About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, June 28, 2021

The challenge of democratic politics

Who is a moral candidate for parliament: the candidate who promises electricity or one who distributes cash to voters?

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Someone sent a quote allegedly from a one “Prof.” PLO Lumumba to an internet chatgroup I belong to. Lumumba seems to have run for a parliamentary constituency in his native country of Kenya. He is alleged in the aforementioned quote to have complained that: “I held 250 town hall meetings. I articulated solutions to our problems in my constituency. My opponent did not campaign at all. He gathered money and showed up one day to elections. He distributed money. He won. Africans are not moved by ideas. Their stomach leads them.”

Lumumba’s argument is important for both moral and economic reasons even though his use of one incident to conclude about “Africans” is far-fetched. Besides who is the best judge of the appropriate “solutions” for the constituency? In democratic theory, the voter has the final say. They may have listened to Lumumba in those 250 town hall meetings and concluded that his solutions do not serve them well. Could the candidate who gave money been more responsive to voters’ needs?

Elections take place in a context. In a country like Kenya, politicians make many unrealistic promises on service delivery. So, after elections the voters realise that the promised roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, water and electricity lines did not materialise. In short, voters have an experience on the basis of which they make decisions. When Lumumba comes and makes the same promises they have listened to before and been disappointed, they do not believe him. However genuine Lumumba may have been, it is hard for voters to distinguish him from past candidates.

There is a second experience voters derive from elections. Whenever they have elected a legislator, they have noticed that his/her personal fortunes greatly improved compared to their own. Being an MP in Kenya brings immense personal benefits: economic (income), political (power), social (prestige) and cultural (status) to the elected individual. For a rational voter who knows these personal benefits to the MP compared to the disillusionment with and/or poverty of public policy deliverables, it is better to extract something from the MP before they disappear in the capital.

Therefore, it seems to me that Lumumba’s opponent had better political smarts. He understood the psychology of the voter and decided to cash his promises in advance. Rather than hold 250 town hall meetings, it is better to share your expected earnings with voters in advance because they cannot trust your promises. When a candidate for parliament gives voters money, their benefit from him becoming an MP is certain – they share in the income he will earn. However, when a candidate promises public policy benefits, such a promise can only be met in the future, so it is uncertain. And experience shows it rarely translates into reality anyway.

Therefore, rational voters will choose the man who distributes cash over one who makes public policy promises. This is not because they only care about their stomachs. It is because they understand their reality better. In this situation Lumumba is an armchair theoretician who wants to impose his vision on the masses who know better. In any case, why does Lumumba think voters should accept his proposed solutions? He cannot be the originator of his own ideas and the judge of their efficacy.

There is a moral issue as well. What is the profile of most voters in this particular constituency? The fact that they accepted cash handouts for their vote suggests that they are likely to be very poor. It is possible many of them have one meal a day, or two poor quality meals a day; many live in houses with rammed earth floor, made of mud and wattle and lack piped water and electricity. For these voters, a few kilograms of sugar and salt, soap and meat, and some alcohol or a little cash make more sense than high sounding professorial promises to change the world.

Given the circumstances of these voters and their experience with the Kenyan state, especially its inability to serve them with the benefits of public policy, which of the two candidates is really moral? A man who promises electricity and roads to voters who are dying of hunger or one who actually feeds them i.e. meets their immediate existential needs? This is where elites in Africa are disarticulated from the reality of their people. We go to voters with assumptions about politics picked from the rich Western world. There, politicians promise running water and electricity to an electorate whose basic needs have already been met. And the state has enough revenues to pay for those public policy promises.

This brings us to the economic issue in this debate. If elites in Africa removed Western lenses from their eyes, they would see the reality of our countries. Our governments collect very little revenue from our small economies. Because of this, the state in most of Africa cannot afford to serve the public as we expect it to – to pave the roads, deliver piped water and electricity to every homestead, ensure schools have classrooms, text books and quality teachers and that hospitals have medicines, beds, equipment and qualified medical staff to meet public needs.

African elites always ignore this financial handicap and invent reasons such as corruption (and there is a lot of it, but it is not the cause but consequence of our poverty), selfish and greedy leaders etc. to explain the causes of poor service delivery. Yet these same elites come from homes where their parents could not provide them basic things. They don’t blame their parents for being corrupt, greedy, selfish or uncaring. They know that even if their dad visited an occasional bar to have fun, “wasting” money on a few beers is not the reason they could not have all the things they wished for. Why do we imagine our governments, which are poorer, can afford to supply the services Norway renders to her citizens?

Incidentally, poor people in rural areas seem to understand this – perhaps their lack of exposure shields them from the delusions of our elites. They appreciate the limits on government – both human and financial. So when politicians offer them money for votes, they find it a more realistic proposition than one who makes these wild promises that cannot be met. Lumumba needs to step down from the skies of utopia and stand on the hard rock of reality. Only then will he win an election.



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