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.

the democratic republic of congo, what a mess

The Democratic Republic of Congo is in a deep hole. And it is not just because its president, the younger Kabila, wants to extend presidential terms by 2 years and then may be abolish term limits, at least according to the Economist.  It is primarily because almost everyone in the country seems to have incentives to keep the war in the east raging on – well, everyone except the civilians on the ground. The New York Times reports that an upcoming UN Report will implicate bigwigs in the Congolese army of colluding with rebels in the east to profit from illegal mineral exports, among other commodities. FDLR, the rebel outfit which has among its ranks remnants of the genocidal Intarahamwe from Rwanda, is among the chief beneficiaries.

Quoting the Times:

There is ….. creeping warlordism. Local army commanders are taxing timber, charcoal, tomatoes, anything that passes through their roadblocks, making $250,000 a month, the report said. Commanders are even conscripting civilians to haul wood through the forest, reminiscent of the Belgian colonial days when pith-helmeted officers whipped Congolese porters with hippopotamus hide.”

The Congo conflict is more than anything else an economic conflict. It will only stop when those profiting from it come to their senses (I don’t know what will prompt this if 5 million deaths and counting can’t do the trick). And the web of war-profiteers  is huge.

Meanwhile in Zambia, it’s everything goes like it is still 1991. A section of donors have suspended aid to the health ministry because $ 2.1 million went missing (“more than 100,000 Zambians die every year from malaria and HIV/AIDS”– Economist). The government is reluctant to fight corruption. Mr. Rupiah Banda, the current president, seems bent on becoming the new Frederick Chiluba – the kleptocrat who ruled Zambia for ten years. Things never change.

Blood Coltan: a documentary

Coltan is one of the minerals at the centre of the conflict in eastern DRC. I just came across a documentary on the mining and trading in coltan and its effects on the war in eastern Congo.

The documentary provides a good introduction to the situation in the Kivus, including an interview with Gen. Laurent Nkunda (btw, I just found out that this guy is an ordained minister! my word?!? In the interview he refers to his soldiers as rebels for Christ. Reeks of the LRA, if you ask me).

Shame on Traxys and all the other companies named in the 2002 UN report but that are still exploiting Congolese minerals with the full knowledge that they are indirectly funding the war that has so far killed about 5 million people. Shame on them.