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date: 25 April 2019


A Dictionary of African Politics

Nicholas Cheeseman


A theoretical framework for understanding the practice of politics in Africa from the colonial era onwards. Whereas ‘patrimonialism’ refers to a traditional form of government described by influential German sociologist Max Weber, the term ‘neopatrimonialism’ is intended to signify that, following the imposition of the colonial state, African political systems can no longer be treated as purely traditional. The reason for this is that patrimonial modes of conducting politics were grafted onto the trappings of the modern state, including political parties, legislatures, and judiciaries. In the process, both patrimonial and formal institutional structures were transformed. On the one hand, institutions such as legislatures did not perform as expected because they conformed to a patrimonial, rather than a rational–legal, logic. On the other hand, the fusion of traditional forms of authority with the centralized political structures of colonial rule often served to empower the position of traditional leaders, or chiefs, over their communities. During the 1980s and 1990s, neopatrimonialism became the dominant framework through which the continent was understood. However, the extent to which historical practices were shaped by the colonial moment remains highly controversial, as does the question of whether neopatrimonialism is a feature of all African states or should be treated as an ideal type that some states conform to more than others.