Since the importation of liberal democracy by African postcolonial states in the 1990s mainstream political science scholarship has mainly represented the outcome as a pathologically ethnicized disfiguration of a universal model of politics upon which many had invested much hope for political empowerment and accountability. This article draws from a recent anthropological theoretical position on democracy as a work of cultural construction as well as on ethnographic material on an ethno-regional elite organization in Southwestern Cameroon called SWELA to provide an alternative reading of the ethnicity-elite-democracy nexus in postcolonial Africa. I suggest that while ethnicity is a major idiom through which the politics of democracy is practiced in Africa where most states are very patrimonially organized, this need not be seen as unproductive to the democratic ideals or expectations of effective political participation, deliberation (voice), and political accountability. Taking the case of Cameroon, I argue that in complete reversal of the situation under the one-party state, the historical shift from the one-party state to multiparty politics in 1990 and vernacularization of democracy in Cameroon along a cultural politics of ethnic identities have provided political spaces to the elite that were previously inexistent. I explore how South-West political elites successfully articulate personalized and collective interests on the state through various ethno-regional modes of political action that range from lobbying to threatening memoranda to the regime. These successful strategies by South-West elites indicate how ethnic and patrimonial politics by political elites can link up to democratic expectations in quite surprising ways, suggesting the need for a more cautious interpretation of democracy as a culturally enfolded and enfolding formation subject to local political conditions.
Critique of Anthropology, 2014, Vol 34, Issue 2, p. 204-233