The Nordic Africa Institute


The social contract in Africa: State authority challenged by multiple power centres

Women from conflicting clans in El Wak, Somalia, sitting inside in a circle with a written document in the middle.

Women from conflicting clans in El Wak, Somalia, are brought together to learn, decide and plan the future of their district. Photo: PACT/Mohamed Abdullah Adan

Date • 6 May 2021

A social contract requires that citizens recognise and submit to the authority of the state, which in turn provides for them. In many African countries, however, various power centres compete for people´s loyalty.

The ongoing crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, according to NAI researcher and Horn of Africa expert Redie Bereketeab, is a telling example of a region that does not recognise the legitimacy of the central state power. Likewise, he adds, there are hundreds of clans and sub-clans in Somalia, and members often feel more loyal to their clan than to the government in the capital Mogadishu.

“But it doesn’t mean social contracts do not exist in African countries. On the contrary, there are many — each group has their own kind of power sharing and conflict resolution. However, an important point is that while the European concept of a social contract is foremost between an individual and the state, it often has a collective meaning in the African context — it is the group that has rights and obligations in relation to the state”, Bereketeab says.

Portrait of Redie Bereketeab.

Redie Bereketeab.

Another difference is that state formation in Africa is far from complete. In many cases, people still perceive their states as foreign constructions made by hostile colonial powers. It questions the whole applicability of the social contract, Bereketeab states.

“If people view the state as something created from the outside – and, in addition, that it cannot deliver services in terms of security, education, health and jobs — why would they be loyal to that state? After all, a social contract is understood as state-society relationship, where the state provides services and society confers legitimacy”, Bereketeab says.

After the fall of the Barre regime in Somalia 1991, Somaliland declared itself a sovereign state. However, it has never won official recognition internationally. The hybrid system of governance combines traditional and western institutions, and ensures a power-sharing coalition of Somaliland’s main clans in the parliament. On 31 May, parliamentary elections alongside local district elections will be held.

In Somaliland in 1993, the recently self-declared independent state came up with its own solution to the legitimacy issue. By including the old traditional clan structure in the formal governance structure, all people felt represented by the government. The House of Elders, or Guurti, was fundamental to the creation of the Somaliland state, according to Jama Musse Jama, director of the Red Sea Cultural Foundation in Hargeisa. However, he points out, by now the Guurti should have left the political scene.

“It was the Guurti members who went from village to village disarming rebel groups after the war. Without them, there would not have been a peaceful transition. The idea was to play an initial role, but when ideologically based political parties emerged, the Guurti would dismantle itself. That has not happened yet. We tend to glorify our hybrid system, but it was only meant to be a first step towards real democracy".

Portrait of Jama Musse Jama

Jama Musse Jama.

Clans are still important in Somaliland and shape how people act and think, according to Jama – but times are changing. Today, 70 percent of the population are under 30 years old and have been born since Somaliland declared independence.

“Clan thinking is a mindset of my generation. When the younger ones take up positions in society this will change. The clans will always be a part of our culture, but will cease to have political power as people´s identities shift towards a national one”.

In Kenya, national identity is challenged every time people go to the polls. To a greater extent than in neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda, Kenyans vote along ethnic lines. However, unlike ethnic politics in many other places, according to political scientist and former NAI researcher Anders Sjögren, it is not about separatism.


There are more than 40 ethnic groups in Kenya. Kikuyu is the biggest accounting for 17 percent of the 54 million population, followed by Luhya (14%), Kalenjin (13%), Luo (11%), and Kamba (10%).
More than 1 300 people died in ethnic violence that followed the 2007 election. International observers confirmed that the election was manipulated. Despite concerns that the violence would be repeated, the election in 2013 was peaceful. However, in 2017, the main opposition refused to accept the results and later boycotted the re-run ruled by the Supreme Court.

“It is a way to assure access to state services. Marginalised groups want to be included — not break out. That is why ethnicity alone does not explain Kenyan politics — the underlying factor is inequality. If society was more equal, ethnicity would not be that important”.

In a winner-takes-all system, it becomes a matter of life and death not to lose an election. Widespread violence after the 2007 elections made it clear that political reforms were needed in Kenya. In 2010, a national referendum approved a new constitution. The changes were designed to decrease government power over state institutions, which would guarantee their independence and thus fairer treatment of all Kenyans.

“In the end, it comes down to the fact that all actors must respect institutions and agree on a level playing field. The 2010 reforms looked good on paper, but in reality, not much changed because institutional changes proved to weigh lightly compared to power politics”.

The key challenge is how to implement reforms in an unjust and unequal society, Sjögren points out, because those who are the least interested in achieving this are the most powerful. How do you compel the elite, he asks. To him, it is in principle a Kenyan affair. Diplomatic pressure or international development interventions have not helped much so far.

Portait of Anders Sjögren.

Anders Sjögren.

Bereketeab also views development cooperation as problematic when it comes to building trust in societies. Aid from donor countries or NGOs may help save lives, but at the same time risks a breach in the social contract.

“Because legitimacy then goes to the international actors, not to the state. And in the case of Somalia, foreign interventions are the reason for the country´s mess. More outside involvement is not likely to resolve the situation”.

One must be patient, he says, because social contracts involve societal transformation and construction of the nation and state. “It took more than 500 years for Europe to reach where it is now, while Africa has been in the process for only 60 years. We must allow African people to negotiate the contract themselves and also allow them to make mistakes”.

Sjögren agrees that time is a factor. “But it all depends on what you do with the time — without good and useful reforms there will be no improvement”.

TEXT: Johan Sävström