If all a voter gets from an election is cheap T-shirt it isn’t enough to defend democracy

Sunday August 20 2023

Picture illustration. PHOTO | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

An article published in the week by German broadcaster DW explored Why ex-French colonies in Africa seem beset by coups. Many of the experts interviewed blamed high levels of poverty, ineffective civil society and media, as well as excessive French influence.

Nigerian governance analyst Ovigwe Eguegu is quoted saying elected leaders in former French colonies have done little to improve citizens' lives.

"That's why you have these populist coups. These are populist coups, we have to be frank," he said.

Eguegu argued that if people do not see the benefits of a democratically elected government, then there would be very little support for them in times of crisis.

Read: AKINYEMI: Democracy to Africa has two sides? Just look at Niger

"Why should they just engage in the exercise of voting and nothing changes? For them, the [coups] are seen as a way to shock the system to see if that could lead to a much better outcome," he said, while conceding that military leadership has rarely improved the situation.


Bram Posthumus, an independent journalist reporting on West Africa, was more blunt: "One of the things these coups in succession demonstrate is the quite clear notion that the experiment with Western-style democracy in the Sahel, at least, has been a complete failure.”

They are correct in their analysis of the causes of coups, and the arguments they make could apply to many other African countries where states are beset by a crisis of legitimacy, although haven’t yet had coups.

However, it is too soon to say they are safe. We shouldn’t be surprised if, over the next 10 years, more than half of African countries are ruled by (incompetent) soldiers.

It's easy to see where things have gone wrong. The hard question is, why has democracy failed so dramatically in most of Africa? Here, we are confronted by a strange situation; democracy has failed in many parts of Africa because it has succeeded.

The level of citizen mobilisation we see in countries like Kenya and Uganda during election campaigns is no longer possible to achieve, or even to imagine, in countries like Britain, where Western-style democracy was born.

Read: OBBO: It’s the wise African voter who picks the crooked politician

Every homestead is touched. It’s only a deep-set cynicism that explains the low turnout on voting day.

The scale and granular level at which African presidential candidates and members of parliament campaign means the contenders have to make more promises at close range, sitting on a plastic chair in your courtyard — promises they can’t possibly keep.

The voters’ disappointment with their dismal performance is thus deeper. Elections are also a frenzied deal-making exercise with voters' interest groups, as they should be. In a context of poor economies, that creates a distribution problem once a candidate becomes president and his party wins parliament.

Every ministership, every ambassadorial position, and leadership of state agencies is patronage; given to tribes, clans, families, districts, and regions that helped deliver victory for the incumbent.

The currency of this patronage is corruption. And, in a situation of Africa’s small and anaemic economies, you end up with a few eating, and the majority going hungry.

Additionally, appointing people to office this way, means you don’t always get the best talent on board, and therefore the smart folks who would help create economic and social success, don’t get into government. There has never been a better coup recipe.

If African economies were richer, enabling the victorious election coalition to be fed to its fill, while leaving enough to spend on the rest of the country, the coup risks would be lower.

Read: On Kenya’s political scene, history regularly repeats itself

This highly competitive political scene leaves voters with crumbs.

In Kenya, for example, shrewd voters visit as many rallies as they can to collect T-shirts, caps, umbrellas, safety vests (for 'boda boda' riders) and all the trinkets on offer.

By election time a serial rally attender will have got anything up to ten T-shirts, from all the presidential campaigns, and the rival MPs for their local seat, and the members of the county assembly for their ward. The T-shirts might be silly and of dubious quality, but they will be enough for them to wear until the next election in five years, when they refresh their wardrobe.

Contrary to the popular arguments, coups don’t succeed because they are popular. They do because there isn’t sufficient public opposition to them. If all you have from an election is a cheap T-shirt, then it isn’t sufficient incentive for you to defend the democratic order.

The vaccine against military coups, and the security of elected democratic government come from the same source — economic growth and equal sharing of national wealth.

Beyond economic growth, perhaps some countries could try going for the Namibia, South Africa and Rwanda systems of closed proportional representation, where competing political parties pre-decide who will receive the seats allocated to that party in the elections.

The candidates positioned highest on the lists get seats in the legislature, while the those placed low on the closed list miss out.

In this system, often candidates don’t have specific constituencies.This reduces the ability of clan chiefs and powerful interests to extract patronage from the state, although in South Africa we have seen that even that, can sometimes go wrong.

After decades of talking about “unique African democracy”, we might be at the start of creating one. It’s too fuzzy at this point to see its emerging shape. It could take a couple more failed liberal democracies, and another two dozen coups, to get there.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3