Almost two weeks ago, Rwandan legislator Gamariel Mbonimana did something highly unusual in our neck of the woods. He resigned from Parliament and apologised for drink-driving.
It was a feast for East African Twitter. Tweeps joked that he had been bewitched. The incident was taken as evidence that, finally, Rwanda had “lost its way” and should leave us alone and go find another continent where it should be. They were saying something important.
In some African countries, Mbonimana’s constituents would have gone out on the streets to burn tyres. His clan elders would have met and blamed his wife for his “confusion”.
From Nigeria, Uganda, to Kenya, in every election a good number of corrupt politicians are elected to Parliament. Some win elections with rape and murder charges hanging over their heads. Many are appointed ministers.
The corrupt losers are given ambassadorships and board appointments in state corporations as a consolation prize.
The people love them and turn them into heroes. The failure rate of righteous candidates is exceptionally high.
And it’s not just in Africa where thieves and all sorts of criminals enjoy spectacular electoral success. The number of MPs with criminal records in India’s Lower House is nearly 50 per cent. Over the last three election cycles, the number of such legislators elected to the Lok Sabha has consistently risen.
The issue of why the people elect and love crooks is vexing. Some argue that these politicians are merely a mirror of a corrupt society. The snobs hold that the people are not clever enough and suggest that perhaps allowing the unwashed and illiterate masses to vote is not a smart thing. Elections should be left to a few enlightened elites, like in times gone by.
And there are those who see it as a cynical transaction by voters, who sell their vote for a few cents, soap, salt, cigarettes, and t-shirts because they are all too aware that once elected, the politicians won’t come back or do anything for them – until the election. They might as well cash in during the campaigns, the moment when the politicians are most vulnerable and willing to part with groceries. Because the corrupt have more wealth, they are better able to afford groceries. So, they win.
The latter point is closer to the truth, though it doesn’t capture how politically deep the choice of voting a crook can be in some of our elections.
Consider a political system that is based on nepotism. Where the businesses owned by relatives of powerful people in the government get tax breaks, and those owned by people from the “wrong” clans, ethnic groups, parties, and regions are taxed heavily. Think of a political system where government scholarships to study abroad are given to people related to the president or prime minister or from constituencies represented by influential politicians in Parliament. Or where you need to know someone to qualify for the Covid-19 support that was given to vulnerable households during the pandemic lockdown.
In that system, a god-fearing MP who is going to wait at the Ministry of Education with a list of his constituents who got all “A+s”, trying to get them the Canadian scholarships to study Economics, or rumoured grants to do master’s degrees in oil, will come away empty-handed.
Thuggish and corrupt
The thuggish and corrupt MP, who will bribe to get the full details of the scholarships, and soften the Permanent Secretary with a gift of a pick-up bought by his ill-gotten wealth, will be more successful. He will be a hero in his constituency. Some prominent families in his area will place their daughters in his line of sight, hoping he will take one of them, even as a third wife. They will not invite the virtue-pouting politician who denounces corruption to tea.
Now, according to Transparency International rankings, they would not need the corrupt MP if they were citizens of some of the world’s most honest countries like Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, and Singapore. Grants and scholarships would come to them on merit, one of their rights as citizens, so they don’t need boosters.
Voting for crooks is perhaps the most profound critique of their political systems by the mass of African voters. They are saying they don’t deserve good men and women. It is a powerful form of passive resistance.
They are not ignorant. They are some of the world’s smartest voters. The late Malawian economist, Thandika Mkandawire, liked to illustrate this deception with the story of his father. Mkandawire was exiled and hunted by the dictatorship of Kamuzu Banda.
His father, to Mkandawire’s horror, became a card-carrying member of Kamuzu’s Malawi Congress Party (MCP). In 1994, Kamuzu was ousted in a multiparty vote after 30 years at the helm. Shortly after, Mkandawire returned to Malawi after 32 years in exile.
He was prepared for his meeting with his father to be difficult. After some hours of awkwardness, his father asked him to follow him. He took him to a place where he dug up a metal box full of all the Kamuzu posters and MCP paraphernalia and cards.
For over 20 years, he had put them away as symbols of disgrace and props to survive. He told Mkandawire he “joined” the party so he would be alive on the day he returned, as he had. Tears and forgiving hugs followed.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the «Wall of Great Africans». [email protected]