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.

Give Kagame a break!

I admire Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society. That said, I disagree with the concluding paragraph in his latest post on the Rwandese military’s involvement in eastern Congo over at African Arguments:

“When a similar situation occurred in Sierra Leone, the Special Court for Sierra Leone went after the main supporters and funders of the rebel movement, in particular the President of Liberia, Charles Taylor. He was recently sentenced to 50 years in jail for his part in funding the murder and destruction of Sierra Leone. Yet the evidence of Rwanda’s support for warring groups in Congo is as strong – if not stronger – than the evidence that convicted Taylor. But because of the genocide in Rwanda and because both Uganda and Rwanda have good development programmes that western donors love to fund, they will not be criticised. Eastern Congo will continue to suffer.”

Following the damning UN report on Kigali’s adventures in the Congo and concerted campaigns by human rights activists, a number of donor countries, including the US, UK, Germany and the Netherlands, have (unwisely) stopped sending aid money to Kigali.

I am inclined to believe that there is truth to the claim that Rwanda supports the M23. But that does not necessary lead me to conclude that Rwanda should therefore be ostracized by the international community, for the following reasons:

  • Rwanda faces a real security threat from rebels in eastern Congo. Kagame is a dictator, no doubt about that (He is not your average tin pot dictator, but that’s beside the point for now). But he is also a purveyor of order in this rather volatile region of central Africa. The last thing eastern and central Africa needs is a slow motion civil war as is currently underway in Burundi. As long as Kinshasa’s incompetence continues to provide a safe launching base for rebels aiming to depose Kagame, Kigali will have no option but to (rightly so) intervene in eastern Congo. Let us not pretend otherwise.
  • The insurgencies in eastern Congo are a direct result of Kinshasa’s calculated inability to project power and control. In this instance, I think the Huntongian view that degree of government matters trumps concerns over the type of government. Eastern Congo needs order, period. Attempts at political negotiations with the numerous rebel factions must also be accompanied with strong military action to defeat all the rebel movements that refuse to come to the table. Kinshasa’s continued failure at either attempt leaves Rwanda no option but to step in in light of the observation above.

In a way the campaign to have Rwanda punished for its adventures in the DRC is emblematic of the problems associated with “mono issue activism” (Remember the danger of a single story?)

This is not a defense of Kagame’s human rights record. Everyone knows it is in the toilet. It is also not a blanket endorsement of foreign interventionism. What it is is an acknowledgement of the very complex context in which Kagame acted, and a consideration of the unintended consequences of cutting aid to Rwanda.

Rwanda’s involvement is a symptom of, and not the cause of the mess that is eastern DRC.

To those that want Kigali punished, I ask: What would it mean for Rwanda’s and the wider region’s security? What would it mean for economic growth and development for the 12 million Rwandese? What would it mean for infant and maternal mortality that have been on the decline (more rapidly than in most of the developing world) over the last decade?

Punishing Kagame (and the people of Rwanda) for Kinshasa’s ineptitude will not solve the problems in eastern Congo. That is just a fact.

UPDATE:

Please check out the comments section below for some insightful discussion on this subject. Despite the combativeness of some of the comments, they all raise some important points that I could not have incorporated in a short blog post.

The Consequences of Dodd-Frank in the Kivus

The dusty streets of Goma, North Kivu’s capital and a mining hub, illustrate Congo’s ills. Metals dealerships dominated the city’s economy until last year but are mostly padlocked now. Repair shops and bars that relied on mining business are empty. So are most public offices. Local government, financed by mining taxes, is insolvent; salaries have not been paid in full for months.

In the past year Goma has suffered a miserable decline. Hundreds of mines in the surrounding countryside have cut output by as much as 95%. At the Humule coltan mine a few gumbooted miners scramble up a red-earth ravine where last year there were thousands. Most stopped coming because they could no longer find buyers for their nuggets of coltan, a metal used in electronic gadgets. They blame what they call “the American law”.

That is the Economist reporting on the mining sector in the DRC.

Dodd-Frank (found here) is a lesson in the failure of solutions imposed from 30,000 feet. As has been stressed by many DRC experts (see Mvemba, Aronson and Seay, for instance), the problem with eastern DRC is not a law enforcement problem but a weak state problem.

With that in mind, it is sad that Joseph Kabila, the man who has failed to pacify the country, is poised for reelection this November. Good governance, even in relatively peaceful and cohesive states, take a long time to evolve. Once can only imagine how much longer Congolese will have to wait before they can get an effective and accountable state.

For  a slightly different opinion check out AFJN.

the icc and the congo

IRIN news reports that arrests in Europe of political leaders of rebel movements in the Congo may not have much impact on the goings on on the ground. Even the FDLR is not immune to the commonplace principal-agent problems we are all aware of. The disconnect between the political leaders in Europe and generals on the ground is limiting the deterrence effects of the arrests.

I am not a huge fan of the ICC. But I am not one to throw out the baby with the bath water. The institution has potential to be a voice for the voiceless. Because of the ICC Kenyan politicians in the future will think twice before ordering jobless youth to murder innocent civilians. Because of the ICC rebel leaders cannot fly in and out of Brussels to raise money with abandon. These are not trivial achievements.

Accusations against the court’s Africa-bias may have some merit. Even more important are charges that the court does not appreciate the political consequences of justice or that the very idea of justice is political (see the Bashir case in Sudan). Others even point out the fact that going after the big fish ignores local offenses that also require redress. These are serious concerns that the ICC should address. But that said, overall I think that the ICC does more good than harm.