Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

The African Power Elite: Identity, Domination and Accumulation et accumulation


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The last decade and half across Africa has witnessed various processes of transition from single party and military rule to multiparty forms of politics. This development has, however, tended to prevent scholars from addressing critical questions about the elites that exercise and wield political power on the continent beyond banal generalisations about (neo-) patrimonialism and the post-colony. The challenge of systematically studying the African power elite and the mode by which it governs has become urgent not only because of the conceptual/theoretical dead-ends to which much of current received wisdom leads, but also because a better understanding of the nature, composition and renewal of the elite is critical to our understanding of the governance of the public sphere. Furthermore, the unfulfilled promises of the on-going democratisation processes across the continent and the continuing susceptibility of the political system to violent conflicts point to a problematique of power - the way in which it is appropriated, accumulated, structured, used, legitimated, and reproduced – which needs to be carefully studied.

In focusing on the theme of the African power elite, participants in the 2003 Governance Institute will be invited to discuss the huge asymmetrical gap between the elites who exercise the power of governing public affairs and the masses that they govern. In order to go beyond mere denigrations and/or self-seeking hagiographies, it is proposed to tackle three essential dimensions of the role of elites in African political systems both theoretically and empirically. The three dimensions are: the social identity and cohesion of the ruling groups, the forms of political coercion that they use, and the ways they control scarce resources. Together, these three dimensions serve, among others, to define the dynamics of political relations, the nature of a political system, the mode of elite constitution, the social basis of decision-making, the symbolic points of reference on which elite identities are grounded, the mode of domination in a political system, the apparatuses of legitimation that are mobilised, the structuring of the relations between the elite and other sectors of society, the scope that is available for the generation of elite consensus, the role of external powers in supporting or opposing the consolidation of elite groups, and, ultimately, the relative stability of a political order.

The 2003 Governance Institute strived to demonstrate how the constitution of the elite in Africa relates to trends in the social and historical dynamics that help to structure local public spheres. The current relevance of a return to an analytical interrogation of the elite is justified by the importance ascribed to their modes of composition, as well as their ability to present themselves as legitimate representatives of the larger society as a whole. Participants will be asked to highlight the role of the elite in the process of nation-state building in Africa and connect questions around it to a radical critique of democracy, which is contradictory, in principle, to the concentration of power in the hands of a dominant and restricted group existing to protect its privileges.

November 5 2003