Many would have liked to end the year with a triumphant flourish, and look to 2017 full of hope and better prospects in their endeavours. But nothing seems certain anymore.
“This was a year when predictions were shattered, polls discredited, facts eschewed and rationality dismissed,” a CNN analysis capping 2016 lamented, capturing the mood of many a pundit.
And not just in Donald Trump’s election that caught most flat footed, but in the various shades of populist disenchantment sweeping Europe. Far away though they appear, it will not leave Africa unscathed.
These are “the consequences of globalization, mass migration, growing resentment about inequality, diminishing trust in political institutions -- their effects turbo-charged by social media and fake news.”
However, one could argue that social media in Africa is yet to be entrenched.
The better part of the continent continues in digital development, which has somewhat restrained the pop media’s recent penchant to propagate fake news that misinform popular opinion.
But everything else – globalization, mass migration, economic inequality and growing mistrust in political institutions – are at the mercy of populist manipulation.
Therefore, with the ascendancy the idea of populism has gained recently, the term bears some threshing out, even as we unpack the supposed consequences of its manipulation.
Defining populism is apparently not quite so simple. It has been described as a “thin ideology” by political scientist, Cas Mudde. Meanwhile the book, The Global Rise of Populism, by Benjamin Moffitt, tells of the difficulty of pinning the term down to a single description.
As The Economist has explained it, the book speaks of scholars linking the term to frustration over declines in status or welfare, with others to nationalist nostalgia. Yet some have described it as more of a political strategy in which a charismatic leader appeals to the masses while sweeping aside institutions (though not all populist movements have such a leader).
If we didn’t know of Trump’s disdain for knowledge, this, it would appear, is the strategy he might have applied.
By the same token, one can also identify the significant differences between populist movements as above noted making the term seem a bit “mushy”.
Mudde, on his part, describes it as a framework of “a pure people versus a corrupt elite.”
The thin ideology can be attached to all sorts of “thick” ideologies with more moving parts, such as socialism, nationalism, anti-imperialism or racism, in order to explain the world and justify specific agendas.
And so it is that, usurped by the ilk of Trump and their various populist rants across Europe, they have “used unusually blunt language, [and] set out complex issues in simple terms and sided with the underdog.”
Take migration, for instance, and its manifestation as a global phenomenon.
From the nativist ranting heard all the way in India against Bangladesh immigrants to the British vote to exit Europe and the push in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea to expel migrants from central Africa – not to mention the violent xenophobia elsewhere on the continent recently – the call is all the same: keep the “them” out.
To the undiscerning, and despite migration being a human phenomenon across millennia, it can easily be conflated with the idea of globalisation in the hands of a devious populist laying any sort of blame on it in the appeal to a disenchanted constituency for a vote.
Yet the concept of globalisation is a bit more complex with the unstoppable march of the automation and artificial intelligence, despite the jobs they are taking, and the ever expanding reach of the internet.
As the CNN analysis observed, the existing anger that is further whipped up by the populists, “is neither ‘right’ nor ‘left’ but ‘anti.’ It is not an ideology that can be challenged with facts or tempered with reason. It is emphatically anti-factual, anti-intellectual, [and] anti-science” a la Donald Trump.
Much of the world is bracing itself. 2016 marked a momentous point in global political history. And, despite the impressive economic progress, it is clear not even Africa will escape what it all portends.
Yet, what it all means will concretely begin to unfold after Trump’s inauguration as US President on January 20th, 2017.