Book Review: The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa

April 7, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

I love it when a book nails something that’s been lurking at the back of my mind, but never pinned down. The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa, by Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch and Justin Willis, does just that. It explores the gulf between how politicians (and not just in Africa) see themselves (motivated by ideas of virtue as well as the more grubby kind) and how others often portray them (bunch of amoral, power-hungry, corrupt thieves). And it decides not to simply say ‘they must be hypocrites and liars’ but to try and really understand what is going on.

The organizing idea is the ‘moral economy’ – ‘a continuing engagement between different ideas of what constitutes virtuous behaviour: an engagement that is both conflictual and productive, and that has no end point.’

The book identifies two ideals, or ideas of virtue, that shape the moral economy of democracies in their three case study countries: Kenya, Ghana and Uganda. These are the civic and patrimonial ideals. Civic approaches stress the importance of national communities, of doing what’s best for the country. They work through national programmes, manifestoes and formal institutions. Patrimonial approaches are all about patron-client relationships – a leader does what’s best for his or her particular group – by geography, or ethnicity – and is rewarded by their support.

It’s the tension and interplay between these two that shapes politics.

‘A lively electoral politics can be sustained by a tension between civic and patrimonial behaviours: people can understand themselves as citizens, but also as Baganda, Asante or Luo; they can feel strong moral obligations to family and neighbours as well as to the nation within the political arena.’

The research (lots of interviews, opinion polls and literature reviews) finds that the lot of an MP is a long round of requests from constituents for school fees, medical costs etc etc. That actually introduces a form of accountability, arguably much more direct and tangible than vague promises within the civic approach (preferred by international donors) to implement a manifesto pledge. Electoral competition (a ‘good thing’ within the civic ideal) can actually increase patrimonialism, boosting the amount an MP has to shovel out to their constituents. Fascinating.

The one gap (unless I missed it) was how the two different approaches interact with corruption/self-enrichment – does the shorter accountability route of patrimonialism make it easier or harder for a politician to ‘eat’?

The book starts with a lovely vignette that captures the contrast:

‘The constituency-level chairman and secretary of the party are busy men. We meet in a bar, where they have other appointments and business to pursue. The chairman’s mobile phone rings all the time. He declines most of the calls; but still he is talking constantly, walking a little away from the table where we sit each time he decides to answer. The secretary is left to do most of the interview. Initially suspicious, he becomes more enthusiastic as he talks. He came into politics, he tells us, to ‘serve my people’. Yes, he acknowledges with a smile, his party work has brought him personal benefits, though he receives no salary for it. Both Ghana’s national president and the local constituency member of parliament (MP) are from his party and ‘the more your party continues to stay in power, the more your aspirations will come to fruition’. But he is serious about service to his people. He proudly points to the improvements to the constituency under the current government and MP: new infrastructure projects have employed local labour and provided public amenities.

Yet the constituency is not just one community, and as he talks it is apparent that he sees the population as comprised of multiple distinct groups, each with its spokespeople, all of whom must be listened to. Each little group must be rewarded for loyalty to the party. Fishermen are helped with fuel for outboard engines; small traders with loans and simple equipment; neighbourhoods with improved drains; parents with school transports for their children; and young people with an apprenticeship scheme. There are distinct scholarships for children from the Muslim community, as well as gifts of food for Eid; and there are donations to church-building projects. These men are so busy because elections are close – as the chairman complained in between phone calls ‘when people see me, they ask for money’. The party office is full each day of people seeking help for their community, or personal support with school fees, or medical bills. These are not just requests, they are demands: if they are not met, the claim-makers will denounce him – and the MP – for being unwilling to help. The chair and secretary enjoy their status, but evidently feel constantly under pressure to show their virtue as patrons; as the chairman said, with a sigh, in a phrase that combined self-justification with naturalizing assertion, ‘That is African politics!’

Why does all this matter – what are the ‘so whats’? The authors argue that the failure to understand the moral economy is a ‘s blind spot that undermines our ability to explain some of the most interesting questions about elections in Africa and beyond. Why do many people invest so much time, effort and resources in elections, even those that are clearly not going to be free and fair? Why do the numerous and expensive voter education programmes funded by international donors do so little to discourage candidates from handing out money and other private goods? Why, when many candidates clearly believe that handouts are an effective electoral strategy, do those who spend the most sometimes lose? Does participation in elections actually turn voters into democrats?’

The authors conclude:

‘Some of the ways that voter education programmes are designed should be rethought. The basic assumption that voters are innocent figures led astray by manipulative leaders is a gross oversimplification and leads to the unhelpful conclusion that educating citizens about the rules will change their behaviour. Instead, we need to better appreciate the ways in which patrimonial registers, and the kinds of electoral manipulation that they encourage, are co-produced [by politicians and voters]. It will also be counter-productive to simply tell voters that accepting money from candidates is morally wrong. In the vast majority of cases, they are already aware that this is true within the civic register, but also understand that it is not only acceptable but legitimate and, in many cases, required within the patrimonial register. Civic education drives are therefore more likely to be successful if they work on the basis of a combination of patrimonial and civic claims – for example, voters may be much more responsive to a message that they may take money from candidates but should always vote for the individual that they think will do the best job, than an argument that suggests they should never take money at all.

If democracy is understood as responsible, accountable government that serves the aspirations and needs of its people – that is, by what it does, rather than through reference to a specific model – then the evidence from Ghana, Kenya and Uganda suggests that it might best be pursued not by simply eradicating patrimonialism, but rather by channelling it in ways that build on its affective power while constraining its more divisive and corrupting potential.’

Interesting, if a bit nebulous on the so-whats, and overall, a really thought-provoking book.

April 7, 2021
Duncan Green