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Political parties in Africa – largely charted terrain

Matthias Basedau, Gero Erdmann and Andreas Mehler (eds.): Votes, money and violence. Political parties and elections in sub-Saharan Africa. Nordiska Afrikainstitutet and University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Uppsala and Scottsville, 2007, 301 p., €31.00, ISBN 978-91-7106-579-7

During Nigeria’s gubernatorial, parliamentary and presidential elections in April 2007, voting started late in some polling stations, because ballot papers had not arrived in time. Nonetheless, some lists of results were already completed and made available before the voting even closed. More than 200 people were killed in the context of the elections, including some candidates. Nonetheless, conditions were better than during previous elections. As outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo explained: “You cannot use European standards to judge the situation in a developing country.” But what standards should apply, and when does the process cease to be democratic?

These are two of the questions this book tackles. It is based on a conference of Africanists, political scientists and social anthropologists in Hamburg in 2003. The tome provides an overview of current research into African political parties and electoral systems. Almost all contributors complain that very little is known about African political parties. Apparently there are many assumptions and questions, but only scant empirical data to test them. One of the editors, Gero Erdmann, doubts it makes sense to allude to European classifications such as “conservative”, “liberal” or “left” when referring to Africa.

Many of the articles claim that African parties hardly differ from one another in terms of ideology and programmes. What then, asks Andreas Mehler, is the point of distinguishing left from right? And can one really distinguish between cadre and mass parties, when many parties have no member lists, but many of the supporters carry membership cards from several parties? Aren’t ethnicity and informal patronage networks more important than a given party’s weak formal organisation?

On the other hand, warns Erdmann, research on political parties in Africa would be left out in the cold if it formed special categories which only applied to Africa, thus restricting comparison with the rest of the world. Parallels for the political violence described by Andreas Mehler and Liisa Laakso are not hard to find – in the Weimar Republic, for instance. Also, what Paul Nugent writes about the influence of money on elections in Ghana sounds quite familiar.

This book, with its debates on procedures and the current state of research, is not light reading, but it contains a wealth of information for anyone interested in Africa. In the lack of conclsive empirical statistics, the authors illustrate their arguments with numerous vivid case studies. However, African local-government elections are not taken into account; so far, virtually no research has been done on the subject. It is also unfortunate that only one article was contributed from an African university. Nevertheless, the book’s overview of existing material provides a vivid snapshot of the African political system.

Jürgen Duenbostel