The persistence of electoral authoritarianism in Africa is puzzling, especially considering the crucial role of the state. In many comparative studies of electoral authoritarianism, the state’s capacity to extract resources via taxation, administer territory, command personnel, and deploy coercive units is seen as paramount. However, African states generally rank low along these measures. Nor do differences in state capacity clearly explain the relative longevity of African electoral authoritarian regimes. Longstanding electoral authoritarian regimes in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gabon, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe do not have demonstrably more powerful states than short-lived ones in Ghana, or Zambia.
In recent research I argue that the endurance of electoral authoritarianism in Africa can partially be explained by reassessing state capacity in relation to contextual logics of state building. The African state is often referred to as neo-patrimonial. Faced with acute post-independence challenges, foundational leaders stabilized politics by brokering with other elites, who were often representative of politically relevant ethnic blocs. The persistence of this political order required resources, but also marginally more capable states and, importantly, the elevation of presidents as critical actors. I illustrate this with reference to Cameroon, one of Africa’s most resilient electoral authoritarian regimes.
Coercive Capacity and Presidential Power in Cameroon
At independence the state in Cameroon was by no means robust, but it possessed unique advantages compared to other African countries. The colonial territory was bifurcated between the French and British, and neither entity made real investments into a civil administration, tax authority, or traditional military. However, an uprising in French Cameroon (called the UPC Rebellion) compelled the French to create emergency zones and augment Cameroon’s military with a gendarmerie and small intelligence-gathering unit. These innovations proved influential and were bequeathed to Cameroon’s first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo.
Ahidjo used these tools to marginally expand the state’s coercive capacity and to elevate the presidency. By controlling the purse strings and threatening sanction, Ahidjo was able to coax other political parties into a singular entity called the Cameroon National Union (CNU). By 1972, federalism was abolished and Ahidjo stood virtually unchecked as the gatekeeper to state spoils. Throughout his tenure he maintained a careful balance of ethnic and regional interests in public appointment and spending. Other African regimes were built on similar principles, but not many were backed by the same threat of coercion against elites.
Ahidjo’s successor Paul Biya built on this system. Biya retained control over the powers of appointment, and much of Cameroon’s nascent oil wealth was managed for years in a secret account held by the president. Importantly, the orientation of Biya’s coalition was tilted toward his southern co-ethnics, while Ahidjo’s was toward the north. As one observer noted at the time, the essence of the regime relied on the “cohesion of a few important people.” This was not an authoritarian regime rooted in an objectively powerful state, but rather the support of a narrow political elite.
Electoral Authoritarian Resilience in Cameroon
This system came under severe duress prior to Cameroon’s foundational 1992 elections. Economic decline reduced Biya’s capacity to maintain elite support, while social grievances grew in the face of rampant public corruption. Opposition reached its apex during a six-month strike, which was matched by significant state violence. Indicatively, Biya eked by with just 40% of the vote, and the ruling party won just 49% of the seats. There were widespread accusations of fraud and repression by security services, the Ministry of Territorial Administration, and provincial governors.
With Biya’s near-term survival ensured his preeminence as the chief broker stabilized the regime. Biya quickly entered into coalitions with various small parties like the Movement for Defense of the Republic (MDR), the United People’s Congress (UPC), and the National Party for Progress (NPP). By 1997, he had coopted members of the larger National Union for Democracy (NUDP), and elements of the Bamileké community. Installing an Anglo Prime Minister bolstered support from English-speaking regions. Today, Cameroon has the largest cabinet in Africa with over 60 appointed ministers and deputies. Biya has also resisted privatization efforts and controls access to hundreds of patronage positions. Fraud and coercion still impacts elections, but in 2011 Biya won 78% of the vote, and in 2013 the ruling party won 82% of the seats.
Coercion has also helped the regime deter challenges to Biya’s position as president. In 1997 Biya faced two internal challengers – one died of apparent medical complications, while the other was charged with corruption and sentenced to 20 years in prison. In 2008, regime elites revealed their concerns in private that a post-Biya reality would undermine the delicate balance of power. Unsurprisingly, Biya amended the constitution to change term limits to run for election again in 2011. A year later two other likely internal challengers – Marafa Yaya and Ephraim Inoni – were both convicted for embezzlement. State coercion has been used against citizens, but it has a clear role in maintaining the elite coalition.
Much of this builds on Thomas Calleghy’s insight that many African states are “lame leviathans,” meaning they cannot be exploited for massive social and economic projects, but nonetheless provide the necessary scaffolding for patrimonial orders. This holds true during elections too. When electoral authoritarian regimes retain some comparatively basic coercive features that help them keep the president at the apex of political coalition making, they can persist for extended periods of time despite electoral and internal challenges.