This paper engages with the idea of moral politics by emphasising how a focus on principles and normative claims runs counter to the existing preoccupation with material politics in the study of politics in Africa. The current emphasis on patronage, public/private goods and service delivery have produced a scholarship which presents the aims of political action as either obvious (more public goods) or underdeveloped (private goods!).
However, this paper also challenges the depoliticising tendency of the term ‘moral’ – famously contrasted (favourably) with ‘political’ by John Lonsdale in his paper Moral Ethnicity, Political Tribalism. Instead this paper proposes renewed attention to normative politics in Africa. This approach takes seriously the role of ideas in political contestation. How is legitimate leadership conceived and contested? What are the obligations of rulers to the ruled? To what goals should politics steer the political community? Moreover, this helps to better explain those topics which traditionally absorb scholars of African Politics: material exchange cannot be properly understood outside of normative frameworks which serve, in part, to define the limits of legitimate patronage.
The paper proceeds by locating the role of normative politics in current literatures such as the political economy of development approach and the promotion of programmatic politics. It highlights some methodological implications of looking at normative politics, recommending analyses grounded in collectivities and the body politic as opposed to methodological individualism.
This approach goes some way towards revalorising political contestation in Africa, and parity of esteem with political thought in the West and the Rest. Indeed, normative contestation in Africa may not be organised around a traditionally conceived left-right spectrum, but, at a time when global political forces are eroding consensus on the normative aims of the democratic project, it may be able to offer us some new ideas. By paying attention to how those engaged in contestation imagine and define the goals of collective political action—whether around elections, at rallies or in unexpected spaces—this paper hopes to reaffirm the potential of Africa as a site of epistemological innovation.