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The Rise of Populist Rhetoric in Africa: Who Does the Voice of the People Really Benefit?

The Rise of Populist Rhetoric in Africa: Who Does the Voice of the People Really Benefit?

Ugandan Museveni addressing a crowd in a rally. Museveni signed an anti-homosexuality bill in the country, which has gained support from populist conservative society. Afrocritik

In the end—whether its intentions are sincere or not—populism in Africa is about the people: people rising directly to assert their rights or, as is often the case now, a leader coercing the popular support of the people to pursue vested interests.

By Chimezie Chika

In early 2011, throngs of protesters marched into the streets of Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, against the regime of then-president, Zine El Aibidine El Ali, who was accused of fostering corruption and pushing the country into economic stagnation. The protest continued through the following weeks without relenting, quickly spreading to other countries of North Africa — Egypt and Libya, especially — and other parts of the Arab world in what became known as the Arab Spring. These uprisings witnessed ordinary people fighting to change undesirable governments, and it yielded quick results, leading directly to the deposition of the entrenched regimes of El Ali in Tunisia, Muammar Ghaddafi in Libya, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, who had all held onto power for decades. 

While the success of these demonstrations is debatable, it is quite clear that the Arab Spring was a people’s revolution, the likes of which had never before been seen in Africa. At its centre was the desire for change and the institution of transparent democracies, as seen in the major slogan of the movement: ash-shaʻb yurīd isqā an-niām!—“The people want to bring down the regime!” In short, the populist movement was about what the people wanted.

In the last half-decade or so, a vortex of populist movements seems to have overtaken Africa, surfacing in various guises across different countries. It has gradually become perhaps the most dominant force shaping economic, political, and social policies in the continent today. As a political concept, populism is a movement that represents the interests of the people above that of the corrupt elite. Political analyst, Eliane Glaser, reveals that populism is essentially anti-establishment. In its very fabric is the simplification of social and political situations into an “‘Us’ versus ‘Them’” binary. Populism exploits existing schisms in society. Usually, populist leaders seek to escalate these divisions by pitting one side against the other, taking a stance with the people against the establishment. This iconoclasm often draws a tremendous cult following.

(Read also: Is Africa Commemorating Its Heroes Enough?)

The advent of populism in Africa is the result of a number of political and social issues across the continent. Its practice is hugely rhetorical and is often manipulated by politicians who have realised that populist rhetoric appeals to the prevailing social conditions of the masses. Playing into the insecurities of the aggrieved populace, it is easy to see overtones of Marxist rhetoric being wielded by politicians in a bid to stimulate an emotional identification with the common man. 

The recent spate of military coup d’états in West and Central African countries presents demonstrable instances of cases where military interventions are seen as acts that uphold the people’s will against long-running political hegemonies. The most recent military coup, which happened in Gabon in the early hours of Wednesday, 30th August 2023, followed allegations of electoral fraud and widespread corruption against Ali Bongo, the country’s president, who had been ruling the country since 2009, after succeeding his father, Omar Bongo, who himself had ruled the country between 1967 and 2009. In more than half a century of holding onto power in a supposed democracy that somewhere along the line tacitly turned into a dynastic republic, the Bongo family had been unable to create economic prosperity for most of Gabon’s impoverished 2.4 million people despite being resource-rich. In the wake of the coup, video footage surfaced online of people celebrating in the streets of Libreville and other cities in the country, in a show of popular support for the military officers. In their communique, the junta declared that they had taken power “on behalf of the people.” Following this pattern, all the recent coups in Africa — including those of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger — can be seen as populist uprisings, since they enjoy varying degrees of support from the common people. 

Populism exploits groupthink — long-held grudges against a dysfunctional system. The coup de grace of populist leaders is the expression of views that echo the grievances of the oppressed masses. Often, we see people voicing the same concerns over a long period while corruption continues in the government. These concerns are chiefly about inequality, economic stagnation and poor government policies. The uniqueness of Africa’s situation is that much of the continent has been mismanaged by its political elite and, thus, when a demagogue comes along with the right words or actions, the people often jump on the bandwagon. Nothing more will matter in that moment except their need for change. 

The issue with populism and its practice is that it is very malleable. The dangers are immense and can be infinitely destructive, possessing the potential to spark revolutions and internecine conflicts. Take Sudan for example,  where the supposedly populist uprising in 2019 has degenerated into a fratricidal power tussle between the General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan-led Sudanese Armed Forces and Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces by April 2023. The endpoint shows that the people’s concerns are merely a ready conduit for power-hungry rulers. These actions often happen in political milieus where the existing potentates have consolidated power to the detriment of the common citizens, who would sometimes rise in response. In North African countries where the Arab Spring took place, the results have been mixed. While Egypt has achieved great economic and infrastructural leaps since their change of government, a country like Libya is still fraught with sectarian violence and political instability. Despite the precarity of the outcomes, so long as dictatorial rulers, vapid electoral processes and economic failures continue to take place in Africa, change-seeking popular uproars will never cease.

Arab-spring in Egypt, a populist protest Afrocritik
The Arab Spring in Egypt. Source: Getty Images

(Read also: Are Protests Still Effective in Causing Social Change in Today’s Society?)

Immigration and the Rise of Right-Wing Nationalism

Over the past few years, xenophobic violence in South Africa has become common news. The 2019 version of the attacks was so terrible that Air Peace, a Nigerian aviation company, stepped in to evacuate hundreds of Nigerians from the country. Xenophobic violence is targeted against immigrants from other sub-Saharan African countries who see South Africa — perhaps Africa’s most developed country — as an attractive land of opportunities. South Africa’s xenophobia grew out of a perception, in some quarters of the South African population, that immigrants are enjoying economic benefits meant for native South Africans. 

The rise of the right-wing Action SA party within the political spectrum of South Africa is predicated on the popularity of its anti-migrant sentiments. Led by Herman Mashaba, a decidedly populist politician, Action SA is creating a competitive atmosphere where other political parties are involved in a race to align themselves with the general sentiments of much of the South African populace on immigrants. Gayton McKenzie, leader of the anti-immigrant party, Patriotic Alliance, takes a hardline stance against immigration. It is not clear whether he is doing this to acquire votes or whether he is preaching fascist nationalism.

It will be remiss to claim that all South Africans support xenophobia. One vehement opposition in South African politics is Julius Malema, the controversial leader of the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters party, whose Marxist leanings continue to enjoy popular support. Malema speaks occasionally against xenophobic violence against African immigrants in the country. In one speech, he told his audience that South African freedom fighters were sheltered and supported by these same African countries during the heydays of the anti-apartheid struggle. One way or the other, it is clear that each politician has aligned with a section of the South African population, expressing their sentiments and concerns. According to Christopher Kabakis, populist rhetoric in some instances co-opts a faction of the people into deciding who the real citizens and the aliens are. Often, we find that it is usually the loudest faction that engenders the overriding policies on immigration. 

The political exploitation of perceived disaffection with immigrants among the populace escalates the true proportions of the problem and creates a cycle of hatred and resentment between the countries involved. We have seen this issue play out between Nigeria and Ghana. In 1983, Nigeria expelled over a million Ghanaians. The action was partly due to complaints by Nigerians that immigrants were occupying jobs meant for them and also partly due to an earlier expulsion of Nigerians from Ghana in 1969 with similar reasons. In recent times, there has been an exchange of deportations between the two countries. South Africa runs the risk of alienating its neighbours if it continues the stoking of xenophobia, a situation that is not ideal in regional geopolitics.

Homophobia and Popular Politics in East Africa

Earlier in the year, the Ugandan parliament passed the anti-LGBTQ bill into law, giving the death penalty for what, in the officious phrasing of jurisprudence, it called “aggravated homosexuality.” In the months leading up to the signing of the law, ferocious debates took place in the Ugandan parliament, with house members taking turns to make self-righteous speeches about the question of African morality. The campaign for the bill was widespread and had popular support; it incorporated hate speech into the cartilage of its rhetoric. Asuman Basalirwa, the MP who sponsored the anti-homosexual bill, framed LGBTQ rights in his introductory speech as a “colonial law”, thus arousing the anti-imperialist sentiments of his countrymen.

This law is a clever move by the long-standing Museveni government to gain the approval of Uganda’s largely conservative population. In Kenya, similar sentiments to those of Uganda are brewing, and there are indications that an anti-gay law will be passed sooner rather than later. In the wake of his ascension to the presidency in September 2022, Kenyan President Wiliam Ruto, revealed in an interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN that he does not think the question of LGBTQ rights is important to Kenyans. Again, this is in keeping with the wider views of Kenya’s religious majority. In recent reports, a Kenyan MP, Peter Kaluma, is making moves to introduce a “broad” anti-LGBTQ bill in the Kenyan parliament. Kaluma’s ultra-conservative views are increasingly garnering support from fellow MPs and from the general populace.

Populism in Africa: William Ruto Addressing a Crowd Afrocritik
Kenyan President, William Ruto, addressing a crowd. Source: The Conversation

In East Africa, it appears that political leaders have understood the potency of using widely held conservative beliefs as leverage to gain support. In part, the unique opportunity that anti-gay legislation and campaigns present is that poorly performing politicians can prop up the image of being people-oriented. Ostensibly, it is an example of how populist sentiments can privilege policies that elevate the concerns of the majority over the minority. The problem here is that violence against LGBTQ minorities is being sanctioned by the governments and, by extension, human rights abuses are being legitimised. 

Nigeria’s Politics and the Populist Stratagem 

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The reality of populist politics in pluralistic societies like Nigeria reveals the atomisation of society into volatile interest groups led by rabble-rousing politicians interested only in the perks of power. The modern political history of Northern Nigeria is incomplete without the struggles of the socialist-populist politician, Amino Kano, whose genuine concern for the raving poor classes of the North ended in an inconspicuous bid for the presidency in 1979. The tendency today, among the political class in the North of Nigeria, is the adoption of a strategy that stokes the religious sentiments of Northerners — an overwhelmingly Muslim demographic — while advancing personal interests. (It must be noted that the success or failure of this strategy most likely has a strong purchase on religious and ethnic identity. Former Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, a Southern Christian, tried to use this leverage of appealing to the Northern poor, through extenuating schemes geared towards the Almajirai class, with little success.) The rise of Nasir El Rufai as a political force in Nigeria closely follows this trajectory of planting fascist ideals of religious homogeneity as a way to appeal to a large population of potential Muslim voters. His divisive tribal and religious politics may be part of the reason for the incessant violence against minority Christian ethnicities in southern Kaduna State. On many occasions, El Rufai is found making elitist statements about his desire for a Muslim oligarchy as a way to manipulate Nigeria’s volatile political landscape. 

Nigeria’s politics is often driven wholly by personal ambition. It has no organising ideal and its politicians have no ideological leanings, a problem that has been noted in Nigeria and elsewhere. Yet, if there is any smidgen of a philosophical model among the Nigerian political class, it is a twisted form of the Hobbesian leviathan — a tacit expression of autocratic absolutism while seeming to favour the masses; creating the appearance of understanding the plight of the poor masses (in campaign speeches, for example), while effecting draconian economic policies that seem to negate everything prior. It is a real manipulation of the will of the common people. Former Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari’s 2015 presidential campaign exemplified this. The popular support his election bid received quickly metamorphosed into open resentment when the intense bigotry of his policies became obvious, beginning with his first appointments as president. 

Populism in partisan politics has a temporal nature that quickly transitions into public vilification when the politician who used that means to ascend to power fails to deliver on their campaign promises. While giving voice to people’s frustrations, the real task of the populist politician is offering workable solutions to the grievances of the masses. Herein lies the ruse of the populist gambit in electoral processes in Africa. In Nigeria, the modus operandi of politicians is to claim to represent the ordinary people while disparaging their opponents as traitors and classist oppressors. Only that, as with most insincere ideals, these pretences are persuasive tools twisted and skewed towards the ultimate goal of the politicians: to garner votes from the common people. 

These machinations have done little to stem the widespread feelings of distress and frustration over the inequalities and corruption that hierarchise the Nigerian society. Valid concerns that the Nigerian government has over the years gradually transformed into a self-absorbed plutocracy sustained by the largesse of oil wealth have led, at various points, to febrile movements such as the Occupy Nigeria and the EndSARS protests. Politicians have continued to exploit Nigeria’s deep-seated tribal resentment, occasionally sprucing it with the placatory tokenism of appointments from smaller ethnic groups, which does not solve anything. 

(Read also: Much Ado About the Politics of Fuel Subsidy in Nigeria)

Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s most recent example in the months leading up to the 2023 general elections is chastening. Riding on ethnic rhetoric punctuated by a catchphrase, “Yoruba Ronu,” the supporters of Tinubu’s presidential campaign, under the All Progressives Congress (APC), aimed to disrupt whatever foothold Peter Obi, another populist politician and his major rival in the presidential race, had in Nigeria’s West, the homeland of Tinubu’s Yoruba ethnic group. “Yoruba Ronu,” which means, “Yoruba think,” is an appeal to the outrageous view that Yorubaland is being infiltrated by the Igbo — a completely unfounded but incendiary sentiment that soon found purchase among the masses of the Yoruba. On the other hand, Obi’s presidential campaign, under the Labour Party, a political party more representative of original populist ideals due to its overt affiliations to organised labour and its socialist propaganda, sought sympathy among Nigeria’s disgruntled minorities, using the slogan, “From Consumption to Production.” Obi’s rhetoric appealed to prevailing concerns about pervasive economic hardship — a situation which, as he said many times, is a consequence of decades of graft, corruption, and poor economic decisions in the government. Obi’s speeches seemed to carry emotional heft among the middle and lower classes of the country, though judging from what is already known about the ploy of populist rhetoric in politics, it remains to be seen if he would have been the man to change things had he been declared winner of the election. 

Populism in Africa: One of Tinubu's Campaign Rally Afrocritik
One of Tinubu’s Campaign Rally preceding the 2023 elections in Nigeria. Source: Voice of Nigeria

Splinters of the populist trend have asserted and reasserted itself across the African continent. It has affected the political landscape of governments, creating changes in leadership in different countries. It has also influenced controversial policies and pushback against minorities, including immigrants and the LGBTQ communities. The question that surfaces in the light of these issues is whether the interests of the people are being served. The answer is as clear as day, for we have seen how easy it is for elites to hijack the popular movement and manipulate it for their own use. Leading many populist movements in Africa are demagogues exercising their rhetorical will over the people. 

The typical populist leader holds immense control over an ideal, even when he does not believe in it; he has control over language and its manipulation; he is able to hold audiences spellbound and stir people to action through a carefully curated choice of words and catchphrases; he is able to appeal to latent or popular emotions and yearnings. In the end — whether its intentions are sincere or not — populism in Africa is about the people: people rising directly to assert their rights or, as is often the case now, a leader coercing the popular support of the people to pursue vested interests. 

Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in or forthcoming from, amongst other places, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Iskanchi Mag, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Efiko Magazine, Brittle Paper, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1

Cover image: Graha Details

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