Political science -- Africa, Comparative government, Africa -- Politics and government -- 1960-


Despite coup after coup across a large number of diverse countries on the continent of Africa, each new leader resembles similar levels of what Martin Meredith describes as "corruption, mismanagement, tribalism, nepotism, and other assorted malpractices" as the leader before him. Africans either are not able to see this pattern because of the subjective uniqueness across their singular experiences, or they do see the pattern and are simply unable to break from the cycle. This paper reviews the contributions of Martin Meredith and Goran Hyden to ask why Big Man rule exists in Africa.

Africa in this paper refers to the region south of the Sahara Desert, which is also called sub-Sarahan Africa. "Big Man" rule holds a significant place in the literature on how the region governs itself. It can be defined as a form of autocratic rule that is highly personalized and restrained little by modern institutions, which has the effect of making the “supremacy of politics” in Africa extremely risky with high stakes for those who engage in the process and a great degree of uncertainty for the public in general. Each author contributes a different perspective to answer why Big Man rule is purely an African phenomenon. Hyden, in his book African Politics in Comparative Perspective, offers a theoretical perspective that outlines a typology of Big Man rule, provides three theoretical arguments worth exploring, and reviews the process of constitution-building in the region. Accompanying the theoretical will be Meredith’s historical perspective from his book The Fate of Africa, which will be compared and contrasted with Hyden’s arguments to derive a more grounded answer to this paper’s query.

The paper is divided into three sections. First, I will use Hyden’s explanation for the origins of Big Man rule in Africa and argue that the historical legacy argument has little utility for providing a solution. Second, I will ask what Hyden’s typology reveals about Big Man rule. The types of rule are outlined as prophets, princes, autocrats, and tyrants. This particular ordering is necessary to understand the key causal variable underlying their differences: legitimacy. Comparing this typology with Meredith’s biography and description of the personality of leaders will create a more satisfying explanation. And third, I will explore the three theoretical concepts Hyden provides to explain why Big Man rule seems to be unique to Africa: free riding, coalition-building, and transaction costs. I will conclude with a short summary of the expected policy implications to this understanding of Big Man rule.



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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

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