Comparative Constitutional Design and Legal Culture
Studies in Comparative Law and Legal Culture series
Edited by Günter Frankenberg
Chapter 10: Constitutional autochthony and the invention and survival of “absolute presidentialism” in postcolonial Africa
The sheer breadth and reach of presidential power in Africa, as well as its highly personal character, has often caused scholars and analysts of African politics to look beyond the conventional vocabulary and typology in search of an appropriate descriptor. “Big Man rule,” “personal rule,” “presidential monarchy,” “neo-presidentialism” and, borrowing from Arthur Schlesinger Jr, “imperial presidency” are only a few of the many colorful names and epithets by which Africa’s one-man-dominated political and constitutional systems – what I refer to in this chapter as “absolute presidentialism” – have been called. The prevalence in post- colonial Africa of this form of rule, in which practically every state institution is subordinated to the dictates of the president, has been largely responsible for the popularity among Africanist scholars of neo-patrimonial and other personalistic theories and accounts of politics and political phenomena in Africa. How did absolute presidentialism become a defining and dominant feature of political and constitutional governance in postcolonial Africa? Why does it persist? Is the absolute president an authentically African form of rule, with roots in “African” culture? Or might it be a “foreign” borrowing? As a regime type, postcolonial Africa’s tradition of absolute presidentialism was constitutionally installed in the 1960s – the first decade of African independence. It was the centerpiece of a series of constitutional and legislative changes introduced by postcolonial Africa’s new leaders soon after the dust of decolonization had settled.
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