Ethnopopulism in Africa: Opposition Mobilization in Diverse and Unequal Societies

Nicholas Cheeseman, Miles Larmer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


At first glance, ethnically based and populist forms of mobilization appear to be contradictory and ultimately mutually exclusive phenomena. Appealing to voters on the basis of a shared sense of economic grievance against powerful or wealthy sections of society does not fit well with the emphasis on sectional divisions that is required to rally support on the basis of ethnicity or region. Yet over the past ten years a number of opposition political parties in Africa have risen to prominence by fusing populist and ethnic constituencies, a form of political mobilization we call “ethnopopulism”. This article employs a pairwise comparison of Kenya and Zambia to explain how leaders have been able to harness this apparently incompatible combination to considerable electoral effect. We argue that in order to fully overcome the tensions at the heart of ethnopopulism leaders need to identify and incorporate shared narratives of exclusion felt by different communal and interest groups. But we also show that the narratives available to political entrepreneurs are shaped both by the structure of society and the ideas and networks left over from past episodes of political mobilization. Finally, we argue that variation in the reach of the urban political economy and the extent to which ethnic identities have historically been politicized shape the potential for populist mobilization to overcome ethnic divisions, and hence challenge prevailing patterns of “ethnic politics”.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)22-50
Number of pages28
Issue number1
Early online date1 Aug 2013
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Bibliographical note

This paper won an award for the best paper published in the journal in 2015.


  • Kenya
  • Zambia
  • populism
  • parties
  • elections
  • ethnicity
  • opposition


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