illiberal democracies


Itojong Ayamba, Ph.D
Lecturer in the Department of Public Administration, University of Calabar, Nigeria

Africa, rich in culture, resources and potential, is plagued by political conflicts sometimes triggered by politics of winner-takes-all. This system seen in many African states, has long caused political unrest. Winner-takes-all (WTA) in this context refers to a system in which the winning party or candidate retains all political power, marginalising the opposition and minority groups. Winner-takes-all politics affects African communities in fundamental and complex ways, including governance, power distribution, and resource allocation and often fosters conflict.


This kind of politics has contributed to the consolidation of power in the hands of a select few, frequently leading to exclusionary and authoritarian regimes. The result is often a system in which those in power use their positions to amass wealth and resources for themselves and their supporters, while neglecting the broader interests of the population. The concentration of power and resources in the hands of a small elite can create a sense of disenfranchisement and marginalisation among large segments of the population. WTA politics has deepened ethnic and tribal divisions as politicians use identity politics to retain power. Manipulating ethnic and tribal connections can cause violence as groups compete for power and resources.

A further unfavourable outcome is that it undermines the creation of inclusive institutions and peaceful power-sharing processes. Without real political involvement and representation, opposition parties and marginalised communities may protest or engage in rebellion to challenge power systems. The consequences of WTA politics are not limited to domestic affairs; they also have regional and international implications. Conflict and instability in one African country can spill over into neighbouring states, exacerbating regional tensions and creating humanitarian crises. Additionally, the pursuit of power and resources by ruling elites can attract external actors seeking to exploit the situation for their own strategic or economic interests, further complicating the dynamics of conflict in Africa.

Democratic regression: Assessing the impact of winner-takes-all

WTA politics has the potential to undermine democratic institutions by eroding the crucial checks and balances systems. This erosion can create a power concentration that fuels political instability and conflict. Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe was a notable example. His ZANU-PF party maintained a monopoly on power, leading to political repression, economic mismanagement and eventual crisis. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni's long reign (1986 – present), marked by suppression of opposition and frequent constitutional changes to extend his rule, has fostered emasculation of state institutions, political tension and sporadic violence. Politics of winner-takes-all, thus, weakens state institutions, making it challenging to address grievances through peaceful means. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of violent conflict.

Further, WTA politics can result in the winner of an election gaining control over resource allocation, which can lead to an unequal distribution of resources and the economic marginalisation of certain groups. That imbalance can further exacerbate social and economic inequalities, fueling conflict within society. Additionally, the concentration of power in the hands of the winner can create an environment prone to increased corruption and patronage. The prevalence of corruption and patronage practices can further deepen the existing social and economic inequalities, thereby contributing to potential conflicts. For example, in Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's economic reforms and crackdown on Tigray's regional leaders who opposed the social and economic marginalisation of their region led to the Tigray conflict. In Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, allegedly, practiced WTA style of politics. Critics argue that his administration was marked by selective appointments, corruption, economic inequalities, nepotism, over concentration of power and patronage politics that favoured his regional constituents, close associates, and party loyalists. The consequence was the upshoot of separatist groups such as the Indigenous people of Biafra (IPOB).

The absence of accountability and increased corruption under the WTA system poses significant risk to societal harmony and stability. Hence, politics of winner-takes-all poses a significant risk to both the functioning of democratic institutions and the overall stability of a nation.

Changing the Political Dynamics

Addressing Africa's WTA politics requires a holistic approach and innovative solutions aimed at promoting inclusivity, fairness, and representation. Here are four key suggestions to address these challenges:

Electoral Reform: Proportional representation, ranked-choice voting, or a mixed-member proportional system can reduce WTA dynamics by representing multiple opinions in governance. These reforms can make politics more inclusive and representative. Ghana adopted electoral reforms in 2020 to address WTA politics and strengthen democracy. The biometric voter registration system, independent electoral commission, and mixed-member proportional representation electoral system were among these innovations. The goal was to improve electoral integrity, promote fair representation, and decrease WTA dynamics.

Coalition Building: Coalition governments can reduce WTA politics by encouraging political parties to compromise and collaborate. Coalition governments create more inclusive decision-making and policy outcomes that reflect diverse opinions. Kenya, to illustrate, has used coalition building to address the problem of WTA politics. After the violent 2007-2008 elections, a power-sharing agreement was reached between rival political parties. This coalition government aimed to foster inclusivity and shared governance, thereby mitigating WTA dynamics.

Minority Representation: Implementing measures to ensure the representation of minority groups in government can help mitigate WTA dynamics. For example, introducing quotas for underrepresented groups or providing support for minority candidates can lead to more diverse and inclusive political representation. South Africa’s electoral law specifically recognises proportionality and minority participation. The proportional representation system gives political parties parliamentarians depending on their vote share. By giving voice to other opinions, this method increases minority representation and mitigates WTA tendencies.

Decentralisation of Power: Devolving power to local and regional levels of government can help reduce WTA dynamics by allowing for more diverse policy approaches and fostering greater community involvement in decision-making. Decentralisation can lead to more tailored governance and increased representation of local interests. To strengthen governance and end WTA tendencies, Algeria has moved towards decentralisation of power. In 2019, the country enacted reforms that gave local governments greater power and independence to manage their affairs. This decentralisation effort seeks to improve local development initiatives, increase inclusion in decision-making, and reduce the concentration of power at the center.

By implementing these key solutions, African societies can work towards mitigating the WTA system of politics, fostering greater inclusivity, and ensuring that diverse voices are represented in the political process.


Winner-takes-all politics has fueled conflicts, political tensions and instability across Africa. It has exacerbated ethnic tensions and marginalisation of minority groups. There's a growing consensus that inclusive governance, power-sharing arrangements, and strong institutions are vital for peace and stability in diverse societies. Through political reform and a move towards more inclusive governance structures, it is possible to mitigate the damaging effects of this system. As Africa continues to grow and develop, these issues must be addressed to ensure a more stable and prosperous future for the continent.

Cite as: I. Ayamba, (2023) Politics of Winner-Takes-All and Conflict In Africa: A Brief Reflection Available at:  (Accessed: [date] [month] [year])

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