Academic note: the universal and local in Africa

One of the most important and lively debates on the academic study by political scientists, or Africanists belonging to other disciplines, is distinguishing whether a specific process, practice or institution is a universal phenomenon, or one unique to the region/country/culture/ethnic group that is been studied. It is often a matter of reaching a delicate equilibrium, for it seems as dangerous to ignore the role played by local determinants, such as culture, in the political process as to advance too far into a conceptual relativism. It is likely that this debate will continue endlessly, since there is not, at least in my opinion, a position that is 100% correct, and can be used to explain convincingly all aspect of any political system.
Reading the newspaper last Saturday, I found an interview with the historian John Lynch, biographer of Simón Bolivar and José de San Martín, and in which he talked about the revolutions that led to the independence of numerous Latin American countries, 200 years ago now. In a passage that caught my attention, Lynch said:
“The figure of the caudillo, which normally was sustained by a regional power base, was one of the greatest obstacles for national development. Personal power destroyed constitutions. The caudillo became the state and the state in the caudillo’s property. Paradoxically, caudillos could also act as defenders of the national interest, against foreign invasions, economic pressures and other external threats, thus promoting people’s unity and a heightened national consciousness. Caudillos were both representatives and enemies of the nation state…From primitive caudillism, through oligarchic dictatorship and all the way to populist leaders, the caudillist tradition left a mark on the political process. Perhaps the most important quality of the caudillos was their personalism, described by a historian as the substitution of ideology by the personal prestige of the boss”.
It is impossible for any student of African history or politics to read this and not having his/her mind drifting, almost at once, to the numerous descriptions made by academics, during the past few decades, about African postcolonial states. The patrimonial (or neo-patrimonial) nature of African governments, their dependence on regional/ethnic constituencies and power bases, the essentially personalistic nature of their rule, their non-ideological character…Many authors have seen in all this something unique to the African continent. And yet the remarkable similarities between the description of the Latin American caudillos of the 19th century, and of African dictators on the second half of the 20th century, seems to show that during the processes of achieving independence and of national construction the existence of personalised power and patrimonial relations, far from being culturally determined, appears as inevitable. If this is so, then the crucial thing for academics and students of African history and politics, may be to widen their perspective and examine not what within the African continent gave rise to these dynamics, but what makes them endure and increase their intensity, or to explore how a democratic system is built out of this situation.
Academic note: the universal and local in Africa

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