Governing on the cheap in Africa

What is striking and surprising here is just how easy it can be to take over some African states, or large parts of them.  The post-independence historical record provides numerous examples where dozens or a few hundred armed men have done it.  This is generally just assumed to be the way things are in Africa, but when you think about it it is actually really puzzling.  Being the president in African countries (and many others besides) can be an incredibly lucrative deal.  Why don’t these rulers, in their own self-interest, take some of that money and use it to build crack units, presidential guards, or strong and loyal army divisions that would protect their hold on power against two dozen putchists, or a hundred or a couple thousand rebels armed with rifles and maybe some mortars?

I don’t think we have really good explanations for this in the relevant Pol Sci literatures.  Maybe the most promising hypothesis is that African presidents are so afraid of coups and attacks from inside their regime that they don’t want to support the construction of any organization that would be competent at using force.  Keeping the military weak  may lower their coup risk somewhat, but effectively trades coup risk off against higher risks of rural rebellion, insurgency, and foreign depredations such as we are seeing in Eastern Congo.

That is Jim Fearon writing over at Monkey Cage. More on this here.

Jim’s concern extends beyond security matters. Much of Africa remains under-governed in other regards as well – tax collection, garbage collection, provision of public goods like water and sanitation, roads, etc etc.

One key driver of this phenomenon, I believe, is the manner in which sectional elites (and those that they purportedly represent) are incorporated into the national system.

You see, many African national governments tend to have a president surrounded by a coalition of ethnic/sectional elites representing specific geographic regions or communities. This sort of incorporation of elites and the regions/social groups that they represent allows African central governments to govern on the cheap since as long as ethnic chief from region X can bring his people and sort of make them feel represented in the centre then the government has no reason to establish a strong presence in the chief’s homeland region (unless that region is economically viable).

A keen observer may ask why co-ethnics of these “ethnic chiefs” never demand for more from their supposed representatives at the centre.

The answer lies in the nature of citizenship in most of Africa. In many countries citizenship (and the associated claims on the state) tends to be mediated through one’s ethnic group. Talk of “our people” is common across much of the region. Even educated people have internalized the fact that you can only get jobs if a co-ethnic is in a high position in government. Everyone therefore invests in having a powerful ethnic representative at the centre that can effectively bargain with whoever is president (or in the core of the governing coalition) to get enough jobs for the boys and girls from back home.

But having such a person obviates the need for the central government to establish its presence at the local level since it is much cheaper to give the ethnic chief his own fiefdom in the name of a cabinet ministry. Barriers to entry allow for very long tenures for these ethnic chiefs thus breeding incompetence of the worst possible kind – like the case of Kenyan police officers accepting bribes from al-Shabab operatives to allow for passage of explosives destined for Nairobi.

From the president’s/government’s perspective, all you have to do to prevent an all out rebellion is be on good terms with enough of these ethnic chiefs or make it beneficial for them to live under your rule.

Seen this way, under-government is not just for the sake of coup-proofing but also an unintended consequence of the manner in which the masses and their representative elites are incorporated into the national government/state.

The best book out there that I have read on this subject is Catherine Boone’s Political Topographies of the African State. Boone is best read with Jeffrey Herbst’s States and Power in Africa, although Herbst’s conclusions are too deterministic for my liking.

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One thought on “Governing on the cheap in Africa

  1. Pingback: To read: « peter tinti

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