Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem talks about importance of political parties and asks the question: When the nationalists were fighting for liberation from colonial rule the people raised funds for the parties - What does it say of contemporary politics that members are not able or willing to fund their own parties?

Accra is my favourite city on the West Coast of Africa, while I rank Maputo in Southern Africa first. I was in both last week for different purposes but the experience was always the same: marvellous peaceful cities by the ocean? I guess my fascination with both countries and their capital cities and the inspiration many find in them has a lot to do with Kwame Nkrumah and Samora Machel having walked those streets. In both cities I feel like being in the shadow of both larger than life figures in the Pan African Movement Both may not recognise the two cities (and the countries) now were they to rise from their graves but somehow their spirit lives or lingers on.

I was not in both capitals for holidays but for meetings. In Accra, I was attending three meetings in one, all organised by the Abuja –based Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD).In Maputo I was gate crashing the annual meeting of the Regional Bureau for Africa of the UNDP.

It is one of the three meetings in Accra that I wish to talk abut this week.  For two the past two years the CDD has been working towards developing a Political Parties Index (PPI) for West Africa. There are all kinds of Governance, democracy and Accountability Indexes (the latest being the Mo Ibrahim African governance index) measuring the state of our emerging or disappearing democracies, levels of popular participation, openness and transparency in the various systems competing for recognition as ‘democratic’. 

It is strange that there are no Indexes devoted to Political Parties. Yet competitive liberal electoral politics is not possible without organised political parties. They provide the foundation for peacefully organising and mobilising the citizens behind alternative public policies. At least that is the theory whether they do this in practice is a different matter. Without vibrant political parties competitive politics may become capitalism without capital. There is a chequered history and experience of Political parties across Africa that makes many people to be either ambivalent or completely dismissive of them. It is not just the history of parties that induce ambiguity even contemporary experiences of parties do not inspire confidence. For instance If you are Kenyan or Nigerian where parties are more disposable than hotel towels why should you bother about them at all? 

In many countries political parties are merely convenient political machines deployed during elections for the attainment of personal political ambitions of whatever cabal ‘owns’ or can appropriate the parties. Most of them have no ideology, no clear or different policies from that of their opponents but just naked desire to grab power at all cost.  However political parties need not and have not always been like this. The struggle against colonialism be they the so called peaceful ones and the more militant armed struggles were led by great men and women organised in political parties and Movements. As bad as the situation  may seem now   there are formidable political parties in  a few countries including South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, etc It is not surprising that west African examples do not readily come to mind. So what happened to all the political parties that fought for independence whether CPP/UGCC in Ghana or PAIGC in Guinea Bissau, SP in Senegal? As the region that had had the most intrusive of political interventions by the military perhaps the region has least experience of political parties as they remained banned under the various military regimes that became the norm for at least three decades in a majority pf the countries.

In West Africa you do not talk about military intervention rather the general rule was military in power with infrequent civilian interludes in many of the countries until the last decade and a half. In east Africa with the exception of the ‘coup prone’ Uganda   both Tanzania and Kenya have had very long experience of party rule but they both became long term One party regimes with the consequence that in spite of Multi party politics Tanzania remains a One party dominant state whereas in Kenya KANU’s monopoly of power did not survive multi partyism and it is more or less a dead party now. Museveni’s Uganda, aided and abetted by the same Western powers that were insisting on democratisation in many other states toyed with the ‘NO party democracy’ for ten years but had to give way to a multiparty system that is still very much skewed in favour of the ruling NRM (now rechristened NRM-O, as if indicating it will end in an Own goal eventually!).

In general parties that led the independence struggles, parties of liberation movement (like FRELIMO, MPLA or ZANU-PF) and their latter day successors, the armed revolutionary groups whether EPRDF in Ethiopia, NRA/NRM in Uganda, EPLF in Eritrea, have been reluctant to transfer power peacefully. Many of them were either overthrown in military coups or disgraced out of office (Zambia, Malawi and now ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe). From popular independence parties or Liberation movements they became personal instruments of a small elite around the leader (He, who must be obeyed!) often degenerating into a demobilising political force holding on to power through dictatorship and intimidating the citizenry. They used to inspire the citizens but as they remain in power beyond their sell-by dates they put the masses to sleep if not forced them to exile or early grave! The only exception so far has been the ANC but even this relatively disciplined party with a large cadreship is facing challenges of renewal as it enjoys unchallenged political hegemony as the ‘natural party of government’.

In spite of these failings Political Parties remain very important to the democratic renewal of our states and we need to take them very seriously. Political parties are staging a comeback as coups become less doable and even less acceptable. Former military regimes have civilianised themselves (Rawlings /NDC Ghana, Compaore in Burkina or NRA/M in Uganda) while older parties are being reinvented and new ones are on offer everywhere. In some countries serious contenders for power is probably not more than one or two or a combination of them with others as merely ‘also there’. If Kenya and now Zimbabwe are anything to go by ‘grand Coalitions’ of parties may be the way forward. This may bring back more interest in political parties.

It is not only in Africa that political parties and Voter interest in them have been ebbing. In the older democracies there are continuing downward trend in active membership of political parties. In Britain for instance more young people vote in Pop Idol than in elections! In America it is difficult to know what the fundamental difference between the democrats and the Republicans are except for Personality projections. Substance has given way to form with the media, lobbyists and PR companies telling people what to think and who to vote for but packaging them as Opinion poll and public opinion.

CDD’s Index will definitely be filling a vacuum in the available monitoring tools. As a pioneering effort it is being received with caution even by those involved. How do political parties contribute to deepening or hindering democracy? Are they democratic themselves? How do they hinder or enhance the full participation of marginalised groups be they Women, Youth, ethnic/religious or other political minorities?  Is democracy better served by national parties or could a case be made for decentralised party organisation that may address the political interests of marginalised groups? How do you decide which party is contributing? Is it by the number of seats in parliament or the number of seats contested?  There is also the controversial area of party funding. Should there be state funding or should parties be funded by their members? Are the parties democratic themselves before measuring their contribution ore non contribution to democracy?
Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem talks about importance of political parties and asks the question: When the nationalists were fighting for liberation from colonial rule the people raised funds for the parties - What does it say of contemporary politics that members are not able or willing to fund their own parties?

When the nationalists were fighting for liberation from colonial rule the masses of peasants, workers, even chiefs and the educated elite supported and raised funds for the parties. What does it say of contemporary politics that members are not able or willing to fund their own parties? The answer to these and many other questions may provide some  bases for rating  the parties or raise more questions when the CDD’s first cut emerges during next year. It may raise more questions than answers but a necessary process that should interest anyone interested in the health of our growing democracies.

*Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem writes this syndicated column in his private capacity as a Pan Africanist. His views are not attributable to that of any organization he works for or is affiliated with.

**Please send comments to or comment online at