African agency: A paradox at the heart of governance

Discussion of ‘African agency’ must distinguish between the continent and specific groups of Africans, and can manifest as resistance to totalitarian power.

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Published 12 October 2022 Updated 19 October 2022 3 minute READ

Alex Ntung

Independent researcher; PhD candidate, University of Kent

Assessing the extent to which Africa can act autonomously to shape its place in the world demands first determining which Africa is being talked about. Tracing the rise and fall of the governance agenda in development offers a useful perspective.

The pursuit of good governance, as defined internationally, has been central to development theory and practice since the end of the Cold War.

It values robust institutions, participatory democracy, accountability, the rule of law, and human rights – universal ‘good things’ in the eyes of many of Africa’s external partners, and foundational for state-building, stability, and pro-growth.

But the challenge is this view has not proved to be universally shared among Africans, and particularly not so by political elites because, in some places, good governance directly threatens the systems which sustain elites in power, often fuelled by patronage.

To reformers, decentralization is a mechanism for moving power closer to marginalized communities in Africa’s vast peripheries, improving accountability, service delivery, and development outcomes

In others, alternative visions of how a state should function can mean decision-making is centralized, discipline is enforced over plurality, and results prioritized over individual liberties.

The net result is the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announcement in 2020 that governance across the continent was going backwards for the first time in a decade, and this is likely to have been accelerated further by the impacts of COVID-19.

The clash of worldviews is particularly stark in relation to decentralization which, for many elites at national and local levels, is revolutionary, threatening both central control and local power balances.

But to reformers, decentralization is a mechanism for moving power closer to marginalized communities in Africa’s vast peripheries, improving accountability, service delivery, and development outcomes – a technical and a-political refinement of government structures.

Decentralization failure in the DRC

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where decentralization was written into the post-war transitional constitution, adopted in 2007 and amended in 2011, with the intention of giving power and control to provincial institutions.

But elites at the national level resisted, and an endemic culture of client politics and corruption prevented provincial leaders from using their legal powers to stop the central government retaining control of critical infrastructure, public services, and budgets.

Elites at the central and provincial levels have tended to be reluctant to support such reform and have even acted to undermine its implementation to prevent losses they fear would be incurred.

Not only has decentralization failed, it may have worsened the situation for the DRC’s most marginalized by exacerbating violence and division.

By seeking to retain influence and control over newly-formed local administrations, competing national elites encouraged communities to mobilize around ethnic identities, weaponizing local anxieties to embed exclusionary definitions of ‘indigenousness’ which exclude certain disadvantaged groups not seen as sufficiently ‘Congolese’.

Decentralization has led to the tribalization of provincial institutions , the politicization of territorial identities, and an ethnic ‘Balkanization’ of the state.

Communities targeted and exploited

The Banyamulenge – a Congolese Tutsi community – is a telling example. They migrated into the territory of what is now the DRC between the 18th and the 19th centuries, long before the state existed, and settled in the highlands of Minembwe, South Kivu.

Long denied the formal recognition of a customary chieftaincy – which is vital to making claims to a land title under the DRC’s complex land ownership structure – the Banyamulenge have been targeted and exploited by all sides in the DRC’s long-running conflicts.

Not only has decentralization failed, it may have worsened the situation for the DRC’s most marginalized by exacerbating violence and division

Decentralization offered hope of a resolution as it created more than 200 new local rural municipalities (communes) for areas with fast-growing populations or without access to public services and customary powers – including Minembwe.

But instead of providing the Banyamulenge with security, the installation of a rural municipality in Minembwe led to a worsening of tensions and a rise in violence as competition between neighbouring communities was fuelled by national elites fighting to retain control.

This has resulted in five years of concerted attacks by a coalition of militias targeting the Banyamulenge, leading to thousands killed, raped, or subjected to violence, hundreds of thousands of heads of cattle – the primary livelihood for the community – looted or killed, and hundreds of Banyamulenge villages burned.

The proliferation of armed groups, often acting with the complicity of state agents in pursuing material interests or sectarian politics, further undermines the formal state, and prevents any coherent challenge to the continued rule of elites linked to Kinshasa.

Informing the debate on African agency

The example of the Banyamulenge – and others – shows it is essential to distinguish between agency for the continent in broad international affairs, and agency for specific groups of Africans.

Despite their misgivings, the DRC elites did not have sufficient agency to prevent decentralization from happening, but they proved more than capable of undermining its implementation.

This article is part of a series on African agency in international affairs.

African agency: A paradox at the heart of governance 2nd part

In many cases, agency is expressed as resistance – what many external observers dismiss as mindless ‘spoiling’ – because enhancing agency for elites is in direct tension with agency for the marginalized and disenfranchised.

The messy reality of politics in Africa and the competing agencies it represents cannot be ignored in the efforts to building accountable, decentralized states. Increased African agency is essential to reshaping external engagement with the continent for a new era.

But overlooking the reality that agency for elites does not necessarily translate to agency for the marginalized has significant consequences, as the Banyamulenge are finding to their cost.