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Dictators with Empty Pockets

By Clark C. Gibson, Barak Hoffman


Dozens of African countries experienced political liberalization in the late 1980s and 1990s. One after another, undemocratic regimes on the continent began allowing the formation of opposition parties, a freer press, and multiparty elections. Despite such extraordinary, continentwide shifts in the political landscape, analysts have had little success in accounting for this general change. In fact, existing research is contradictory. Some studies argue that economic wealth leads to political liberalization while others claim poverty has driven this change; some studies assert that foreign aid forced incumbents to open their regimes while others find evidence that aid delayed democratic reform. Further, no study has explained well the timing or extent of political liberalization across Africa. We argue that the key to explaining the political changes in Africa is the pressure exerted by patronage networks on rulers. We model how domestic and international shocks of the 1980s and 1990s influenced the choices of politicians who remain in power by supporting their patronage networks. Such factors forced leaders to make a series of political concessions to their opposition. We test the concessions model using ordered probit estimation and time series data for all sub-Saharan African countries. We find that variables associated with patronage are significant factors in explaining the timing and extent of political liberalization in Africa, but variables associated with economic condition and aid are generally weak. We also show that the argument helps to account for the persistence of patronage politics in Africa in the post-transition period.

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