales. Et, comme cela dure, le moment est arrivé pour que les forces de gauche à travers le Mali, puis à travers l’Afrique, se donnent la main pour sortir leur continent de la misère et de la pauvreté inacceptable.

The current situation in Africa is a constant source of despair. But I am convinced that the unacceptable situation in Africa is the consequence of neoliberal policies. And, as it continues, the moment has come for the forces of the left throughout Mali, and Africa more broadly, to join hands and transform their continent of misery and unacceptable poverty.

Others think that solidarity's moment is over. Aquilas Yao in Ivory Coast argues that opening up markets could harness the continent's economic dynamism:

Les pays africains malgré un sous-sol riche et des ressources naturelles abondantes n’arrivent pas à sortir de la pauvreté. Ceci s’explique, en partie, par l’absence de liberté sur les marchés du fait d’une forte intervention des Etats très dirigistes. L’exemple de la Côte d’Ivoire est intéressant dans le secteur de la téléphonie mobile. L’ouverture à la concurrence a engendré une diminution vertigineuse du coût de communication qui en dix (10) ans est passé de  1000 CFA Franc la minute (avec un seul opérateur) à 25 CFA  la minute (avec 5 opérateurs). Ceci implique une rupture avec le protectionnisme souvent utilisé, de manière démagogique par les dirigeants qui pensent rassurer leurs populations en leur promettant la sécurité

Despite rich subsoil and abundant natural resources, African countries have been unable to escape poverty. This is explained in part by the lack of freedom in their markets, which remain controlled by highly interventionist central governments. The mobile phone sector in Ivory Coast is a case in point. The opening of the industry to competition led to a sharp decrease in charges, which fell from 1,000 CFA Francs [$2.11 USD] per minute (with a single operator) to 25 CFA Francs [$0.05USD] per minute (with five operators) over a ten-year period. This exposed government demagogues’ claims that protectionism was good for the population.

This post was translated from French by Rakotomalala and proofread in English by Tom Walker.


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  • HRH Prince Farouk I

    I think it is outdated not really because of any development per say but more because a lot of countries in Africa are struggling to give their citizens access to basic things and as such ideologically a mix and match approach is employed as well as trial and error in order to get the best results. This means a lot of parties are more about promises to end poverty than any particular ideological leaning.

  • nasmu

    The U.S. has a long history of political parties and an advanced economy, yet it’s sometimes hard to draw a distinction between the political parties. Africa should do what’s best for its economic development and let the politics evolve as the path becomes clear.

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