Diagnosing neopatrimonialism

Thandika Mkandawire

It's been very difficult to pin down what political scientists, who favor the term, mean when they talk about patrimonialism or neopatrimonialism.

Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari on a visit to Benin in October 2018. Image via office of the President of Benin via Flickr (CC).

Interview by
Nimi Hoffmann

Thandika Mkandawire is currently Chair and Professor of African Development at the London School of Economics. He was formerly Director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, and Director of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA). In 2015, he published an influential critique of neopatrimonialism, “Neopatrimonialism and the Political Economy of Economic Performance in Africa: Critical Reflections.”

[It’s been very difficult to pin down what political scientists, who favour the term, mean when they talk about patrimonialism or neopatrimonialism. As the political scientist Anne Pitcher, anthropologist Mary Moran and political scientist Michael Johnston, in a 2009 article, summarize the political science view as “… to denote systems in which political relationships are mediated through, and maintained by, personal connections between leaders and subjects, or patrons and clients.” – The Editor, AIAC]

Mkandawire’s empirical analysis demonstrates that neopatrimonialism can neither explain heterogeneity in political arrangements nor predict variability in economic outcomes. He argues that its dominance in scholarly and popular discourses of the continent derives from its appeal to crude ethnographic stereotypes. Yet such stereotypes are at odds with the idea that African citizens can be trusted to vote intelligently. As a result, the neopatrimonial school tends to seek political arrangements that can circumnavigate democratic politics, particularly in the form of bureaucratic authoritarianism or external agents of restraint. Against this, Mkandawire insists on an approach that recognizes the importance of democratic politics, and the critical role that ideas, interests and structures play in shaping African societies. The full interview can be read here. Below is an excerpt of the interview which I conducted for the Journal for Contemporary African Studies.


What explains the rise of neopatrimonialism as a framework for understanding African societies?


The Dependence School was firmly focused on external drivers and with Fanonian concerns over the mental state of ruling elites (‘colonial mentality’). With the crisis starting in the mid-1970s and subsequently worsened by the pro-cyclical policies of neo-liberalism (introducing austerity measures in economies in recession), it became common to focus on the internal causes of the demise of African economies. Two internalist explanations of the public choice approach focused on interests and rent-seeking. The ‘universalism’ of this approach built on rational choice and methodological individualism, and had little room for culture. Africa’s economic policies were attributed to capture of the state by organised special interests seeking policies that would assure them rents. Except that there were no such organised interests in Africa. The approach also suffered from a crude materialism and the non sequitur that if groups of people benefited from a particular policy they must have organised around themselves for that policy and its eventual perpetuation.

Later, when governance was identified as Africa’s main problem, neopatrimonialism became dominant. Here we entered the realm of analysis by invective. Both these schools tended to rule out any possibility of development or states that would pursue development as a national project. These arguments prompted me to write the paper on the Developmental States in Africa which was first presented at a CODESRIA General Assembly.

Neopatrimonialism has been with us for a long time. In the 1960s when Africa was doing well economically – 5.7% growth rates – and when credible nation-building policies were being pursued, little was said about the cultural barriers to development. … Neopatrimonialism may be pointing to social practices and social hierarchies in Africa. But it has little predictive value. As a paradigm, neopatrimonialism has had to deal with a wide range of discomfiting facts but it somehow soldiers on. One feature of paradigms is precisely their capacity to fend off discomfiting evidence through a wide range of ‘paradigm maintenance’ stratagems. Increasingly it is being sustained by a wall of adjectives to account for nonpredatory behaviour in some countries. For example, we now have ‘developmental neopatrimonialism’ to account for periods of high growth in a number of African countries. We should not forget that academics invest huge amounts of intellectual capital in sustaining a particular paradigm and they are not going to go away all that easily.


What explains the appeal of anti-democratic and culturalist explanations to those of us on the continent?


One explanation is the failure of many new democracies to deliver on the substantive demands of voters. New democracies in developing countries emerged under the dark cloud of neoliberalism. Democracy was largely reduced to formal structures of elections and voting and was to eschew any messing up with the macroeconomy. Democracies were disempowered by removing a whole range of key functions from the oversight of representative bodies. Thus central banks were made independent but only with respect to national institutions. They became what I called ‘choiceless democracies.’

And today some of the countries identified as star performances are not exactly what one might take as democracies. The great intellectual challenge for Africa is how to create democratic developmental states that can address the material needs of citizens in ways that are socially inclusive.

The other purpose has been the delegitimation of local elites. If the local elites are hopelessly mired in neopatrimonial relations, then ‘external agents of control’ such as the IMF, foreign experts or foreign dominated NGOs, present a way out.


What would you replace neopatrimonialism with?


With nothing as grandiose. I would insist that African scholars engage with intellectual traditions but also insist that the African experience is understood and taken seriously and that many claims by or for the universalism of their own experience are fraudulent claims.

About the Interviewee

Thandika Mkandawire is a Malawian economist and public intellectual.

About the Interviewer

Nimi Hoffmann is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Rhodes University in South Africa.

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