Funmi Olonisakin: Elite bargains do not change our lives

By Funmi Olonisakin

Posted on Wednesday, 1 September 2010 10:14

Power-sharing deals are not a silver-bullet solution and merely perpetuate structural imbalances in power, writes Funmi Olonisakin, senior research fellow at the Conflict, Security and Development Group, King’s College London.

For more on power sharing in Kenya and Zimbabwe read Power sharing for peace, not political change

The power-sharing arrangements in Kenya and Zimbabwe are not new, nor do they have much utility beyond the de-escalation of crises or a temporary end to violence. They are a bargain between elites who rewrite the rules of the political game to redistribute power for their own ends. This status quo is upheld by a tired international community that is unwilling to shore up a ‘dark continent’, no matter its promise of economic prosperity.

In its recent incarnations, power sharing has emerged after problematic elections. This is a shift from deals in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan, where peace agreements followed elite bargains.

The fragile peace brokered in 1992 in Angola between União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) and the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), as well as the Accra, Akosombo and Abuja agreements that led to Charles Taylor’s election in 1997, the 1999 Lomé Peace Agreement in Sierra Leone and the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in Sudan, were all fundamentally about power sharing. Apart from Sudan’s CPA, where the jury is still out, all the other agreements unravelled.

Their failures reveal the main problems with power-sharing agreements in Africa: they were bargains between elite formations rather than compacts between the people and their leaders. The political organisations that emerged just consolidated the elite in power while locking out other groupings and most ordinary people.

Post-independence Africa is yet to see a real dialogue between its peoples and its leaders. Violent or peaceful change of leadership has been the result of elite divisions and settlements – not as a result of a people’s war. Such power-sharing deals have helped end wars but are not underpinned by an agenda for radical change.

In latent or open conflicts, the systems that sustain elite bargains perpetuate structural instability, including weak democratic structures, poor provision of justice and security, and poor distribution of resources and opportunities. Often, parallel systems co-exist: one responds to the needs of the ruling elite and their networks, and a second, informal system serves ordinary people.

The new elite language is about cosmetic change, instrumentalising the international community’s vocabulary of good governance. Tragically, people have lost faith in their power and ability to foster change or hold leaders to account.

An alternative to power-sharing agreements must include people-driven processes of change. Only then can Africa boast of political transformation. This will entail difficult and confrontational encounters between the people and their leaders. It is when the recalcitrant elites try to entrench themselves in office that the risks of violence are highest.

This article was first published in the June-July edition of The Africa Report.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options