Political trajectories after colonialism

A fortnight ago, Tanzania’s incumbent president, Jakaya Kikwete, was re-elected at the end of an election campaign that began in early August while I was in Tanzania for a month on a volunteer teaching project. This is Kikwete’s second term, and his party, CCM, has ruled Tanzania continuously with comfortable parliamentary majorities since independence.

I’m no expert on east African politics (having to rely on a friend to help spell out some of the local issues), but the broader phenomenon of interest is about the kind of long-term postcolonial trajectory that a country like Tanzania is on – and what the continuous rule of a single party, post-independence, might be the symptom of.

An election billboard in Dar es Salaam for the incumbent (and now, newly-reelected) Tanzanian president, Jakaya Kikwete

Conventional discussions of development, and statebuilding hold implicitly that developing countries will, in the long-run come to approximate the image and model of the Western state, especially in its internal coherence and stability. All states will come to look alike, even if they do not right now – the difference between Western states and African/Asian ones is simply a matter of time, currently being at different points on the same historical trajectory. This assumption, manifest especially in good governance discussions, seems also to be central to IR theories that are mostly built upon the historical experience and interactions of European states.

I’ve long found this troubling, particularly for two reasons. The first is about what impact the colonial experience has had on the development and formation of the modern state, in both political and economic terms. Newly independent states have tended to adopt the political institutions of their colonial rulers, structures normally designed to centralize and concentrate power in the hands of a few. And the economic inheritance of newly independent states has often been narrowly focused on a few key crops or industries, with taxation having little connection to democratic legitimacy. These are all broad generalisations – but the colonial experience seems to be one quite different from the iterations of revolution and reform that have characterised the evolution of modern European states.

The second is about the legacy of the decolonisation process in the rigidity of colonial-era borders. Straight-line boundaries that stretch for hundreds of miles across countries of the Middle East and Africa are the most telling signs of these, but so too is the relative stability of these in the years post-independence. Membership of the United Nations by these new states has carried with it a presumption against the revision of territorial boundaries by force – a presumption that would have seemed absurd to the monarchs and statesmen of 18th and 19th-century Europe, for whom conquest was an unremarkable tool of foreign affairs. And while ethnic and religious homogeneity within any given slice of territory can never be total, the inflexibility of colonial boundaries to post-independence revision arguably exacerbates the challenges of societal cohesion and nationalism faced by decolonised states.

When compared to the experience of the European states on which many theories of world politics are built upon, the expectation that postcolonial countries should, in time, come to resemble their former masters, seems surprising, to say the least. Or put differently, it would seem extraordinarily remarkable that the very different circumstances in which Western and developing countries were assembled, should lead to roughly similar political and economic forms. The history and evolution of developing countries takes place not in isolation, but indelibly marked by interaction in a global system of asymmetrical relationships of power and wealth.

Rather than being a quirk on the way to multiparty democracy where government routinely changes hands, might the continuous postindependence rule that Tanzania is just an example of, hint at a globe marked by qualitatively different political trajectories? I’m not sure if I have the imagination to offer answers to theĀ  ‘if not the Western state, then what’ question. Instead, in a more limited fashion, all I have to offer is my hesitation against the linearity of reading the European past as the global future.

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