Neopatrimonialism and ethnic politics

Neopatrimonialism and patrimonialism are different. They’re different in that patrimonialism refers to the “dyadic” (Edrmann and Engal) relationship between a client and a patron. The ‘dyadic’ dimension refers to the traditional linkages that bind the two parties. Patrimonialism is the term given to this concept. It is, then, this traditional linkage bleeding into the contemporary that distinguishes patrimonialism from neopatrimonialism, the traditional being the informal ethnic tie that persists in the contemporary, the formal procedures of government and state.

What I found interesting when reading about this was how patronage politics can sustain ethnic division, which therefore sustains the politics of patronage.


This has implications beyond eliciting political support for an individual, it can elicit divide and foster conflict. EIdean Salehyan (2017) puts forward the example of “symbols, language, flags, anthems, and homelands” as concepts, ideas and things that bind people together but can also draw them apart. I subscribe to the constructivist view of ethnicity that we learnt about in the seminar, that ethnicity is malleable and fluid and can be muted or emphasised. I think they do this to varying degrees, and to what degree they do has to do with their unique lived experience.

Indeed, sometimes those very things that bind people together are emphasised to the point where it becomes an aspect to conflict.

But is it ever the main reason? The philosopher John Gray thinks we might be mistaken to think so. Violence, Gray argues, has been a facet of our existence, and goes on to list the genocides of our recent history, Armenian, Rwandan, and so on (2003, 91-92). Quite a cynical statement, but it does make me to consider that where ethnicity is given salience, those who are violent will use ethnicity as a means to express that violence, and in Gray’s case, particularly when there’s finite resources to be had. A less brutal, but no less serious example is where power is up for grabs such as the example of the Kenyan elections presented to us in the seminar where ethnicity becomes a resource, like campaign money.

What, then, might explain the importance of ethnicity in how politics is shaped in some African countries? I’d still argue that conflicts between groups that were justified on the grounds of ethnic division are largely a simplification, a grand narrative and agree with Mkandawire (2015, 602) when he says that the concept of neopatrimonialism is too formulaic

Chandra, Kanchan. “Attributes and Categories: A New Conceptual Vocabulary for Thinking about Ethnic Identity.” In Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics, by Chandra, Kanchan, ed., edited by Kanchan Chandra. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2013

Erdmann, Gero and Engel, Ulf. (2007). Neopatrimonialism Reconsidered: Critical Review and Elaboration of an Elusive Concept. Commonwealth and Comparative Politics . 45 (1), p.95-119.

Gray, John (2003). Straw Dogs. London: Granta

North, D. C., Wallis, J. J. and Weingast, B. R. (2009) Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mkandawire, T (2015). “Neopatrimonialism and the Political Economy of Economic Performance in Africa: Critical Reflections”, World Politics, 67 (3): 563-612.

Salehyan, Idean. (2017). New Directions in the Study of Ethnopolitics. Ethnopolitics . 16 (1), P.60-65.


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