Bad governance is not part of African cultures − Trial of the common man
[Originally published at foodforthought.blog.lemonde.fr on October 28, 2017]
Bad governance is endemic in African countries and the political class is often and rightfully blamed for it. However, the responsibility is not limited to corrupt politicians, and realising it is the first step towards a necessary change.
Shared responsibility for bad governance
Many African countries suffer from poor governance:1men are strong and institutions weak. Instead of serving the general interest, elected and appointed leaders govern for themselves and their kin, from full-fledged dictators to mandate-extending quasi-democratic presidents, to autocratic governors, all the way down to favour-seeking, candidate-pleasing local members of the executive. Not all, of course. But many, far too many. Much can and must be said about this political class, the havoc they wreck on their country, and the profound and devastating distrust they bring to all things political by the pervasive corruption they set up or maintain.
But I wish to turn my attention away from the felons and to another culprit: the common man. Indeed, the common man is the first victim of this failing political class. Yet, the mere fact of being a victim suffices not to remove one’s responsibility and guilt where it is attested.
Who is the common man? In this discussion, he is your average citizen. He’s you, he’s me. He’s your rich landowner, your small business owner, your urban poor. He is simply defined by contrast to elected officials.
Many countries on the continent have the appearances of democracies: they hold regular elections, have separate branches of power, and sport a vast number of politicians operating numerous political parties under the watchful eye of a vibrant press. Yet, governance still fails. Corruption continues to run wild, insecurity is rampant (when it does not take the form of overt rebellions), and inequality divides the have-lots and have-nothings a little more every day.
So why is the common man on trial? Not to assuage the political class’s guilt but to assess his own share of the responsibility.
In a « classic dictatorship » (« à la North Korea », let us say, but examples abound in Asian, European or Latin American history) − where free and independent voting is unheard of, free press inexistent, and family ties kept to a small nucleus −, it stands to reason that the bulk of the responsibility would fall squarely and heavily on the shoulders of those in power. Yes, the masses could trigger a revolution but military repression and, in the case of North Korea the almost complete absence of contact with the outside world combined with constant propaganda, make that endeavour a challenge. North Korea, it is true, is an extreme example. Less so is the case of China, where organised suppression of political dissent (unless to the benefit of the Communist Party), fierce nationalism, and continued growth have allowed the regime to maintain itself in power without opening itself politically and without democratising.
However, in a supposedly democratic system, like African governments claim to be, the responsibility for bad governance, through the choice of political leaders, necessarily befalls citizens eligible to vote. By voting or abstaining from voting, citizens eligible to vote actively shape the leadership and political class of their country.
« Wait! », I hear you say, « what if the voting system is rigged? » Indeed, international observers often report irregularities in the voting process: electoral lists are manipulated, districts gerrymandered, ballot boxes disappear, and counting is sometimes carried out away from any form of independent monitoring. Yet, irregularities − though they change the final figures − nowadays rarely seem to drastically alter the outcome, nor does the main competitor necessarily seem more righteous and well-intentioned than the victor and, in fact, irregularities take place on all sides. In Kenya, irregularities did lead the Supreme Court to cancel the elections, but the Court did not affirm that the scale of said irregularities had necessarily changed the outcome of the election.
So, in countries where voting takes place in a more or less free manner, the common man is charged for placing and keeping reckless politicians in power, at all levels.
Why does he do it? Is he fooled by men he thought were innocent and pure? Or did a clean and honest candidate win his vote only to turn around and betray his trust? No. Whoever has lived in African countries and talked to regular folks has heard their utter defiance of the political class and long litanies on how « they » rob « us » and steal from us and abuse us. There are no illusions about the candidates, no ignorance of the bad governance; yet the same individuals or similar ones continue to be voted in office. And, as the saying goes (and as beloved American President George W. Bush famously could not pronounce2): « fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me ».
Let us then take this question one step further: why does the common man willingly vote for men he knows do not have the public interest at heart? Why does he settle for men he knows will abuse their power?
The issue, I believe, plunges deeper: where issues of bad governance persist, the common man fails to ask enough of his representatives because he fails to ask enough of himself.
Asking from oneself before asking from others
Politicians are not fundamentally or intrinsically different from the people they govern. By a varying mix of intelligence, cunning, hard work, corruption, charisma and luck, they have reached their position; nevertheless, they stem from the people and are bathed in the local culture. To paraphrase a famous quote, people don’t have the politicians they need, but the ones they deserve.
The misuse that politicians make of their position and power therefore does not derive from them being politicians but from a more pervasive popular tendency to use resources in order to maximise private gain, in other words to place the personal interest above the general interest.3
This tendency directly contradicts the rule of law. The point of the rule of law is the good management of public goods: when people choose not to respect the law in order to maximise their benefit, all of society stands to lose.4
A simple illustration can be seen in the disrespect for traffic laws. Traffic laws are a clear and simple way to manage a public good: traffic fluidity and road safety. The rules are known to all (or should be), easy to apply, and with evident benefits to all. Yet, they are seldom respected and this lack of respect has deadly consequences. There almost isn’t a mission I took around Côte d’Ivoire − which happened almost every other week for the better part of a year − where I wouldn’t see a dead body on the side of the road. Kenya seems to fare better but uncivil behaviours are still everywhere to be seen. This is unfortunately confirmed by official figures: according to the WHO, at 26.6 road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants per year, Africa is well ahead of the word average of 17.4. Out of the top 50 deadliest countries, 40 are African countries.5Why are these rules not respected? Because the private gain of many drivers (here, going faster than traffic safely allows, by any means necessary − speeding, recklessly overtaking, zigzagging, denying priority, disrespecting traffic lights and stop signs, etc.) is more important to them than the public good of road safety.
This disrespect for traffic laws is but an example. However, it illustrates a broader lack of respect for common rules. When people fail to respect something as simple and obviously beneficial as traffic rules, it is easy to understand how other laws will be discarded for private benefit. Likewise, when public officials take a bride, they place their private interest of making more money over the public good of an efficient administration that works for all. And when a citizen fails to appropriately report his income and pay taxes, he chooses his own wealth over the collective wealth of the nation. But every time people choose not to respect a law, a rule, a norm, a regulation, they may win on the short term, yet we all lose in the long run. The person who burnt a red light may one day see his child run over by another dangerous driver. The public official who took bribes will one day face the same inefficient administration and rage against it. The man who failed to pay his taxes or placed his money in tax havens may one day lose his life to youths who turned to crime in the absence of a decent education and a functioning economy. All these seemingly-insignificant disrespects for the rule of law (« a little traffic arrangement here, a few dollars more for retirement there ») have very real consequences and one of the end-results of these small actions put together is bad governance and systemic corruption.
Corruption is by no means a purely African problem, though it is more prevalent on this continent. According to Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, out of the 30 most corrupt countries, 18 are African countries and, of the African countries covered in the index, only eight countries improved their overall scores in the latest edition, while the scores of 20 countries deteriorated.6
Some say that this lack of respect for the rule of law is « part of African culture » (the sadly fatalist « This Is Africa »). I do not think, however, that there is anything « African » about these attitudes, in the same way that I do not believe the respect for the rule of law is innately a « Western » trait simply because Western countries happen to top the ranking in terms of limited corruption. Respect for the rule of law is present in countries of all cultures, and African societies would not be any less « African » or lose a part of their culture by better respecting the laws they set for themselves. As such, this is not a call for African countries to « Westernise » in any way, simply to actively follow the rules and laws they adopt.
This lack of respect for common rules at all levels and its general acceptance in society are the core reason for the poor performance of the political class: old habits die hard and, in the absence of effective independent supervision, there is no reason profit-seeking in the general population shouldn’t be found in the political class. Therefore, the only way for the common man to escape this endless cycle of predation by its own elite is to first and foremost ask more from himself and to stop considering it normal or acceptable to circumvent the rules for personal gain. Only by respecting the law and holding each other accountable, including through more regular and consistent use of the judiciary, can a population start improving its governance.
For this change in mentalities to be heard and resonate, it needs to heed from the local population itself. Citizens at all levels must embrace this theme and ask of themselves and of their neighbours to stop placing private gain before public interest, to see the importance of public goods for development and prosperity, and to no longer tolerate day-to-day infringements of the law.
Until this change is achieved, the common man stands guilty. We all stand guilty: we must realise it and act upon it. Because we are guilty, yes, but not irredeemable.
1. According to the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, despite a limited progression between 2005 and 2015, Sub-Saharan Africa lags far behind all other regions; see interactive data at http://info.worldbank.org/governance/wgi/index.aspx. According to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s Index of African Governance, rule of law in Africa has worsened between 2006 and 2015; see 2016 Index Report at http://s.mo.ibrahim.foundation/u/2016/10/01184917/2016-Index-Report.pdf.
2. Always a pleasure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjmjqlOPd6A
3. « Personal » should here be understood in an extensive acceptation, meaning for the benefit of the individual, his extended family, friends and kinsmen.
4. This is a good illustration of the tragedy of the commons, where a natural tendency for hoarding − maximising one’s possessions for fear of need, in a context of limited resources −, by being widespread, actually limits the creation of public goods that would bring more resource for all.
5. Global status report on road safety 2015, World Health Organisation, http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/road_safety_status/2015/en/
6. Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, Transparency International, https://www.transparency.org/news/feature/corruption_perceptions_index_2016
Originally published at foodforthought.blog.lemonde.fr on October 28, 2017.