Explaining Disparities in Electoral Concession and Peaceful Presidential Power Alternation in 21st Century Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire

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The outcomes of the 2012 presidential election in Senegal and the 2010 presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire display a notable and significant contrast: peaceful concession of the losing incumbent, or the lack thereof. Abdoulaye Wade’s electoral concession and peaceful handover of power to Macky Sall in Senegal demonstrates a striking contrast to Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to concede his electoral defeat to Alassane Ouattara, and the subsequent violence that ravaged Côte d’Ivoire for months after. This paper aims to address this disparity and answer the question as to why Wade willingly and swiftly conceded defeat, while Gbagbo clung to the presidency for months, even after impartial and international observers agreed that he lost. In other words, what factors and dynamics differed in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire that influenced these opposing decisions? 

Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire were chosen for this paper as a means of using a comparison to explore the broader topic of peaceful power alternation and thus provide a thesis that can be applied to other cases in addition to this country comparison study. Moreover, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire were chosen for this specific country comparison study due to their disparate power alternations (and thus different political experiences), while also possessing striking similarities in other facets. Geographically, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire are both situated in West Africa. Historically (and now linguistically), Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire are colonial sister states, both having been French colonies, and both becoming independent countries in 1960. Demographically, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire are both ethnically diverse, which will become salient throughout the argument of this paper. 

The question investigated in this study is more relevant and important than simply providing an explanation for the disparate outcomes in the elections in these two specific countries. According to the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), “the refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to the winning party after free, fair and regular elections constitutes an unconstitutional change of government.” And, because unconstitutional changes of government in Africa have negative consequences for democratic consolidation on the continent, it is imperative to understand what drives these unconstitutional changes so that they can be prevented, thereby preventing the democratization project in Africa from failing or stagnating. In fact, scholar J. Shola Omotola specifically argues that the refusal of Gbagbo to concede defeat and step down in 2010 is a sign of the crisis of democratization in Africa. On the other hand, Senegal’s peaceful transition in 2012 constituted its achievement of the two-turnover test, a narrow measure of democratic consolidation. The two-turnover test is passed when the opposition party that ousts an incumbent party (which occurred in 2000 when Wade defeated Diouf, who peacefully conceded) also accepts defeat in a subsequent election. In addition to this question’s importance to democratic consolidation, it is also relevant in preventing violence. Though the post-electoral violence seen in Côte d’Ivoire is a function of a lack of democratic consolidation, the sheer death and destruction that occurred is an additional reason as to why the dynamics of electoral concession and peaceful power alternation ought to be explored. 

This paper argues that the ultimate reason explaining the disparate concession outcomes is a function of zero-sum politics versus positive-sum politics, which are present in Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal respectively. Through exploring two underlying, pre-democratization variables, the catalyst of democratization, and two consequential, post-democratization variables, this paper will demonstrate how and why Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire differ in terms of zero-sum/positive-sum politics, and how this ultimate reason explains why Wade chose to peacefully concede his defeat while Gbagbo did not. After reviewing the relevant literature on this topic and addressing the overarching theory and research design, the argument for this paper will proceed as follows: evidence and characteristics of the two underlying variables, the existence of/lack of strong local leaders and democratic/ethnic historical norms and path dependence, will be associated with the two countries, along with their effects on politicized ethnicity; next, the catalyst of democratization/introduction of multiparty politics and its effects will be explained in relation to the underlying variables; then, the first consequential variable, the lack of/existence of politicized ethnicity, and the second consequential variable, united versus disunited elite structure, will be associated with the two countries, and their disparate impacts will be demonstrated in order to explain why politics in Senegal is positive-sum, while politics in Côte d’Ivoire is zero-sum; lastly, the dynamics of zero-sum/positive-sum politics will be used to explain the disparity in electoral concession and peaceful presidential powerful alternation, before concluding that more research on successful peaceful power alternation and democratic consolidation in Africa is necessary.    

Currently there is no literature that compares these specific countries and elections, and thus there is presently no definitive explanation or overarching variable as to why Wade conceded while Gbagbo did not, providing significant importance to the results of this paper. However, there are some theories that pertain to the specific cases independently, though none of these explanations constituted the main focus of a research study, nor were they thoroughly explored, explained, and validated.

In his doctoral dissertation, Abiodun Surajudeen Fatai argues that “the refusal of Laurent Gbagbo to relinquish power after he was defeated [in the 2010 election] in Côte d’Ivoire was the consequence of political instability.” This argument is rather vague as it provides little explanation to the involved dynamics. Next, arguing that Gbagbo was trying to cause political instability (in contrast to his decision being a consequence of it), J. Shola Omotola believes that Gbagbo may have been trying to force a power-sharing agreement in which the other leader would have little power, similar to the political situation before the 2010 election in which northerner Guillaume Soro served as Gbagbo’s prime minister.   Omotola explains that refusing to step down and resorting to violence was a strategy that attempted to induce peace-seeking negotiators into agreement on a superficial power-sharing deal, and states that “it is otherwise difficult to understand why Laurent Gbagbo held on to power in the face of overwhelming international agreement as to the actual winner of the election.” While this explanation is a possibility, it fails to provide a root reason for why Gbagbo felt that he needed to remain in power. This assumption that Gbagbo simply wanted to stay in power out of pure-self interest in its benefits is echoed by Thomas Bassett. William Milam and Jennifer Jones write, “after a decade in power, he believed himself anointed by the heavens and indispensable to his people,” and cite that pastors even convinced him to stay in power since only God could remove him and because Ouattara represented the devil. This argument is difficult to defend, but it does add to the chorus of explanations that cite preventing Ouattara specifically from becoming president. 

While Cyril Daddieh was writing in 2001 and thus not commenting specifically on the 2010 election, his article offers two explanations as to why past Ivorian presidents tried to prevent an Ouattara presidency. First, he argues that the dominant southern political culture (of which Gbagbo is part of) views transferring presidential power to a northerner as an “unacceptable violation of the natural order of relations between northerners and southerners.” Daddieh explains that southern political culture stereotypes northerners as untrustworthy, and therefore conceding power to Ouattara is seen as dangerous. Secondly, Daddieh notes that Gbagbo’s lifelong experience of leading struggles against Côte d’Ivoire’s first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, makes him feel entitled to the presidency. In contrast, Gbagbo believes that Ouattara has little claim to the presidency since he had not paid any real political dues by being significantly involved during the presidency of Houphouët-Boigny. This second argument is weak since Ouattara served as Houphouët-Boigny’s prime minister and thus was involved politically (simply on the opposing side), while the first argument is partially accurate, and will be expanded upon and incorporated into the larger argument in this paper.

The existing argument as to why Senegal experienced peaceful power alternation in 2012 focuses on an elite consensus about democracy and its related component of peaceful power transition. Abiodun Surajudeen Fatai argues that a combination of a democratic culture due to its colonial introduction in the Four Communes of Senegal, and the fact that Diouf set a precedent in 2000 by peacefully conceding, created a consensus among political elites that respecting democracy and peacefully conceding an electoral defeat is preferable, thus leading Wade to follow this consensus. While this argument is valid and will serve as part of the larger argument in this paper, it fails to incorporate further explanations as to why this political consensus is maintained. Therefore, when considering the existing literature explaining the reasons for the lack of/existence of peaceful power alternation in Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, it is evident that some of the arguments put forth constitute valid explanations, though they are only pieces of the larger argument that incorporates them into the theory of zero-sum/positive-sum politics. 

The overarching theory in this paper, that of zero-sum/positive-sum politics, draws on the elite structure theory presented by John Higley and Michael Burton in their article “The Elite Variable in Democratic Transitions and Breakdowns,” and their book, Elite Foundations of Liberal Democracy. Additionally, this paper combines other theories, namely those involving the role of politicized ethnicity and path dependence, into this overarching elite structure theory. The core of Higley and Burton’s theory revolves around the different political outcomes stemming from united and disunited elite structures. Higley and Burton state that “a national elite is consensually united when its members share a largely tacit consensus about rules and codes of political conduct, and participate in an integrated structure of interaction that provides them with relatively reliable and effective access to each other,” and that “a national elite is consensually disunited when its members share few or no understandings about the proprieties of political conduct and engage in only limited and sporadic interactions across factional or sectoral boundaries.” Higley and Burton argue that a united national elite produces stable regimes in which “competitions for political power have a positive-sum or ‘politics as bargaining’ character.” On the contrary, a disunited national elite produces unstable regimes, and “partisan factions and elites in different sectors manifestly distrust each other and engage in unrestrained, often violent struggles for dominance that have a zero-sum or ‘politics as war’ character.” Through employing a comparative study of electoral concession and lack thereof in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, and applying a historical analysis of the underlying variables, this paper primarily uses qualitative and secondary, literature-based evidence to support its core argument. 

The first underlying, pre-democratization variable is the existence of/lack of strong local leaders, and largely stems from Dominika Koter’s argument in her book, Beyond Ethnic Politics in Africa. Koter distinguishes between two forms of non-programmatic electoral mobilization: “directly relying on voters from one’s own ethnic background” and “indirectly working through electoral intermediaries.” Koter defines intermediaries as “local leaders who command moral authority, control resources, and can influence the electoral behavior of their dependents.” These two forms lead to opposing outcomes in terms of politicized ethnicity, the first consequential variable in this paper. When strong local leaders exist in a polity, politicians avoid ethnic politics and mobilize through the local leaders, and thus ethnicity does not become politicized. When strong local leaders are absent in a polity, politicians default to ethnic mobilization, which creates ethnic blocs and thus politicizes ethnicity. This is especially relevant in the types of patronage networks created, a salient political reality in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire. Patronage forms along personalist lines in polities with strong local leaders, while it forms along ethnic lines in polities without strong leaders.

In Senegal, the existence of strong local elites has led politicians to rely on them, thereby creating cross-ethnic allegiances, and preventing voting along ethnic lines. Koter specifically states, “Senegalese local elites have much more social clout than their counterparts in many other African states,” which demonstrates the importance of strong local leaders in Senegal, particularly the marabouts of the Sufi brotherhoods, who have historically been a center of political mobilization. Sufism is a mystical denomination of Islam; its religious leaders, known as marabouts, are socially significant because they are perceived as holy men to whom their followers owe their allegiance, even in political matters. Marabouts have historically urged their followers to vote for certain candidates (known as an ndigel) in exchange for patronage from those political candidates. Therefore, marabouts have served as credible intermediaries between politicians and voters, benefitting the politicians by allowing them to expand their support across ethnic groups. Because of this opportunity to bridge ethnic differences via personalistic patronage networks, politicized ethnicity has been historically avoided in Senegal, and has yet to arise to this day. 

Côte d’Ivoire displays a contrasting history in relation to this variable. The southern part of Côte d’Ivoire, where power has historically been concentrated, possesses a history of “weak hierarchical ties,” which Koter defines as “ties of dependence between local authority figures and their followers.” As a consequence of a historical lack of strong local leaders in Côte d’Ivoire, the possibility of ethnic mobilization and politicization has never been eliminated since cross-ethnic relations and patronage networks have never supplanted its existence. It is important to note that ethnicity has not always been outwardly politicized on the national level, such as during the rule of Houphouët-Boigny, and such explanations will be provided in a later section.

As noted in the literature review, some scholars have used path dependence theory to argue that colonial-era introduction of democracy in urban areas of Senegal is the reason as to why peaceful power alternation occurs. This paper seeks to incorporate this argument, though it does not argue for a direct link, but rather that the role of path dependency, like the existence of strong local leaders, demonstrates its impact through the lack of politicized ethnicity. In the case of Côte d’Ivoire, path dependency stemming from ethnically-tied patronage networks contributed to a significant politicization of ethnicity after the introduction of multiparty politics. 

Senegal’s democratic tradition is the result of heavy assimilation to French culture in Senegal’s urban coastal enclaves during the colonial period. Senegalese elites in these communities, named the Four Communes, were Western-educated and individualistic in thought. Such assimilation to French culture facilitated familiarity and limited experience with democratic self-government, party formation, and civic associations beginning in the early 1800s. Therefore, many of Senegal’s political elites have and continue to consider themselves “heirs to the oldest tradition of democracy and self-rule in Africa.” Tom Lodge writes that “pride in lineage traced to colonial assimilationist policies has to an extent exercised a self-restraining function within the Senegalese executive, helping to preserve reasonably civil and democratic norms within elite politics.” Furthermore, because Senegalese elites have consistently and continue to conceive of politics as “organized along individualistic lines in the classic liberal sense,” these elites “trust, associate, and cooperate with others based on common interests rather than familial, ethnic, regional, or religious ties,” thereby highlighting the causation from democratic path dependence to the lack of politicized ethnicity in Senegal.

During the early years of the country’s existence post-independence, home-town associations formed throughout Côte d’Ivoire with the stated intentions of representing the interests of local communities (e.g. economic and cultural development) within a given area. However, despite the denial that these were ethnic associations, they relied on the principle of ethnic solidarity in order to create and define a constituency, thus making the historically predominant ethnic group in a given area serve as the main basis of identification for the association. These ethnic-based associations became the basis for patronage networks, as urban elites with ties to the associated ethnic groups mobilized support from these associations in exchange for economic benefits. Thus, this “utilisation of ethnic associations by elites to consolidate their own economic and political position,” demonstrates how ethnically-tied patronage networks existed during the rule of Houphouët-Boigny, prior to the introduction of multiparty politics, even as his government attempted to suppress such politicized ethnicity. This next section will elaborate on how path dependence created by a history of ethnically-tied patronage networks has exacerbated the politicization of ethnicity in Côte d’Ivoire by way of democratization as a catalyst. Democratization simply served to uncover and inflame the politicized ethnicity that had been continually checked on the national level, but which continued to pervade Ivorian society for decades.

The two underlying variables both demonstrate an effect on the lack of/existence of the politicization of ethnicity, but only after democratization and the introduction of multiparty politics. In other words, these two underlying variables established disparate conditions so that upon the moment of democratization, these disparities would be realized and manifested in the lack of politicized ethnicity in Senegal, and the notable politicization of ethnicity in Côte d’Ivoire. 

During the 1980s, both Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire faced slowing economies that contributed to their democratic transitions. This section demonstrates how democratization served as a catalyst for the notable disparities between the countries regarding the politicization of ethnicity, but that the disparities in the aforementioned underlying variables are the ultimate cause for differences in politicized ethnicity; democratization simply served to exacerbate politicized ethnicity in Côte d’Ivoire, while having no impact on its non-existence in Senegal, thereby further augmenting the difference in political dynamics in the two countries that serve to explain their opposite experiences in peaceful power alternation. 

In Senegal, a deteriorating economy, specifically declining agricultural credit, meant that there were fewer resources to finance the patronage link between the ruling political elites and the marabouts. This decrease in economic benefits upset the patronage networks that had been in place for decades, and marabouts gradually dissociated themselves from the political sphere, with many of them eventually ending the issuance of voting edicts (ndigels). However, even with this collapse of the patronage network and simultaneous democratic transition, ethnicity never became politicized. The aforementioned underlying variables explain why politicized ethnicity did not even enter the political lexicon in Senegal, even as the effects of a declining economy and democratization challenged the political structure that had maintained order in the country for decades. The experience of never having politicized ethnicity and the rich history of cross-ethnic ties (especially in politics) in Senegalese culture is so ingrained that introducing politicized ethnicity, even in a potentially opportunistic moment such as democratization, is unthinkable. 

The catalyzing effects of democratization on politicized ethnicity in Côte d’Ivoire must be evaluated with consideration of the national-level suppression of politicized ethnicity during the presidency of Houphouët-Boigny. Houphouët-Boigny led a rather inclusive government, incorporating outsiders (e.g. northerners) who possessed talent and expertise. For example, Ouattara served as Houphouët-Boigny’s prime minister at the end of his presidency in the early 1990s. Houphouët-Boigny’s government promoted this inclusive governance strategy through the attempted suppression of ethnic-based organizations; the continued existence and strength of these organizations demonstrates that Houphouët-Boigny’s suppression of politicized ethnicity solely existed on a superficial national level, and that the sudden cessation of his delicately-woven political structure could come about with the correct circumstances since ethnicity was politicized in other aspects and levels of politics and society. Once the economic miracle of Côte d’Ivoire ended in the 1980s, Houphouët-Boigny was no longer able to maintain this political structure in which equally distributed, widespread, personalistic patronage subdued ethnic tensions. This downfall of economic prosperity served as an impetus for democratization in the country, opening up the possibility for the politicization of ethnicity by other political elites. However, Houphouët-Boigny strategically managed to keep his patronage networks and political alliances intact (by way of the skillful political maneuvering he possessed as a result of his lengthy presidential experience), continuing the stifling of ethnic tensions.

After Houphouët-Boigny’s death, ethnic tensions were no longer in check. Houphouët-Boigny’s successor, Henri Konan Bédié, lacked the economic means and political prowess necessary to maintain the cross-ethnic patronage networks and to subdue oppositional opinions. Bédié thus introduced ethnically exclusionary policies as a political strategy, thereby provoking ethnic tensions. Consequently, Côte d’Ivoire experienced a significant escalation of exclusion and overt manipulation of ethnicity as a means for political gain shortly after the introduction of multiparty politics. These policies and practices primarily disadvantaged people from northern-based ethnic groups, most notably demonstrated through the introduction of Ivoirité, a policy that will be further elaborated on in the next section. Bédié’s undermining of Ouattara’s ability to run for president in the 1995 election is one aspect of this policy that notably stoked ethnic (and interrelated) regional and religious tensions. Thus, as demonstrated, multiparty democracy in Côte d’Ivoire did not create pluralism or a more inclusive political system, but in fact the opposite; the introduction of multiparty electoral competition catalyzed the reanimation of ethnic cleavages, this time on the national stage and endorsed by the national government. In 1994, one year after Bédié’s assumption of the presidency, Dwayne Woods wrote that “ethnic associations are increasingly becoming the locus of competition by urban elites in their struggle to gain a clientele base in the new atmosphere created in the country with the reintroduction of competitive multi-party elections in 1991.”

As previously stated, democratization catalyzed a rapid escalation of politicized ethnicity in Côte d’Ivoire because the superficial suppression of ethnic differences and tension at the national level during Houphouët-Boigny’s presidency was no longer sustainable, giving way to the reanimation of politicized ethnicity that manifests itself in the two underlying variables explored earlier in this paper. Côte d’Ivoire’s tendency to politicize ethnicity (due to the lack of strong local leaders and a historical, path dependent tradition of ethnically-based home-town associations) resurged during the democratic transition, thus creating the political and social conditions that will eventually explain why Côte d’Ivoire has failed to experience a peaceful alternation of presidential power. 

Given that the causes of politicized ethnicity (or lack thereof) have previously been demonstrated, this section aims to establish and prove its non-existence in Senegal and its existence in Côte d’Ivoire. Tom Lodge argues that the worst cases with respect to turnover feature political mobilization around primordial and ancestral concepts (such as ethnicity), though his explanation fails to explain why. After establishing and proving the lack of/existence of politicized ethnicity, this section will demonstrate how the lack of politicized ethnicity leads to a united elite structure, while its existence generates a disunited elite structure, setting up the mechanisms that explain exactly how politicized ethnicity becomes relevant in discussions about power alternation.

Dominika Koter bluntly states that ethnicity does not structure political competition in Senegal. This notion is demonstrated through the fact that none of the major political parties or candidates in the country have an ethnic base; in fact, each party’s electorate is as ethnically diverse as the electorate as a whole. Senegalese elites cut across ethnic lines when vying for support, driven partially by a large personalistic patronage network, even with the weakened participation and influence of the marabouts. Thus, elite formation and circulation is not grounded in ethnicity. As a result, elites in Senegal are not disunited along ethnic lines, giving credence to the statement that “the inception of multiparty politics in Senegal witnessed the resolution of political differences through consultation, dialogue and negotiation rather than violence.” This resolution of political differences hints at the existence of a united elite structure, which will be discussed as the next consequential variable 

The situation in Côte d’Ivoire is much more complicated, as it experienced a remarkable and impactful escalation of politicized ethnicity after the end of Houphouët-Boigny’s presidency. Abu Bakarr Bah argues that since the introduction of multiparty elections, party politics have followed the ethnic and associated regional cleavages of the country. As previously stated, much of this politicized ethnicity and increase in ethnic tensions can be attributed to the introduction of Ivoirité. In general, Ivoirité is a form of exclusionary discourse regarding citizenship, with the demonstrated effect of limiting access to the democratic process. Ivoirité was a strategy used by southern parties (which dominated the political system prior to Ouattara’s presidency) to win multiparty elections by reducing the voting power of northerners, and also limiting their choice of candidates. While the policy had various iterations and forms, it generally disqualified from voting or running in an election anyone who did not have two Ivorian-born parents. This statute disproportionately affected northerners whose parents had migrated to Côte d’Ivoire during the presidency of Houphouët-Boigny seeking economic opportunity. This strategy to gain political power in the context of multiparty competition in an ethnically divided state demonstrates how the aforementioned underlying factors allowed for the politicization of ethnicity, and that Ivoirité exacerbated existing ethnic tensions.  

Although introduced under President Bédié and constitutionalized by subsequent President Guéï, the policy continued during the first seven years of Gbagbo’s presidency. Gbagbo’s continual denial of full citizenship to many northerners resulted in a civil war that began in 2002, leading to a rebel-held north and a government-controlled south. This civil war flamed ethnic tensions even further. And, while the policy of Ivoirité officially ended in 2007 with the Ouagadougou Peace Accord, politicized ethnicity continued to be used in national political rhetoric, and ethnic tensions endured among the populace. However, the end of the policy meant that many of the previously-excluded northerners could vote and run in the 2010 election, evidently setting up Ouattara’s (who had previously been repeatedly disqualified from running) campaign for the presidency.

The 2010 presidential election itself also exhibits the politicized ethnicity that defines modern Ivorian politics. Thomas Bassett writes, “ethnicity influenced voting behaviour in the 2010 presidential election,” which can be demonstrated through the election’s ethnic vote share. There is a significant positive trend in the Krou vote for Gbagbo (the ethnic group to which he belongs), while there is a negative trend for Ouattara. Conversely, there is a positive trend in the Northern Mandé vote for Ouattara (the ethnic group to which he belongs), while there is a negative trend for Gbagbo. Therefore, ethnicity was evidently politicized prior to and during the 2010 presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire. This history of politicized ethnicity, exclusion, and differentiating between elites based on ethnicity creates a disunited elite structure. As elites seek out the vote of their own ethnic groups, they in return provide ethnically-exclusionary patronage since “successful urban sons of a particular area are expected to … redistribute some of their gains.” 

As noted in the theory section, this consequential variable stems from the theoretical argument presented by Higley and Burton. This section aims to prove the existence of a united elite structure in Senegal and a disunited elite structure in Côte d’Ivoire in order to later apply Higley and Burton’s argument, that a united national elite produces positive-sum politics and that a disunited national elite produces zero-sum politics, to the specific cases of power alternation in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire in 2012 and 2010 respectively. 

In their book, Higley and Burton specifically note the existence of a united elite structure in Senegal. One notable instance that demonstrates this notion is the fact that political elites in Senegal switch parties. In fact, Macky Sall, the winner of the 2012 presidential election to whom Abdoulaye Wade conceded, was not only in the same party as Wade, but was his prime minister before becoming disillusioned with his unconstitutional practices. This specific instance exemplifies that a lack of ethnic politics allows for elites to switch between parties since they are not structured along ethnic lines.This ability demonstrates and further facilitates a united elite structure that involves “consensus about rules and codes of political conduct,” demonstrated by the fact that Sall was never excluded from running against Wade. This elite agreement demonstrates that Senegal maintains a consensually united elite structure “whose value system indicates ‘politics-as-bargaining’ and conflict resolution.” Lastly, the causation from a united elite structure to a positive-sum political system will ultimately be demonstrated to explain the existence of electoral concession and peaceful power alternation in the country.

During the presidency of Houphouët-Boigny, Côte d’Ivoire appeared to have a consensually united elite, as it was artificially bound together by the extensive cross-ethnic patronage networks made possible by the economic miracle. As this paper has demonstrated, elite power struggles and ethno-regional splintering after Houphouët-Boigny’s death and the introduction of multiparty politics ceased whatever elite unity existed in the country. Higley and Burton state that by the 2000s the political elite structure in Côte d’Ivoire was very disunited. This can be evidenced through exemplifying one of Higley and Burton’s characterizations of a disunited elite structure, in which “members of a disunited elite routinely take extreme measures to protect themselves and their interests: killing, imprisoning, banishing opponents, or fomenting rebellions against ascendant factions.” This is evident throughout the post-democratic transition history of Côte d’Ivoire, especially the banishing of opponents through Ivoirité and the rebellious civil war that resulted from it. As such, this disunited elite structure along ethnic lines generates a zero-sum political system, manifesting disastrous consequences for the possibility of peaceful power alternation. 

Dominika Koter explains that political competition along ethnic lines creates a zero-sum game, as an ethnic group as a whole is either in power or not. Koter argues that ethnic groups who lose might be marginalized and left without resources (e.g. through ethnically-tied patronage networks). While this is evident in the case of Côte d’Ivoire and will be applied in this section, it is a far more relevant contribution to explain how politicized ethnicity works through a disunited elite structure to then create a zero-sum political system. Explaining this mechanism is also beneficial because it explains and contrasts cases that lack politicized ethnicity, and still uses the same mechanisms to account for disparate outcomes in electoral concession and power alternation. Thus, exhibiting how the lack of/existence of politicized ethnicity works through the mechanism of elite structure is crucial to investigating and explaining the specific cases of Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire. 

In the 2012 presidential election in Senegal, the opposition (many of whom previously supported Wade) galvanized themselves across collective democratic and constitutional rule; ethnicity was as an irrelevant political factor. This collective action against citizens who formerly supported Wade is only possible because citizens are not bound by zero-sum political choices, as candidates and parties are not ethnically-based. As a result, Wade lost the election by so many votes that it would have been difficult to refuse giving up power. While the lopsided election outcome is certainly a factor in Wade’s decision to concede, the key of this paper is to further examine what factors made that choice so easy. Higley and Burton write that in a united elite structure, “elite members enjoy considerable personal security, in the sense that they do not expect to be killed, imprisoned, or otherwise severely penalized for ending up on the losing side of a policy dispute.” This same idea can be applied to ending up on the losing side of a presidential election. 

Because politics in Senegal is not zero-sum, in which competing for total political control is necessary for the benefit and survival of an ethnically-tied politician and his ethnic group, Wade did not face a “life or death” decision when he lost his election. As a result of a consensually united elite and the consequent positive-sum political system, Wade had little fear of being killed, violently attacked, or punished in any way as a consequence of losing his presidential power. In a system of positive-sum politics, a cost-benefit analysis favors conceding power over unconstitutionally remaining in office and fighting to retain control. Wade knew that after his presidency he could continue to live the rest of his life as a member of the wealthy elite in peace and comfort. In addition, Wade did not have an ethnically-based, zero-sum relationship with his supporters, and thus his stepping down would not have resulted in detrimental effects to them. Therefore, when Wade was given the option to peacefully concede power to Sall and cement Senegal’s achievement of the two-turnover test, his choice was simple, but only as a result of the positive-sum political system that made giving up power a superior choice to retaining it.  

Higley and Burton explain that a disunited elite structure is composed of deep insecurity, especially the fear that all is lost if some other person or faction gets the upper hand. Writing after the 2010-2011 Ivorian Crisis, Abu Bakarr Barr argues that “the electoral outcome compounds the dominance of an ethnic or religious group by the fact that the president controls parliament, the judiciary, police, and military,” and thus the president appoints people loyal to him, often people from his own ethnic group and region. This resulting dominance by the group that wins the election and the concurrent marginalization of the losers is a function of a zero-sum political system, which is clearly evident in the case of the 2010 presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire. On one hand, the fact that Gbagbo’s power-sharing deal with Guillaume Soro was set to end with the 2010 election meant that the election was in fact zero-sum, as the victor would gain complete control of the disproportionately powerful executive branch.

Since Gbagbo campaigned on ethno-nationalist policies that sought to again marginalize northerners, it was clear that Gbagbo was mobilizing along ethnic lines, and also that northerners would evidently have a political vendetta against him should he lose the election to northerner Alassane Ouattara. Consequently, Gbagbo held legitimate personal fears of losing his power, confirming the deep insecurity that a defeated incumbent faces in a zero-sum political system. Furthermore, in addition to fearing for himself, Gbagbo feared for his ethnically-related supporters based on the notion that transferring power to Ouattara would create a government that favored northerners at the expense and marginalization of southerners. Gbagbo feared that such a government would effectively upend the discriminatory, ethnically-based political structure that Gbagbo himself utilized to secure and maintain his power. Therefore, when faced with the decision of conceding defeat and power to Ouattara, or igniting a violent conflict in order to remain in office, his choice was not exactly as easy as Wade’s. However, given the zero-sum political system that contained the possibility of his persecution and his ethnic supporters’ marginalization, Gbagbo was left with little choice. That is simply the nature of a zero-sum political system; an incumbent will do everything to stay in power, even if the refusal to concede sparks the country’s second civil war in two decades. 

Not all of this thesis argument is original, even in the case of Côte d’Ivoire. For example, Abu Bakarr Barr writes that “the key problem with liberal democracy in Côte d’Ivoire … is that elections tend to produce winner-takes-all outcomes in a situation where voting is largely based on ethnic or regional identity,” highlighting the causation from politicized ethnicity to zero-sum politics. Thus, while this paper affirms this argument, the incorporation of Higley and Burton’s theory of elite structure strengthens the overall objective of this paper that attempts to explain disparities in electoral concession and power alternation between two countries using equivalent and corresponding mechanisms. 

When considering the existing research and literature on this topic of power alternation in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, it is notable that there are more explanations for the Côte d’Ivoire case than that of Senegal. Thus, at least in this specific comparison, this research and literature disparity demonstrates that scholars have focused more on a situation in which something went wrong, namely the lack of electoral concession and a violent transfer of power in Côte d’Ivoire, than on a situation in which something went right, namely the swift electoral concession and achievement of the two-turnover test in Senegal. When applying this to the broader African context, it would be intriguing and informative to see if this disparity holds up. If the disparity in research does exist, perhaps it shines light on why there is a realized disparity in peaceful, democratic power alternation across the continent. And, considering that Senegal’s case of achieving the two-turnover test and democratic consolidation is not the norm on the African continent, it becomes quite evident that more focus needs to be placed on studying why turnovers go right, prompting an opportunity to look forward to a democratizing continent, instead of disproportionately looking back and trying to explain what went wrong. Therefore, as evidenced by the 2019 article in Foreign Affairs entitled, “The Retreat of African Democracy,” it is increasingly important to research the conditions and mechanisms that contribute to democratic consolidation on the African continent. This paper serves to add to that conversation. 


Bah, Abu Bakarr. “Seeking Democracy in Côte d’Ivoire: Overcoming Exclusionary Citizenship.” Global Centre for Pluralism, November 2017. https://www.pluralism.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/CotedIvoire_EN.pdf.

Bassett, Thomas J. “Winning Coalition, Sore Loser: Côte D’Ivoire’s 2010 Presidential Elections.” African Affairs 110, no. 440 (July 2011): 469–79. https://doi.org/10.1093/afraf/adr027.

Cheeseman, Nic, and Jeffrey Smith. “The Retreat of African Democracy.” Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations, January 17, 2019. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/africa/2019-01-17/retreat-african-democracy.

Daddieh, Cyril K. “Elections and Ethnic Violence in Côte D’Ivoire: The Unfinished Business of Succession and Democratic Transition.” African Issues 29, no. 1/2 (2001): 14–19. https://doi.org/10.2307/1167104.

Fatai, Abiodun Surajudeen. “Elections and Democratic Consolidation in West Africa: Comparative Study of Nigeria and Senegal, 1999-2012.” Semantic Scholar, 2017. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a304/f53d3f99019a1a2ab301c057765cce7eaa04.pdf.

Galvan, Dennis. “Political Turnover and Social Change in Senegal.” Journal of Democracy 12, no. 3 (July 2001): 51–62. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2001.0047.

Higley, John, and Michael G. Burton. “The Elite Variable in Democratic Transitions and Breakdowns.” American Sociological Review 54, no. 1 (February 1989): 17–32. https://doi.org/10.2307/2095659.

Higley, John, and Michael Burton. Elite Foundations of Liberal Democracy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/georgetown/reader.action?docID=1343801.

Jakubiak, Łukasz. “The Systems of Government of Senegal and Ivory Coast: Comparative Analysis.” Politeja, no. 42 (2016): 247–62. https://doi.org/10.12797/politeja.13.2016.42.15.

King, Zoe. “The Impact of Security Crises on Political Development: An Analysis of Côte D’Ivoire, Guinea, and Senegal.” Claremont McKenna College, 2018. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3014&context=cmc_theses

Koter, Dominika. “King Makers: Local Leaders and Ethnic Politics in Africa.” World Politics 65, no. 2 (April 2013): 187–232. https://doi.org/10.1017/s004388711300004x.

Koter, Dominika. Beyond Ethnic Politics in Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Lodge, Tom. “Alternation and Leadership Succession in African Democracies.” Irish Studies in International Affairs 24 (2013): 21–40. https://doi.org/10.3318/isia.2013.24.2.

Milam, William B, and Jennifer G Jones. “Ivory Coast: Another Asterisk for Africa’s Democratization.” Current History 110, no. 736 (May 2011): 177–83. http://www.currenthistory.com/Article.php?ID=893.

Omotola, J. Shola. “Unconstitutional Changes of Government in Africa: What Implications for Democratic Consolidation?”, 2011. http://nai.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:478511/FULLTEXT01.pdf.

Osei, Anja. “Party-Voter Linkage in Senegal: The Rise and Fall of Abdoulaye Wade and the Parti Démocratique Sénégalais.” Journal of African Elections 12, no. 1 (June 1, 2013): 84–108. https://doi.org/10.20940/jae/2013/v12i1a4.

Resnick, Danielle. “Continuity and Change in Senegalese Party Politics: Lessons from the 2012 Elections.” African Affairs 112, no. 449 (October 2013): 623–45. https://doi.org/10.1093/afraf/adt049.

Woods, Dwayne. “Elites, Ethnicity, and ‘Home Town’ Associations in the Côte D’Ivoire: An Historical Analysis of State–Society Links.” Africa 64, no. 4 (1994): 465–83. https://doi.org/10.2307/1161369.

Gender Quotas in Sub-Saharan African Legislatures: Feminist Justifications and Implications

Over the past few decades, gender quotas have become an increasingly common policy around the world. Since the late 1980s, more than 70 countries have implemented laws requiring that women compose a minimum percentage of electoral candidates or seats in the national legislature, with the goal that such policies will increase the amount of women in elected legislative positions. Current scholars generally agree that gender quotas have led to an increase in the presence of women in legislatures around the world, presumably demonstrating that gender quotas achieve a feminist goal of increased representation for women and a more equal opportunity for women to contest such elections. This paper will focus on gender quotas in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region with significant implementation of gender quota policies (half of the countries in the region have mandated gender quotas) and the fastest and largest rate of change in women’s political representation in recent decades.

Overall, this paper will prove that gender quotas are consistent with feminist action, and that contrary to the arguments of some critics, gender quotas are not sexist, but rather feminist in nature. In order to make this argument, it is imperative to define feminism and feminist action. Feminism is defined as “the social and political movement advocating for women’s equality,” while feminist action is defined as “associated with achieving the goals and aims of feminism.” 234 This paper will proceed as follows. First, it will explore the implementations of various types of gender quota policies, and discuss the feminist reasons and implications of their enactments. Next, this paper will verify that gender quotas are truly a form of feminist action and achieve feminist goals through three forms of representation: descriptive, substantive, and symbolic. Additionally, there will be a discussion about the sustainability of quotas to demonstrate that while they should not be a permanent solution, gender quotas play a positive and necessary role in quickly feminizing politics. Lastly, using the concepts of creating access and combating structural oppression, this paper will argue in favor of gender quota policies being inherently feminist and not sexist as some claim. To conclude, this paper will argue for the necessity of broader affirmative action policies in order to upend structural oppression and inequality, and that creating access and equal opportunity proves such policies to be the opposite of discriminatory. 

According to Drude Dahlerup, “quotas in politics may be defined as an affirmative action measure that establishes a percentage or number for the representation of a specific group, in this case women, most often in the form of a minimum requirement.” Quotas can come in different forms and generally can be classified in terms of two characteristics: the lack/existence of a legal mandate and the stage of implementation. In terms of the mandate condition, there are both voluntary party quotas and legally mandated quotas (which apply to all parties/the legislature as a whole). The stage of implementation refers to which part of the electoral process the quota addresses, either candidates or elected members/seats. This has generally led to three types of quota systems in Sub-Saharan Africa: voluntary party candidate quotas, legal/mandated candidate quotas, and reserved seats. Voluntary party quotas establish that a certain political party promises to have a specified minimum percentage of its candidates be female. However, since these quotas do not affect the entire political system, they will not be specifically addressed or investigated in this paper. Legal/mandated candidate quotas require all political parties to have a specified minimum percentage of candidates be female, with the goal of increasing the number of women on election ballots. One significant benefit of candidate quotas is that women compete with men, introducing such a concept into the public eye and setting up potential long-term success for when quotas are no longer in place. However, candidate quotas do not guarantee that a fixed percentage of women will hold elected office in the legislature. 

Under a reserved seat system, women are either elected as part of a proportional representation system in which the political parties allocate a certain percentage of their winning seats to women, or women run in their own elections against other women in majoritarian systems. While some scholars claim that a reserved seat system creates a glass ceiling for women (which will be discussed later), women are still legally permitted to run for the non-reserved/open seats against men, and some women have successfully done so. Thus, the advantage over candidate quotas is that women are guaranteed representation, but the lack of competition with men raises questions about the long-term impact on the ability of women to feasibly compete with men. Currently, reserved seats are the least commonly used type of quota worldwide, but they are the single most common quota system (out of the three) in Sub-Saharan Africa. In terms of realized numerical representation, reserved seats are the most effective as they require a minimum percentage of female legislators. This policy is also easier to enforce compliance with compared to candidate quotas. 

Before evaluating the feminist qualities and implications of gender quotas, it is important to demonstrate the feminist need for gender quotas in the first place. Such a need stems from sexually stratified, patriarchal societies that contain a disproportionately low number of women in political office. Currently, women make up 24.1% of single house or lower house national legislatures, which this paper is focusing on. At the most basic level, gender quotas exist as a means of increasing women’s political representation in these legislative bodies. According to numerous scholars, gender quotas have achieved this aim in Sub-Saharan Africa, arguing that the increase in women’s political representation in Sub-Saharan Africa is largely attributed to the introduction of gender quotas. From a feminist perspective, this numerical increase is important because women have the right to equal representation, or at least the equal opportunity to representation. However, numerical representation is only the first step, as “the incorporation of women into political and public life by extension promotes feminist aims to improve women’s overall social, economic, and political status,” a concept that will be explored when discussing the impact of gender quotas on various types of representation. Further, “the inclusion of women is crucial to achieving justice, promoting women’s interests, and making use of women’s resources for the good of society,” demonstrating that the reasoning behind the introduction of gender quotas is in fact feminist in nature. 

While there is an obvious feminist justification as to the need for gender quota policies, the direct impetuses for their implementations have not always aligned with these feminist mindsets. Overall, the introduction of gender quota policies in Sub-Saharan Africa has been the result of a combination of both normative (feminist) and pragmatic motivations of various involved groups. While principled stands (often by civil society or the international community) for the feminist belief that women should be better represented and have an equal opportunity to hold political office are instrumental in pushing for the introduction of gender quotas, the governments implementing such policies are often pressured and have non-feminist motivations that justify their decisions. For example, governments may implement gender quotas to gain international legitimacy (even if they do not care for women’s rights), or as a way for the ruling party to gain more votes from women, even if it has few intentions to enact a pro-women agenda. As a result, some scholars argue that because the involved motivations and actors are partially non-feminist, there is some question as to the extent to which quotas can be considered “feminist” reforms. And, while “it is crucial to acknowledge that the adoption of gender quotas does not always stem from principled concerns to empower women in politics,” the feminist effects and implications of gender quotas should be weighed more heavily, as those are what ultimately constitute feminist action, even if unintended. 

Although it is important to acknowledge that the effectiveness of gender quotas is influenced by a wide variety of factors (e.g. regime type), this paper will use aggregated, demonstrated effects of gender quota policies in Sub-Saharan Africa on the three types of representation. The first type of representation, descriptive representation, has already been alluded to so far in this paper, just without the attached terminology. Descriptive representation consists of the number of women elected, as well as the diversity of their social backgrounds. The correlation between gender quotas and descriptive representation has been argued above, and can be further illustrated in the following graph. 

Therefore, it is evident that gender quotas are an effective mechanism to increase women’s descriptive representation in a numerical sense. In addition, the diversity of the backgrounds of women elected to national legislatures is also increasing, with scholars arguing that “family ties have not characterized women’s access to political office.” Further, while it is clear that gender quotas achieve the feminist aim of increased descriptive representation, the demonstrated effects on the substantive and symbolic representation of women as a result of increased descriptive representation are far more impactful and important for acheiving true feminist goals in a wider societal context, proving that gender quotas serve as the impetus for a domino effect of feminist action.

Substantive representation involves the effectiveness of female politicians in commanding influence in the legislature, promoting the discussion of women’s-related issues, and realizing tangible pro-women policy outcomes. In order to preface the discussion regarding policy outcomes, it is important to note that the national legislatures in many Sub-Saharan African countries are weak, meaning that the male-dominated executive branches have considerable control over which policies are actually implemented as laws. However, there is still evidence that women’s descriptive representation increases women’s substantive representation. Female legislators are more likely to promote legislation that serves women’s interests, meaning that increasing the amount of female legislators increases the likelihood that such interests will be considered and codified into legislation. Scholars have identified legislative gains in areas such as family law, gender-based violence, and gender-related land rights in several Sub-Saharan African countries. Therefore, gender quotas, by way of increasing women’s descriptive representation, have a significantly positive impact on the increased awareness of women’s issues in politics and also the passing of pro-women legislation. Such legislation seeks to improve codified gender equality and protect the rights of women, providing more evidence as to how gender quota policies are in line with feminist action. 

The most important type of representation in terms of sustainability and future implications of feminist action is symbolic representation. Symbolic representation is defined as “the ways in which women’s increased presence in parliaments affects public attitudes towards women in politics as well as women’s own engagement in politics.” Overall, while substantive representation affects codified gender equality, symbolic representation of women has the ability to influence the other two types of representation, and is a means of changing attitudes about gender equality. For example, increased perception of women as equal in society can naturally lead to more women in politics and the promotion of pro-women laws by both men and women, thus encompassing the true transformation of society through feminist action to a point where policies such as gender quotas are no longer necessary.

Studies have revealed that the increase in the number of women in legislatures has increased women’s engagement with the political sphere and changed many citizens’ attitudes toward women’s leadership and women’s participation in politics, both as elected officials and activists. Gender quotas are directly responsible for these shifting perceptions, as “the increased visibility of women in leadership positions in politics” is the main impetus. Gretchen Bauer explicitly argues that “one of the main benefits of introducing electoral quotas has been the way an influx of women has helped influence popular perceptions of the acceptability of women being active in politics.” Further, such shifting perceptions facilitated increased political engagement of female constituents. Thus, gender quotas not only create opportunity and access for women to enter the political sphere in leadership positions, but they also increase the engagement of non-politician women, leading to increased civil society promotion of pro-women policies in line with feminist action. That being said, the pro-feminist changes in societal perception are the most important impact of gender quotas. Increasing the amount of citizens who believe in gender equality is the most important long-term goal of feminist action because it incorporates the correct motives (principled stands), increases the capacity for pro-women reform, and is sustainable. 

Gender quota policies are meant to be temporary, and therefore the sustainability of their impacts is of paramount importance. The objective of gender quotas is to fast track descriptive representation, with the assumption that such increased descriptive representation has the aforementioned impacts on substantive and symbolic representation. Sustainable representation is defined as “viable and substantial political representation secured for the long run,” which in this case would relate to that of women. A true achievement of feminist action would be a society that does not need gender quotas in order to provide true equal opportunity for women. True equal opportunity does not just mean the codified, textual opportunity that already exists in these countries. Such laws that allow women to run for the same positions as men have little impact if the structural factors that oppress women create the current reality that sees a lack of women’s representation, a lack of pro-women laws, and a lack of societal agreement that women deserve to be treated and valued equally to men. As of now, it is difficult to measure whether such structural oppression, especially in the political sphere, is being overcome since no countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have repealed their gender quotas. The best way to measure the impact is to assess to what extent women participate beyond the quota requirements, and if female politicians have been successful in switching from reserved seats to open seats, which men contest. As of now, the percentage of women in Sub-Saharan African legislatures rarely exceeds the quota requirement. While some may view this as a glass ceiling stemming from reserved seats, and a failure of gender quotas in promoting women’s symbolic representation, one can also argue that this demonstrates the need for the continuation of gender quota policies as there is still more work to do done in terms of increasing symbolic representation. 

The aforementioned successes and goals of feminist action can only be achieved  as rapidly as they should be through a fast-track policy such as gender quotas, with scholars writing that without the intervention of gender quotas, it would have taken decades to “bring about the changes in cultural attitudes and the socioeconomic developments necessary to organically produce such large numbers of women in African legislatures.” In fact, this demonstrates that numerical representation and broader feminist goals are reciprocally affected. This means that increasing numerical representation now through gender quotas can improve perceptions of women and their realized status in society, and then as a result of these new perceptions and heightened status, women’s organic political representation (i.e. without quotas) in the future will naturally increase. Gender quotas simply serve to expedite the process of women’s equality and empowerment, but they should only serve as a temporary solution to ensuring equality of opportunity.

Gender quotas should be temporary for a few reasons. First, a true feminist goal would be a society in which women do not need a legal abetment to securing equal opportunity. Additionally, gender quota policies are “textually sexist” meaning that the written policies themselves (sans context) discriminate against men in favor of women. While critics of gender quota policies cite this as a reason as to why the policies are discriminatory and inconsistent with feminism, it is paramount to consider the structural sexism and oppression that prevents women from having equal access and opportunity to political office and in society more generally. Having a codified law that allows women the same legal opportunity to run for office as men is just the start, whereas critics see it as the finish, an illustration of postfeminism. These critics are misguided because the codified law does not serve as the reality of the situation for women; structural sexism and oppression continue to limit their opportunity. Because of this, policies such as gender quotas must be put in place in order to guarantee the right to equal opportunity. In this context, gender quotas “do not discriminate, but compensate for actual barriers that prevent women from their fair share of the political seats” and in fact serve as “compensation for direct and structural discrimination against women.”  

When determining whether a specific policy or social reality is sexist, one should distinguish whether the policy or reality creates access or creates/maintains barriers. Therefore, while gender quota critics may technically be correct in arguing that gender quota policies “textually discriminate” against men, they neglect to realize that gender quotas create access for women in a society that maintains barriers to equal opportunity. Using this perspective, the lack of gender quotas is the sexist option because allowing the structural oppression and sexism to continue leads to a more impactful and realized discrimination against women than a temporary, “textually discriminatory” law that promotes creating opportunity for the socially subjugated sex at the “expense” of the socially dominant sex, which is really not an expense at all given the heightened status of men. Because the “textual discrimination” against men has little impact, allowing for the continued social subjugation of the female sex is a far worse alternative than implementing gender quota policies. It is more in line with feminist action to have “textually sexist” laws against the socially dominant sex than to have textually non-sexist laws in which structural oppression against the subjugated sex continues to limit the access and opportunity of women. Gender equality cannot wait for society to catch up by neglecting a policy stimulus, further demonstrating how not implementing “textually sexist” gender quotas is actually more sexist than implementing them since waiting for the gradual improvement of attitudes and realities of gender equality means that women continue to suffer under a sexually oppressive system in the meantime. 

Contrary to what is commonly believed, gender quotas are more about providing equality of opportunity than equality of result, and thus do not contradict the liberal and democratic principle of merit. Gender quotas are a necessary step in correcting a system that provides an unfair opportunistic advantage for men to dominate socially and politically. Debating whether feminism should entail a mandated equality of result is an entirely separate argument, but what is clear is that women are currently structurally oppressed and that any positive outcomes for women can only begin to manifest themselves by empowering women through providing them the same opportunity as men to be heard and to enact meaningful change.  

This investigation of the feminist justifications and implications of gender quota policies, namely the argument that they serve as a useful mechanism to combat discrimination, contributes to the broader argument regarding the justified and important use of affirmative action policies in order to upend structural oppression by creating access and opportunity. In her study of gender quotas, Isobel Coleman writes, “women are just as qualified as men, but women’s qualifications are downgraded and minimized in a male-dominated political system.” This same concept can be applied to race relations in the United States, in which case the sentence would read: black people are just as qualified as white people, but black people’s qualifications are downgraded and minimized in a white-dominated political system. In fact, this concept can be extended beyond the political system: the education system, the economic system, etc. Paul Kuttner discusses this idea in his blog post regarding the equity vs. equality graphic, explaining that the reason that people cannot see over the fence is not because of something inherent to them (e.g. height or unqualification) but rather as a result of structural oppression and discrimination (e.g. lower ground or sexist/racist societies). Kuttner’s argument provides a further justification for gender quota policies and affirmative action more broadly, arguing that the “achievement gap” cannot be closed unless policies are put in place to close the “opportunity gap” first. Therefore, postfeminist and postracist thought that is grounded in the idea that equality and justice simply means equality under codified law must be rebuked; structural oppression continues to plague societies around the world, and affirmative action policies are the best mechanism for reifying this reality, while still placing an emphasis on the equality of opportunity. 

Affirmative action does not guarantee that a woman or a black person (in the U.S. context) will succeed without trying; it simply gives them the same chance that a white man like myself has to achieve their hopes and dreams with the necessary hard work and dedication. In other words, affirmative action does not ensure that an oppressed individual will automatically beat a privileged individual in a race, but rather it provides them the opportunity to start the race at the same position as a privileged person, and not 50 meters behind. 


Barnes, Tiffany D., and Stephanie M. Burchard. “‘Engendering’ Politics: The Impact of Descriptive Representation on Women’s Political Engagement in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Comparative Political Studies 46, no. 7 (November 19, 2012): 767–90. https://doi.org/10.1177/0010414012463884.

Bauer, Gretchen. “‘Let There Be a Balance’: Women in African Parliaments.” Political Studies Review 10, no. 3 (August 7, 2012): 370–84. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1478-9302.2012.00272.x.

Coleman, Isobel. “Are Quotas for Women in Politics a Good Idea?” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, January 11, 2012. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/01/are-quotas-for-women-in-politics-a-good-idea/251237/.

Cook, Nicolas, Alexis Arieff, Lauren Ploch Blanchard, Brock R. Williams, and Tomas F. Husted. “Sub-Saharan Africa: Key Issues, Challenges, and U.S. Responses.” Congressional Research Service. Congressional Research Service, March 21, 2017. https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R44793.

Dahlerup, Drude. “Electoral Gender Quotas: Between Equality Of Opportunity And Equality Of Result.” Representation 43, no. 2 (2007): 73–92. https://doi.org/10.1080/00344890701363227.

Dahlerup, Drude, and Lenita Freidenvall. “Judging Gender Quotas: Predictions and Results.” Policy & Politics 38, no. 3 (July 2010): 407–25. https://doi.org/10.1332/030557310×521080.

Edgell, Amanda B. “Vying for a Man Seat: Gender Quotas and Sustainable Representation in Africa.” African Studies Review 61, no. 1 (April 2018): 185–214. https://doi.org/10.1017/asr.2017.136.

Krook, Mona Lena. “Quota Laws for Women in Politics: Implications for Feminist Practice.” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society 15, no. 3 (2008): 345–68. https://academic.oup.com/sp/article/15/3/345/1616342.

Krook, Mona Lena. “Gender Quotas and Democracy: Insights from Africa and Beyond.” Women’s Studies International Forum 41 (2013): 160–63. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wsif.2013.05.017.

Kuttner, Paul. “The Problem with That Equity vs. Equality Graphic You’re Using.” Cultural Organizing, November 10, 2016. http://culturalorganizing.org/the-problem-with-that-equity-vs-equality-graphic/.

Launius, Christie, and Holly Hassel. Threshold Concepts in Women’s and Gender Studies: Ways of Seeing, Thinking, and Knowing. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2018.

Muriaas, Ragnhild L., Liv Tønnessen, and Vibeke Wang. “Exploring the Relationship between Democratization and Quota Policies in Africa.” Women’s Studies International Forum 41 (2013): 89–93. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wsif.2013.05.010.

China’s Involvement in Africa in the Past 20 Years


Concurrent with China’s rapid economic growth over the past two decades has been China’s increasingly deep interest, investment, and relationship with the African continent. China has engaged in considerable trade with African countries and heavily financed development projects. China’s expanding geopolitical influence through the media, military involvement, and diplomatic engagement has introduced ubiquitous new realities on the continent, which the United States should investigate and address more actively. As economic and political ties have deepened between China and Africa, some in the West have become skeptical of China’s intentions and whether negative impacts will arise from Chinese engagement with Africa. On the contrary, many African governments and citizens openly welcome China’s involvement, a major reason being China’s ability to address the infrastructure gap. However, this situation is not purely dichotomous and thus a more nuanced approach is required to assess the potential outcomes for African countries and the United States.

Major topics:

Africa: The Next Frontier of Globalization

China’s rise and engagement with Africa is occurring in the context of a rising and globalizing African continent. Africa is ready and eager to join the world’s economic order due to its endowment of natural resources, rapidly growing population, and strong economic growth. Africa contains more than 30% of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves and minerals, and possesses 22 of the 33 mineral commodities that the US deems critical to economy and defense.[1] The presence of a variety of natural resources on the continent aligns with China’s growing need for imports to support a growing industrial sector (specifically energy imports), thus making Africa’s natural resources a major target for Chinese interests. Additionally, Africa is experiencing the world’s biggest population explosion, driving the potential for robust economies. The current population of 1.2 billion people has significant unfulfilled demand, which will only increase with population growth (projected 1.68 billion by 2030) and rising incomes/economic growth.[2] Young people are also especially relevant, given that 60% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is under 25 and 15-20 million young people will enter the workforce each year for the next decade.[3] The recent rapid economic growth on the continent (4.6% GDP growth 2000-2016) means that investment and engagement can lead to significant benefits for all involved parties.[4] [5] [6] In essence, Africa is the region with the most unfilled potential, making it increasingly attractive to international actors, such as China.[7]

China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Launched in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative is an ambitious development project to connect China with Eurasia and Africa through land and maritime networks with the aim of improving regional integration, increasing trade, and stimulating economic growth.[8] According to Brookings fellow David Dollar, the goal of the initiative is to “more efficiently utilize excess savings and construction capacity, expand trade, consolidate economic and diplomatic relations with participating countries, and diversify China’s import of energy and other resources through economic corridors that circumvent routes that are controlled by the U.S. and its allies.”[9] While the Belt and Road Initiative is not solely focused on Africa, its impact on the region is arguably more significant than in Europe and Asia due to the aforementioned reasons that make Africa an increasingly relevant region in the global system. Many developed countries have criticized the initiative for lacking transparency, exporting China’s authoritarian governance model and expanding Chinese soft power, potentially creating debt crises in African countries, and displaying inadequate environmental and social safeguards (essentially arguing that China only seeks to benefit itself). As of September 2019, 39 out of 54 African states have signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative, and economic results have been heterogenous. Some countries have faced consequent debt sustainability problems, while others have successfully integrated loans into sound macroeconomic programs and policies.[10] A trillion-dollar plan that is said to make China a dominant economic player on the continent already has statistics to show for its engagement.[11] More than 3,000 Chinese infrastructure projects are currently underway and approximately 10,000 Chinese companies are doing business across the continent.[12][13] However, nearly 75% of Chinese investments have gone to only 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, of which only one (South Africa) is classified as free, highlighting the political intentions and impacts of Chinese economic engagement.[14] Therefore, China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Africa demonstrates an increasingly high level of engagement that extends beyond purely economic purposes. China is not just investing in trade and infrastructure, but rather investing in long-term relationships with African countries that require further attention and assessment.[15]

Economic Engagement

Over the past 20 years, China and Africa have forged close economic ties. This economic engagement occurs through two main channels: trade and finance (mostly lending).[16]

International trade between China and Africa has significantly increased (40-fold) over the past two decades.[17] In 2009, China overtook the United States as the largest trading partner with Africa.[18] More recently, Chinese trade with Africa has seen even further increases; trade figures went from $300 billion in 2015 to $500 billion by the end of 2018.[19] For the most part, African countries import large quantities of consumer and light-manufactured goods, machinery, and electronics, while China mostly buys minerals and metals since China cannot domestically procure enough natural resources to meet its expanding industrial needs. The relationship between African natural resources and China will be further explored in a later section.[20] In June 2019, the first China-Africa Economic and Trade Expo was held, resulting in a total of $20.8 billion in new trade deals.[21]

Along with increased trade, Chinese financial engagement into Africa has dramatically increased over the same time period. Chinese intentions are not entirely clear, with some claiming that China is trying to benefit economically while mutually benefiting African countries, while others emphasize the Chinese goal of locking African countries into long-term political and diplomatic relationships to further their own interests. Whatever the intentions, China is benefitting both economically and politically, and thus financial engagement outcomes deserve sufficient attention.[22]

Chinese financial engagement can be divided into three major categories: loans, aid, and foreign direct investment (FDI), the latter of the three coming from Chinese firms instead of the state, although the reality of the Chinese governance structure demonstrates that Chinese firms are intrinsically connected to the state.[23] In recent years, loans have been considerably higher than the other two categories. For example, in 2017, Chinese loans to Africa totaled $11 billion, aid totaled $2.45 billion, and FDI flows totaled $4.1 billion.[24] [25] [26] Due to the relatively low amounts of aid and FDI, this report will focus on lending.

The China-Africa Research initiative has presented three key findings regarding Chinese loans to Africa. From 2000 to 2017, the Chinese government, banks, and contractors (note: these entities are either directly owned or heavily influenced by the Chinese government) extended $143 billion in loans to African governments and state-owned enterprises (FDI would go to private firms). Angola is the top recipient of Chinese loans with $42.8 billion in the same 17-year time period, which will be relevant for the later discussion on extractive industries. Thirdly, even Chinese loan finance is varied. The majority of loans are not concessional in nature. Because of this and the relatively low amount of aid, China is not Africa’s largest donor; the United States is.[27]

The majority of Chinese financial engagement consists of export credits and loans. Part of the attractiveness of these loans is that they are offered at subsidized and relatively low interest rates.[28] Moreover, these types of investments are fast, flexible, and largely without conditions, often making Chinese investments more popular for African countries than more traditional aid sources.[29] The “unconditional aid” means that there are no required changes in governance structure or requirements of sound economic policies (e.g. promoting efficiency or democratic institutions) that traditional donors (such as international institutions or OECD countries) attach to aid. Countries that struggle with reducing corruption and increasing accountability exemplify the attraction to this form of aid, which some argue may prevent the improvement of government quality in these countries. However, China does require some conditions in terms of pro-China rhetoric and foreign policy, which will be discussed later.[30]

A centerpiece of Chinese economic engagement in Africa is the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). First held in 2000, this forum meets every three years and is a major event for all parties as it outlines the status and future initiatives of Chinese economic engagement on the continent.[31] The latest meeting in 2018 was the biggest to date in terms of attendance, with 51 African leaders attending in Beijing.[32] At the 2018 meeting, China committed $60 billion in aid and loans, marking the first meeting that did not increase financial commitments from the previous one. Additionally, only a small portion of the $60 billion qualifies as official development aid.[33]

Potential debt of African countries as a result of Chinese lending is a potential concern, though the situation is nuanced. Some in the West, including the Trump administration, have accused China of engaging in debt trap diplomacy: giving predatory loans aimed at trapping countries in debt in order to force dependence and coerce influence.[34] As of 2015, Chinese loans accounted for a third of new debt being taken on by African governments.[35] Though China is not entirely responsible for the recent increases in debt of African countries, the addition of Chinese loans makes the debt problems larger. Public debt on the continent is rising for a variety of reasons, such as exchange rate depreciation due to falling commodity prices and the reduction in debt relief from international institutions.[36] Researchers at the China-Africa Research Initiative back this assessment, stating “we find that Chinese loans are not currently a major contributor to debt distress in Africa.”[37]

According to the China-Africa Research Initiative, the majority of Chinese loans go toward infrastructure projects.[38] Further, Deloitte states that China is the biggest single non-African financier of Africa’s infrastructure. China finances one in five infrastructure projects and constructs one in three on the continent, and to date has participated in over 200 African infrastructure projects. The majority of these infrastructure projects are related to transport/shipping/ports, and the majority of the funding comes from the state-owned China Exim Bank (67%) and China Development Bank (13%). China is likely investing in infrastructure because it is a priority in Africa; the infrastructure gap remains a constant obstacle to growth on the continent, and China is significantly contributing to reducing it. Infrastructure investment also allows for further investment; for example, it lowers transactions costs and facilitates trade in goods and services. In the end, Chinese infrastructure investment in Africa has the potential to be positive, and thus assessment of these investments must not discount this.[39]

In addition to infrastructure, a large amount of Chinese economic engagement involves the extractive industries (e.g. importing African natural resources). Some of the largest African exporters to China are resource rich nations. For example, Angola and South Sudan export crude petroleum (in 2017, South Sudan exported 95% of its crude petroleum to China), Eritrea exports zinc and copper ore, the DRC exports cobalt, and Sierra Leone exports iron and titanium.[40] While China imports natural resources through trade, natural resources are also inherently tied to Chinese loans and investments. Using what is dubbed the “Angola model of lending,” China also allows African countries to use natural resources as collateral for instances such as infrastructure development lending from the China Exim bank, making it a win-win situation for the Chinese. This combination of natural resource collateral and lending makes Chinese economic engagement competitive because it does not require more traditional financial guarantees from African countries. Additionally, Chinese loans can also be (and often are) repaid by shipping Africa’s oil and minerals to China in order to support its growing demand and industrial sector.[41]

Another major aspect of Chinese investment is the telecoms, internet, and television industry. One major player in Africa is the Chinese-owned company Huawei. Huawei has established 40 third-generation telecom networks in 30 African countries and built 70% of Africa’s 4G networks.[42] [43] Huawei has been a major concern for the US and Western countries due to the belief that the Chinese government uses Huawei to spy on other governments and their citizens to improve Chinese intelligence gathering. However, recent reports have also demonstrated that Huawei technicians helped African governments spy on their own political opponents, threatening democratic development.[44] These concerns are largely overshadowed in Africa due to the greater need for telecom infrastructure and internet access. Additionally, many Africans think that the US may have a vested interest in peddling the anti-Huawei argument, leading many Africans to discount the claims and thus embrace their direct benefits from Huawei’s involvement.[45] In addition to telecoms and internet infrastructure/services, Chinese firms manufacture a large portion of the cell phones sold in Africa, such as the company Tecno Mobile. These phones are attractive due to their wide availability and low costs.[46] Chinese firms have also increased their market share in television in terms of both content and infrastructure. For example, the China Global Television Network (which broadcasts Chinese state television programs) is offered nearly everywhere, and the China-based television provider StarTimes is becoming increasingly popular due to its affordability.[47] In terms of internet provisioning, the status of Chinese companies as the only viable providers of internet connectivity can give China leverage over African governments that strive to increase internet access for their citizens.[48]

Chinese investments and loans are not inherently positive or negative in terms of their impacts on African countries and their development. If loans are used properly, they could help the continent build necessary power and road infrastructure, and also spur economic growth.[49] For this reason, many African leaders welcome the competition between donors since in some ways the competition provides African countries with more agency through choosing the options best suited for their needs.[50] However, if African countries use Chinese financing as a patch for poor governance and irresponsible fiscal policies, they could incur serious problems, especially if China continues to offer loans even with the awareness of their potential negative impacts.[51] Further, the lack of good governance conditions means that the benefits of the loans can become more easily compromised.[52] Another negative consequence for African countries is the pro-China foreign policy conditions attached to the loans. China requires all African state beneficiaries to recognize a one-China policy and disavow Taiwan.[53] China is also using these loans to leverage favorable votes at the UN on issues such as ignoring its problematic human rights record (e.g. treatment of political prisoners and Uighur Muslims) and supporting its claim over the South China Sea.[54] These political conditions are just one example of China’s expanding geopolitical influence on the continent, which impacts both African countries and the interests of the United States.

Expanding Geopolitical Influence

China’s expanding geopolitical influence on the continent is no accident. The aforementioned increase in economic engagement is no doubt partially (or perhaps entirely) driven by China’s self-interest to establish its political dominance in a region that is becoming increasingly relevant in international relations. While the economic engagement may strive to help African countries develop, there is no doubt that China is spreading both soft and hard power as a result of increased involvement in Africa.

While Chinese penetration into African media was briefly addressed with regard to telecoms/internet/television infrastructure and service provision, the endeavor extends far beyond that realm. This penetration is not just a commercial endeavor, but a significant instrument of state policy designed to spread soft power, boost China’s image, and manipulate African media sources to China’s advantage. Thus, by dominating and controlling how media is delivered, China and Chinese companies are acting as the window to the world for millions of Africans, shaping their views into those supportive of and positive toward China.[55] In fact, the timing of this media penetration aligns with the other aforementioned forms of Chinese engagement on the continent. In 1999, China began investing millions of dollars into African media in order to combat negative perceptions of China portrayed in Western media, and to attempt to promote the country’s image on the continent. This engagement steadily increased and involved bulking up Chinese state media presence, supporting privately owned Chinese media, purchasing stakes in private African media, and organizing sponsored trips to China for African newsrooms (which inevitably educated African media personnel through a pro-China and pro-authoritarian lens).

To date, private African companies have been the most effective in forwarding the interests of the Chinese state. China wields significant influence since financially struggling African newsrooms are dependent on Chinese investment. In addition to promoting China’s image through this indirect form of coercion, Chinese media also covers up African corruption and fiscal recklessness, potentially to allow for more Chinese loans and perhaps dependency. Thus, many African leaders enjoy the benefits that stem from Chinese media portraying Africa more positively because African citizens are kept more ignorant of corruption and governance problems. In some cases, this pro-China and romanticized image of African countries is concocted more directly through media censorship. African media companies that are bankrolled by Chinese money often inherit strict and non-negotiable censorship policies to cover up news that would harm the positive and romanticized perception of China. One notable example of censorship is preventing commentary and reporting on the unethical treatment of Uighur Muslims in China. This practice also has more far reaching effects in that it promotes the authoritarian Chinese model of censorship that African governments may later use to their own benefit, reversing progress in accountability and democratic governance.

While China’s projection of soft power on the continent has been progressing for two decades, projections of hard power have manifested themselves more recently with increasing military involvement. At first, China’s involvement with military affairs on the continent was primarily economic. For example, in 2015 President Xi Jinping pledged to provide $100 million of free military assistance to the African Union through 2020 to support the establishment of the African Standby Force and the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis.[56] However, in 2017, China built its first military base on the continent. This naval base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa is located in the African country with the largest US military presence and lies in close proximity to US naval base Camp Lemonnier. Camp Lemonnier is the only permanent US military base in Africa, and one that is crucial to counterterrorism operations. This Chinese base has badly crowded US operations in the area, and exemplifies the growing competition for military presence in Africa.[57] [58] The creation of this Chinese base stems from Chinese influence driven by financial engagement; between 2017-2018, Djibouti borrowed $1.4 billion from China (3/4 of Djibouti’s total GDP) and thus China leveraged this money (by asking to be paid in cash) to build this base.[59] Aside from the base construction, China has also increased sales of Chinese weapons to African countries, increased their role in UN Peacekeeping missions on the continent, and expanded the size and role of the PLA Navy (including more port calls) in Africa.[60] [61]In 2018, the first ever China-Africa Defense and Security Forum engaged top officials from 50 African countries who spent two weeks touring military facilities in China and discussing security partnerships with their Chinese counterparts.[62] This showcase of technical capabilities and promotion of interaction with Chinese military personnel demonstrates to visiting African leaders that China is a serious security partner.[63] China’s military involvement and presence on the continent is likely to continue increasing; one potential increase would be providing training for policy and military units to interested African countries and the African Union.[64]

Diplomatic Engagement

In order to facilitate its increased economic involvement and geopolitical influence, China has made significant progress in enhancing diplomatic engagement. These investments in people-to-people relations and sustained diplomatic outreach help China assert its position on the continent, partially in an effort to counter engagement and influence of the United States. In the past decade, top Chinese leadership has made 80 trips to 43 African countries. In terms of African travel to China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has sponsored thousands of cultural exchange visits (especially for students), short-term training (especially for media), and scholarships for civil servants and young entrepreneurs. Sponsoring trips of Africans to China is another way that China is able to leverage its investments (that do directly benefit Africans in some ways) in order to influence perceptions of African citizens. The emphasis on young people, especially considering the demographic boom on the continent, is logical. The enrollment of Africans in Chinese universities is increasing and there are now more Africans studying at universities in China than in the United States. On the continent, China has engaged and influenced young people by creating 50 Confucius Institutes which teach the Chinese language, the CCP’s version of history, and Chinese culture.[65]

African Perceptions of Chinese Involvement

Most of Africa has a pro-China view and rejects notions of neo-colonialist tendencies. Many Africans believe that China understands and respects African priorities.[66] These African perceptions are influenced by Chinese diplomatic discourse. China presents itself rather humbly and as an equal partner, promoting the idea of mutual benefit and respectful discourse.[67] For example, at the 2015 FOCAC, President Xi Jinping laid out the five pillars of the China-Africa relationship: political equality and mutual trust, promoting win-win economic cooperation, mutually enriching cultural exchanges, mutual assistance in security based on development and eradication of poverty, and solidarity and coordination in international affairs (especially in the context of the United Nations).[68] These perceptions are also somewhat biased due to the direct benefits that Africans receive from development projects, especially infrastructure. However, according to scholar Mehari Taddele Maru, African citizens are not completely ignorant of the potential issues with Chinese economic engagement (though he does not address awareness of the impacts of Chinese geopolitical influence). Maru claims that African citizens usually blame their own governments for being self-serving and weak on regulations and enforcement, highlighting an emphasis on the need for African agency. Maru furthers this argument by stating that many Africans realize that debt-traps are not inevitable outcomes of Chinese loans, and that the incurrence of debt depends on whether African governments use loans for productive capital investment.[69] This is not to say that Africans do not have any negative perceptions of Chinese economic involvement, with the lack of Chinese product quality in African markets being a notable example of negative perception.[70] Additionally, some African governments have pushed back against China on certain projects, such as the cancellation of a Chinese-funded airport project in Sierra Leone that the Sierra Leonean president characterized as a “sham.”[71]

Potential Threats to US Interests

While China’s exact intentions are unclear, its growing influence poses threats to not only US interests in the region, but also the US-dominated global system. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton stated that Chinese efforts to lock down strategic minerals and forge ties with weak governments “pose a significant threat to US national security interests.”[72] However, Aubrey Hruby of the Atlantic Council stated that China’s efforts to reshape African countries’ media landscape may be the most strategic threat to the US.[73] Regardless of what factors constitute the largest threat to the United States (i.e. hard power or soft power), it is clear that China’s increased engagement with the region poses significant challenges to US interests in the region. Interests such as development and governance objectives, diplomatic and soft power influence, and security operations are all potentially threatened by China’s involvement in Africa. While Africa may become the latest battleground over US and Chinese influence, it is imperative that China’s involvement not be treated as a zero-sum game since the potential impacts are nuanced and partially positive.[74] [75] Therefore, reducing Africa policy to only focusing on countering China is completely misguided.

Status of United States vis-à-vis China in Africa

While China has made Africa an economic and strategic priority over the past two decades, the US (along with the rest of the West) has been less involved in many facets.[76] However, the United States remains the largest donor to the region, supporting a variety of aid programs. The United States also remains Africa’s largest supplier of military assistance.[77] In terms of diplomatic engagement, China is quickly catching up. China has recently raised the number of countries in which it has diplomatic relations to 53 (eSwatini still recognizes Taiwan and thus cannot have diplomatic relations with China). The United States maintains diplomatic relations with all 54 African countries, but the quality of these bilateral relationships are wide ranging, mainly due to Washington’s policy of conditionality. China seems to have better relationships with African governments than the United States, but the United States enjoys a more favorable response from African civil society.[78] Given the fact that nearly all assistance provided by the United States to Africa is in the form of grants, Chinese lending to the continent outpaces that of the US.[79] In the private sector, Chinese businesses are now starting to overshadow American businesses, though in 2017 American businesses and investors made more direct investments on the continent than any other country.[80] [81] Chinese trade with the continent ($148 billion in 2017) dwarfs US trade ($39 billion in 2017).[82] In terms of overall approach to the region, the US seeks to use its leverage to encourage improvements in human rights practices and promoting Western style liberal democracy. China has a policy of no political strings attached to its aid and thus maintains good relations with African governments, regardless of the type of political regime.[83] Although these approaches differ, possibilities exist for cooperation between the two countries (or simply allowing both countries to independently benefit African objectives). An underlying sense of zero-sum competition between China and Africa pervades today, and though the US ought to catch up to China in engaging the continent more broadly and approach some of its policies through a competitive lens, this overall perception is not beneficial. A purely competitive lens may end up hurting African development prospects and alienate African audiences by suggesting that they are just pawns in a Cold War-like rivalry.[84] [85]

Current US Policies in the Region

The Trump administration strategy focuses on security (particularly combating extremist groups) and countering China’s influence, but more recently has included building more and better commercial ties. In 2018, President Trump approved the creation of the International Development Finance Corporation, a beneficial step to provide quality loans to African governments and companies, thus also countering Chinese financial engagement and promoting US commercial interests.[86] This year, the administration launched the Prosper Africa initiative in order to promote trade and investment between the US and Africa by reducing trade barriers and helping to create a more welcoming business climate.[87] This program empowers the US private sector and thus is mutually beneficial for African countries and the United States, providing a notable example of how US policies in the region should be structured.[88]

Broad US Policy Suggestions

The United States must focus on playing a beneficial role to African countries by strengthening its relations with African governments and citizens, and continuing support for security/stability, economic freedom, development, sound macroeconomic policies, good governance/democratic strengthening, and human rights.[89] By differentiating itself from China by staying true to its ideals, the United States can compete with China through convincing Africans that the United States is a better partner and ally, while also not ignoring African agency and African development objectives at the expense of solely seeking what is directly beneficial to the United States and countering China.[90] In turn, this approach will benefit US interests, both economically and politically. Given the rise of China, future US strategy toward Africa needs to be more robust and ambitious in order to promote humanitarian/development and US interests in the region.

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[85] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/africa/2018-12-21/trumps-africa-policy-destined-failure

[86] https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/trumps-africa-policy-takes-form-with-focus-on-security-and-china

[87] https://www.heritage.org/africa/commentary/prosper-africa-promises-long-overdue-change-us-approach-continent

[88] https://www.heritage.org/africa/commentary/prosper-africa-promises-long-overdue-change-us-approach-continent

[89] https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/23/spite-wont-beat-china-in-africa/

[90] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/africa/2018-12-21/trumps-africa-policy-destined-failure

A Loss of Self-Identity: Blind Loyalty to Party Ideology and the Acceptance of Political Corruption

In “The Ceremony,” Emmanuel Dongala examines the progression of distorted perceptions of a proletariat worker in a post-colonial central African Marxist state. Through this viewpoint, Dongala narrates the day of the ceremony commemorating the new director of the manure factory, a position the worker at first claims to be his goal, after having worked tirelessly and loyally as a guard for ten years. The worker explains his initial confusion with the identity of being a true “Red,” proudly wearing and displaying the color before realizing its ideological meaning. As the worker narrates the progression in his life as a communist, he continuously offers praise to the Party and its leaders, vigorously rejecting any hypocrisy or criticism of the totalitarian state and supporting censorship, even when his own mind has its doubts.

During the ceremony, the protagonist emphasizes that he is one of the first people there, the first to clap for his glorified leader, and even bribes his boss so that he can adjust the microphone between speakers, a task he claims to be significant due to the presence of photographers. His continual praise for the leaders and the new director is a drastic shift from his earlier coveting of the job, and he even goes on to justify the ethnic preferences of the leader in regards to political appointments. His overly enthusiastic loyalty to the president causes him to become a political prisoner of the totalitarian regime; in the direct aftermath of an explosion likely aimed at killing the president, the protagonist jumps on top of the president with the intent of saving him and giving his body to the Revolution, only to end up being considered an accomplice in the act. However, this outcome only causes his loyalty to the Party to become stronger, offering to do anything for it in order to end his body’s torture. After having lost any sense of self-identity, all he knows or feels individually is physical pain.

Dongala’s story highlights the loss of self-identity via blind loyalty to party ideology and the acceptance of corruption among party officials, solely due to their idealized status. While narrating the story, the protagonist appears to be more of a cog in the machine of the regime rather than an individualized character, as his story could be that of any other worker, especially since he is never given a name. The protagonist’s account, unbeknownst to him, conveys the dehumanizing psychological effects on the citizens of a totalitarian regime, such as a loss of personal beliefs and values, a common experience in postcolonial Africa. The degradation of self-identity, as a result of intense loyalty to party ideology, leads to citizens’ casual acceptance of political corruption, further fueling the repressive abilities of the regime.

Through the protagonist’s characterization of himself and his obsession with party ideology, Dongala subtly reveals the loss of self-identity. The unnamed protagonist immediately identifies himself as a “militant” and a “citizen,” displaying the importance of the relationship to party and state, while ignoring personal connections and identities (Dongala and Thomas 67). He justifies his early arrival to the ceremony by characterizing himself as a “sincere militant, fulfilling (his) obligations to the Party,” again displaying his connection to the Party as his foremost commitment (Dongala and Thomas 67). He even admits to learning “so many things in so little time that it all gets a little mixed up in (his) head,” which demonstrates the serious use of propaganda and brainwashing methods. This brainwashing leads to his gradual obsession with “redness,” referring to the Marxist ideology of the ruling party. At one point when discussing his lack of qualifications to be factory manager, the protagonist explains, “redness was all that was missing,” cementing the idea that party ideology possesses a paramount position in the protagonist’s view of value in society (Dongala and Thomas 69). Subsequently, the protagonist explains that he cheated on his wife, not due to “debauchery or immorality” but as “sacrifice” to “advance the revolutionary cause and its redness” (Dongala and Thomas 70). Therefore, it becomes evident that the loyalty to party ideology takes complete precedence in the life of the worker, eroding the value of his personal relationships and his own identity. When explaining his decisions or beliefs, the ideology and loyalty to the party serve as the only justifications, with no considerations given to his own morals or beliefs. At one point, the protagonist somewhat admits his loss of self-identity, explaining “I can see now how one has to start by rendering one’s personality colorless, before one can successfully climb the arduous path to redness” (Dongala and Thomas 74). This psychological repression on the individual level allows the ruling party to maintain immense power since the oppressed are convinced that they are benefitting from the status quo.

Dongala’s demonstration of ideological obsession in the story provides an avenue to understanding the implications of similar instances in postcolonial African politics. In particular, the implications are quite relevant in relation to the ability of single-party states to remain in power for long periods of time. While the eagerness to begin state building somewhat justified continuing personal rule in postcolonial Africa, ruling parties took advantage of the situation and relied on enforcing an intense commitment to political ideology to remain in power. For example, the ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe has been in power since the country’s inception. Taking advantage of its initial popularity for freeing Zimbabweans from the rule of the “Rhodesian white settler regime,” the party “intended to institutionalize (its) control of the political sphere” (Dorman 163). Although opposition parties existed, the “ruling party was very much the controlling force in the political system” (Dorman 165). President Mugabe “incorporated those who had opposed the armed struggle for independence as well as white farmers, businessmen, and workers into the nation-building project” (Dorman 165). This process has parallels to “The Ceremony” in that the ruling party maintained power by attempting to convince and brainwash the people that all citizens were part of a greater ideological cause and that the ruling party must be in power for its goals to come to fruition. Sara Dorman argues, “by creating a wide umbrella party that incorporated not just the diverse factions but also many of their erstwhile opponents, Mugabe made it nearly impossible for anyone to “exit” the system and stand outside this hegemonic process.” This strategy highlights the importance of the perception the ruling party has in regards to the people. In “The Ceremony,” it is evident that the worker adores the Party and believes his nation to be benefitting from its rule. This adoration is a result of the Party using group identity to make personal ramifications irrelevant, just as Mugabe justified his power under the guise of unified patriotism after years of colonial oppression.

In addition to Zimbabwe, Sékou Touré in Guinea emphasized the importance of the party in order to promote and justify his dictatorial status within the country. In his speech, “The Role of the Party,” Touré claims, “no responsible political man whatever the authority he represents… could substitute himself for the Party. If he emanates from it, if he is the speaker, he can but act as a reflecting instrument, not of his own personality, but of the Party, which alone can express the will, the aspirations, the needs and the hopes of our people” (Emerson and Kilson 132). This excerpt precisely mirrors the self-distancing and party preeminence displayed in “the Ceremony.” Although the President of the Republic is revered in the story, it is out of his status as the leader of the party and revolution that he enjoys such reverence, not out of his personal qualities or abilities. Similarly, in his speech, Touré essentially justifies that anything he does is not a result of his decisions or beliefs, but those of the party. This allows him to rule the people without any personal consequence because they believe that he is not personally responsible for the outcomes.

Touré’s public distancing from his dictatorship also devalues the self-identity of the people. Since he states that responsible men should only express the will of the party, the brainwashed citizens believe that they should merely emanate from the party as well, not knowing that Touré is actually controlling the party’s beliefs and actions. The devious crafting of the perception of the party cements Touré’s power; by claiming that he is merely emanating from the party, he effectively establishes a perceived group identity and intense loyalty to ideology. Further deceiving the people into party loyalty, Touré’s party is named the Democratic Party of Guinea, presumably making the people feel as if their collective interests are represented, although the party never holds legitimate elections. By commanding that “the individual… must withdraw himself for the benefit of the political, human social personality of our people”, Touré is able to persuade his citizens to ignore their personal identities or considerations of well-being due to the preeminence of the benefit of the collective people (Emerson and Kilson 132). However, since individual citizens cannot evaluate the degree to which the people are benefitting in a dictatorial state, Touré is able to act as he wishes for the benefit of himself and fellow autocrats as long as the perception of his working for the people is maintained.

This concept is demonstrated from the citizen’s perspective in “the Ceremony.” When explaining why he makes sure to pose for a photograph with the President, the protagonist says, “I didn’t do it for myself, but rather in the interest of the Revolution, so that people could clearly see that our Comrade Secretary General… did not hesitate to mingle, converse, and live with the masses” (Dongala and Thomas 75). In fact, the protagonist is so brainwashed by party ideology that he not only believes the party leader to be doing a good service to him, but also attempts to convince other members of the proletariat to believe the same. Thus, it is evident, as in the case of Guinea, that in the aftermath of decolonization, political leaders took advantage of the people’s eagerness to build the state. They consequently used their initial popularity to promote deep-rooted party ideology to prevent political opposition by eroding self-identity and explaining that only loyalty to the party would benefit their newly founded state. Through this process, political leaders managed to rule unchecked and take advantage of their positions and their people, causing widespread political corruption on the continent.  

Deeply intertwined into the story’s deep progression of ideological obsession is the casual acceptance of political corruption, clearly a result of the aforementioned blind loyalty. These instances of corruption emphasize the obsessive loyalty since corruption is not hidden from the protagonist’s view. When recognizing corruption, he accepts or excuses its existence, even when it seems to harm the majority of the people, clearly a sign that his deep loyalty to the Party and its ideology has infiltrated his personal perception. The protagonist mentions the “convertible two-door Triumph… like the one the Comrade Minister for Propaganda and Ideology drove” (Dongala and Thomas 71). However, instead of allowing this gross inequality to bother him, he strives for that status and glorifies the ones who obtain it. Further, he mentions that all “members of our glorious Party’s Central Committee, had luxury air-conditioned cars… (and) celebrated with champagne” (Dongala and Thomas 73). Again he responds, “of course I wanted to be a part of it too” (Dongala and Thomas 73). The protagonist even goes so far as to create distinctions between two people that have the aforementioned luxuries, with the determining factor for justness being party membership. In turn, partisan and ideological loyalty infuses him so much that he begins justifying gross inequality that results from corruption on the basis of membership in the Party that stripped him of self-identity and practical perception in the first place. In fact, the protagonist fuels the corruption even in attempts to serve the Party. He mentions he “had to slip him a thousand-franc note, not to grease his palm, but quite simply to thank him for having taken up his time” when referring to the means in which he secured the duty to change the microphone height at the ceremony. In the justification itself, he decries the idea of bribery, displaying the utter corruption of his perception at the hands of partisan propaganda.

The analysis of corruption from the individual citizen’s perspective in the story helps explain the continued prevalence of political corruption in postcolonial Africa, even after the fall of single-party autocracies, such as the government demonstrated in the story. According to 2017 Afrobarometer results, only “54% (of survey takers) say ordinary citizens can make a difference in fighting corruption” (Afrobarometer Round 6, 14). These results demonstrate the quite common idea of accepting corruption, just as the protagonist in the story does. This is a dangerous precedent not only because it allows governments to take advantage of citizens, but also because corruption is occurring in democratic states where ordinary citizens have control over who is in power. The casual acceptance of continual corruption in democratic states poses a real threat to active citizenship and the rights of those people who are not in power. In these cases, deep partisan obsession as a result of a totalitarian state is not corrupting the opinions of the people; the citizenry simply feels powerless to change their own government. “55% of Africans say corruption has increased over the previous year,” and thus if citizens continue to accept corrupt governments, democracy may go backward as unaccountable leaders seize more power, ending up with a state similar to that in “The Ceremony” (Afrobarometer Round 6, 14). At that point, powerlessness will translate to blind loyalty, paving the grounds for the return of aristocratic rule in Africa, with dominant parties again infiltrating the minds of its citizens, stripping each one of their self-identity.

While demonstrating the interplay of loyalty to party ideology and the acceptance of corruption in an extreme and almost comical fashion, “The Ceremony” provides an exploration of the themes’ relationship from the perspective of a single citizen. Combining this narrative focus with the overall concepts demonstrated in contemporary African politics allows for a greater understanding of how dominating parties and their ideologies are able to coerce support, even without the use of outward oppression. The psychological oppression alone can help justify the continued victories of dominant political parties even in countries with free and fair multiparty elections. The dominant parties’ abilities to ingrain their ideologies into the fabric of society provides them with the utmost power to continue their rule. Widespread corruption becomes viewed as irrelevant and is accepted because the ruling party has already defeated the opposition from within their own minds.



Afrobarometer Round 6. Report. Afrobarometer, 2017. Afrobarometer.

Dongala, Emmanuel, and Dominic Thomas. “The Ceremony.” Jazz and Palm Wine. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017.

Dorman, Sara Rich. “The End of the Mugabe Era in Zimbabwe.” Current History, May 2018, 163-68. Accessed September 13, 2018.

Emerson, Rupert, and Martin Kilson. “The Role of the Party.” The Political Awakening of Africa. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1965.