The assumption behind a lot of literature on democracy is that people would care more about their welfare in elections
Africa’s poor performance at delivering public goods and services impersonally to anonymous citizens is often attributed to the continent’s democratic deficit. Democratic theory expects that if all citizens regardless of their income are given political equality through the one man one vote electoral system, and if the poor constitute a majority of voters in a given country, their preferences would be reflected in which people get elected and what public policies are adopted.
There is little evidence that this assumption is true. As Africa has democratised, the ability of its states to deliver public goods and services to citizens has not improved significantly. In fact, in some cases it has remained stagnant or even declined. This is partly because the poor participate in politics occasionally during elections. Elites who participate continually in the political process using the mass media, civil society and political parties effectively use such platforms to promote their own interests.
American political theorist, Robert Dahl, argued that democracy is defined by two things: Participation and contestation. Participation inquires into how many groups participate in politics and determine who the rulers should be. Contestation deals with how freely the political opposition contest for power from incumbents. Most debate on democracy in Africa has always focused on contestation and ignored participation – or at least the manner in which citizen participation is structured.
In a democratic system, the poor can exercise their power and drive state policy to serve their interest through political mobilisation or voting or both. Because most poor people in most of Africa are illiterate or semi-literate peasants, political mobilisation has been structurally difficult especially doing so around economic interests. All too often, it is mobilisation around identity that has been effective.
The assumption behind a lot of literature on democracy is that people would care more about their economic and welfare interests in elections. However, experience shows that voters in Africa (or even India and the USA) care more about their identity – be it religion, tribe or race – than their economic interest. Indeed, whenever people, especially poor people, confront a choice between their economic/welfare needs and their identity they tend to lean towards the latter. Why?
One reason is that often, the poor cannot mobilise themselves and lead the struggle for their own emancipation. They need people from another class – elites, to offer leadership and organised political expression. For example, it is Yoweri Museveni and his group of educated elites who went to Luwero to organise people’s resistance against the government of President Milton Obote.
If the poor were to vote on the basis of economic reasons, they would be voting as an economic category i.e. a class. If they vote on the basis of identity, they are voting on an ascription based on the circumstances of their birth; one is born to a particular tribe and cannot change that. However, you can be born poor and become rich. With ethnicity, there is no mobility. Class politics is always organised around economic issues and grievances – so it deals with prices, trade policy, social services etc. With ethnicity, even when there are economic demands, they are couched in the language of dignity and social justice.
The people who run for public offices and therefore represent the poor in such forums as parliament and other decision making and implementation offices are often educated elites, not the poor themselves. But if one’s economic and income status is different from that of the people voting for him or her, how does he/she create a common cause with the electorate? How does a rich man from Kampala convince ordinary villagers in Kumi that he is there to represent their interest and they should trust him?
It is here that ethnicity becomes very important. A rich Acholi businessman can argue that because he shares a common linguistic or cultural background with his fellow Acholi tribes-mates, then he is best positioned to represent them. By appealing to their shared cultural identity, he can convince them that he is one of them, and hence the legitimate voice of their interests. But because of the income differences between them, the best pitch for representation cannot be economic issues. So he will pitch his argument in the language of dignity for the tribe. Even if the burning issues are economic, he will present them in the language of social justice.
When political representatives are elected to represent such emotive ideals as “dignity”, then the democratic process will promote elite patronage rather than public services to citizens. This is what has happened in India, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Zambia etc. As democracy has consolidated in these countries, so has elite corruption and privilege.
In ethnically diverse societies, the democratic process tends to create the tragedy of commons – every ethnic group wants its own son or daughter at the eating table to represent them. Ordinary people are not excluded from the political process; they are integrated, not as rights-bearing citizens, but as clients of their powerful co-ethnics. By appointing influential pillars of opinion from a particular tribe, the president and the ruling party are able to capture their followers during elections.
Now, if a president can win an election by appointing a few Bakiga elites into his cabinet, that is much more cost effective than building a road to Kabale or building an effective and efficient healthcare or education system in that region. Delivering healthcare or education requires effective institutions (which take time to build) and costs a lot of money. Appointing a minister costs only a radio announcement.
Thus, as political contestation increases in ethnically diverse poor countries, the more ethnically polarised it gets, the more participation takes a clientelistic character and the more the political system’s ability to deliver public goods and services is compromised. In the early 1990s, Rwanda opened up to multiparty competition and this led to extreme levels of political mobilisation based on identity and equally high levels of contestation; the result was genocide. Post genocide Rwanda has significantly restricted political contestation yet equally promoted genuine political participation. Consequently, the delivery of public goods and services is more than in any post colonial African country I know.