Clientelism and the evolution of African societies – Alex Njeru


Kenya is now fifty, a whopping half century old no mean feat in itself, she has been politically independent for the last 50 or so odd years, and I suspect most of her other African peers are quite as old. As a matter of fact Kenya is planning some auspicious and supremely grand celebrations to mark ‘fifty years of self-rule’.

Ironically Kenya and Africa seem not to have achieved the vision of independence that had galvanized the independence struggle, with some of the fighters of independence paying the ultimate price for self-rule. Although Africa achieved self-rule, it seems to have substituted imperial rulers from European imperialist to local imperialists, who were and still unashamedly corrupt and outrightly immoral. It is astounding that vices such as; ethnicity, corruption and incessant civil conflicts seem to have increased tremendously in post-independent Africa.

Of greater concern was the development of patron-clientelism in Africa’s politics and the subsequent ethnic balkanization within Africa. A scholar on the history of patron-clientelism and the ethnisization of politics and society in Africa states that, ‘One of the strategies employed by politicians to win support was to make promises of material assistance. Such promises in exchange for support and votes became the basis of the patron-client relationships that came to pervade African politics in the post-independence period.’ In essence political survival for the first rulers of the continent was at the heart of every decision they made, neither posterity nor rule of law and equity informed governance and policy.

It is this patron clientelism that compounds the problems of ethnicity on the continent. It must be said if there has ever been a blight so pronounced on the independent Africa, ethnicity is it. It makes the continent look bad, look like a land where tribes and communities rise against each other with bad and dire consequences.

The truth of the matter is that African communities have and still treat each other with; respect, and amity. Many a time I have visited lands further afield from areas generally associated with my community and I have been received well. People in those places have welcomed me, have shown a genuine desire to learn and understand the ways of my tribe. I too have been fascinated by the ways of and cultures of other African tribes and communities. As Africa is diverse in her geography so are her people, and we need sustained efforts to imbue cultural relativism, because as no to two people are similar in this world so are; cultures, ethnicities and communities.

Communities in different parts of Africa have a different value systems, this is a function of geography, economic organization and production rather than politics. The different value systems among communities have never been a source of conflict; rather they have formed the basis from which African communities cooperate. For example members of my community do not have a taste bud for fish, I bet that is something they picked up from the Cushites over the years. As a matter of fact most especially the old members of my community do not eat fish to this day, but sustained interaction with river lake Nilotes have broken down the cultural taboo that was eating fish in my community. It is this different value systems and the different geographies which African communities occupied that formed the basis of exchange and trade. The hunters were not necessarily good tool makers, the blacksmiths were and that was a basis of exchange in itself.

Sadly, in post-colonial Africa, words like; tribe, ethnic, and community at times conjure up a negative connotation. The problems of ethnicity we have in the country are not due to our divergent cultures, far the gulf in in our differences has grown wider and wider since our politicians started highlighting these differences to us. Literature is awash with stories of how communities in Africa fought and squabbled, but that is not something that is peculiarly African, aren’t religious books replete with documented stories of large inter-community battles.

We need to keep our politics clean for us to live in peace, and the political culture which sees patron extend rent and largesse to their political clients should end. The rule of law should be respected in the Africa and rule of law does place a very high premium on equity. Because I am told in countries like Cameroon the clan from which the president marries from is a big issue.


Alex Ndungu Njeru writes in from Nairobi, Kenya

Alex looks at socio-cultural issues of post-Independence Africa