BY NOW we have all heard enough stories about “Africa Rising”, and how more and more Africans are growing rich and being pulled out of poverty, although the number of very poor is still sinfully too high.
And in “AFRICA REVOLUTION SERIES part 1: What Bricks, Mortar, Yams And Cellphones Have To Do With It”, we noted a contradiction: That while the economies of many African countries are improving, and the middle class is surely beginning to expand as evidenced by, among other things, the new suburbs with their fancy bungalows and apartments that are mushrooming everywhere, its politics is lagging behind.
There have been some cosmetic changes, for sure. There are, for instance, hardly any military dictators who eat their opponents’ livers (except perhaps Equatorial Guinea’s ruthless Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo), but critics are still exiled or imprisoned in most of Africa. The “good” thing is that these days they at least get a sham trial.
All Africa’s leaders, including finally Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos, hold elections. But in nearly all them, the ruling parties are very entrenched and rig the vote, making it impossible for the opposition to progress electorally. There are exceptions like Zambia, Ghana, and Senegal, but they are notable for how few they are.
While there has been economic progress, in a majority of the countries (a handful like Rwanda and Mauritius being the rare odd men out), most of the fruit of this prosperity is stolen by politicians and state officials, and the rest squirreled away by the elite. The poor only hear of this economic growth on FM radios.
And this rising middle class has not changed the texture of societies much, or shifted the political debate. Instead, in many countries the quality of public discourse has declined shamefully. While the mobile phone has sparked an information revolution in Africa, it is common during elections to have Oxford educated Africans sitting in their fancy BMWs, sending out awful text messages insulting people from the ethnic group of the candidates they oppose in a manner that even the most rabid racist European colonialist could not have done with the “natives”.
It is also quite common in Africa for a smart chap who studied at Harvard University, got a job as an intern in a US Congressman’s office, and went around America calling for sanctions against Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, to return home and soon as he is appointed Information minister, starts railing against the press and closing newspapers. And when he is not doing that, he is stealing a quarter of his ministry’s budget. When he decides to run in the next election, he will visit the witchdoctor to help him win a constituency seat.
So why isn’t the African middle class, including those in the Diaspora returning from countries with long traditions of democracy, not anywhere
close to creating liberal democracies and economic systems that support the weak, and are instead caught up in this traditional-modern duality?
For starters, it is a chicken and egg situation. Because clan, religion, region, ethnicity, and blood relations are still the basis on which public office and “development” are distributed in several African countries, the political and economic spaces are not impersonal and meritocratic enough for most people to get ahead purely on the basis of their talent alone. So they keep one leg in the ethnic or religious fold, because it offers greater certainty and protection. An example from Uganda will illustrate this well. Because it is a country where religion most times plays a greater role in distributing patronage than ethnicity, the custom started by Milton Obote after independence is that a Protestant president must have a Catholic vice president.
The military rule of Idi Amin between January 1971 and April 1979 was the only time Uganda didn’t have an executive Prime Minister or President who was not Protestant. Amin was Muslim, as was his long-time Deputy President, the illiterate Idris Mustafa. This despite the fact that Catholics form the majority in Uganda.
There are complex reasons why that are the case, but for now the more relevant fact is that President Yoweri Museveni, a Protestant, has kept up this tradition. Thus in Uganda today, you are surer to become vice president if you are a candidate of the Catholic Establishment, than if you are technically the best man or woman for the job. As a result, if you are an extremely talented Catholic, have vice-presidential ambitions, would make the best VP Uganda has ever had, but you also are a pragmatist, you won’t get the job by marketing your talents. No, you sell your standing in the Uganda Catholic community. In other countries it is your ethnicity.
Yet what this proves is actually the opposite from what it seems—it tells us that there is cold method to what appears like Africa’s madness. Nevertheless, the result is that because the elite make these kinds of calculations, the public and state sectors remain largely unreconstructed and unenlightened. Thus the expansion of women’s rights, for example, suffers because as women they are divisible – into Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Seventh Day Adventist, Pentecostal women. On other hand Protestants are Protestants, be they men, women, or children. This has a profound effect of advancing new generation rights.
That is not all. There is more that hampers middle class Africans from playing the role that the middle classes did in the democratisation of Europe and parts of Asia.
Because several of the sources of growth in Africa today are external – aid, grants, foreign investment, and trade – the main beneficiaries are the elite and urban groups who are best placed to capture it. Consequently, in most of Africa, the middle class is growing in circumstances where most countries still have the majority of their populations mired in poverty.
In this environment an African who has a little money, a nice house, and a second-hand Japanese car has the kind of power that his American counterpart cannot even begin to comprehend. First, he immediately becomes king of his clan, because most of them are poor. When he goes to the village, they basically vote the way he tells them to. If his siblings and cousins are poorer than him, he will dictate to them whom to marry, on which dates their dead should be buried (otherwise he won’t buy the coffin), and so on.
Much of this will change in coming years, but for now most middle class Africans are likely to be petty tyrants themselves, than champions of free and more open societies. They become just another subset of the central dictatorship.
This has a particularly perverse effect on democracy. During elections, the African Big Man does not need to address as many rallies as US President Barack Obama and his rival Mitt Romney did last year. All he has to do is pay the middle class chaps who have sway over their clans, and he will have most of their clans’ votes in the bag. It explains why during election periods in Africa over the last 15 years, we have witnessed the rise of a new phenomenon – “professional groups” from different regions of a country who support one candidate or the other. Therefore rather than being a counterweight to political society, Africa’s middle classes are mostly adjunct to it.
In the next two articles we look at how external factors are shaping the character of African democracy: The different ways China and USA play into it; how the fight against international terrorism, new technologies, and youth politics, are leaving their imprints on how the continent is being governed, and will be governed, in the years to come.