African Politics Maturing

Published on 20th February 2007

The following are excerpts from IREN’s Occasional Paper 1 entitled Africans See Poverty: Foreigners See Resources and Wealth. The full interview which covers a broad spectrum of current issues in Africa is on the IREN website ( Talking to Kristina Bozic, James Shikwati, Director of Inter Region Economic Network (IREN) argues that Africans are getting connected to the issues of governance, and politicians will not earn votes by bribing them. They must deliver!

Is the concept of democracy in Africa similar to the one in the West? 

By definition yes, but not in practice. Elections in America, of course, interest other countries, but poor countries may not have much influence on the result. In Africa however, election results interest the British, the Americans and the Chinese, among others, as it is connected to their national interests. 

Remember that a majority of international NGOs represent their governments indirectly and participate in the democratization process. This adds up to the final result of who leads Africa. There are more powerful interests beyond the ballot paper that an ordinary African drops in the box. African democracy involves more invisible voters than in the developed world. 

In Kenya, if a politician focused much on land issues, historical injustices and says that the British took people’s land, no matter how popular he may be, he will definitely draw negative attention from a country such as Britain. 

One student observes that African votes are too cheap. The majority of voters, who are only interested in having food on their table tell the candidates: “I am giving you my vote, to go parliament and be rich. What am I getting out of it?” The votes are, as the student put it, given out for bags of maize, salt and sugar. Would you agree? 

It is happening because people do not see the connection between themselves and the government. People assume that the only things they can get from the government are goodies such as bags of sugar and salt.  Most governments in Africa are striving towards expanding their taxation base, and this will make the voter connect to the fact that no ‘free’ goodies actually exist in the long run. It will therefore be difficult to ‘buy’ votes.

Kenyans have started analyzing candidates in terms of the kind of leadership they can offer. In 2002, Moi used his status and largesse to front his preferred successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of founding president, Jomo Kenyatta. People voted overwhelmingly against him on the contrary, immensely shocking the establishment. When the NARC government assumed it could push through an unpopular constitution, it received a similar treatment. No amount of government goodies could change the voters’ resolve to reject a warped constitution. The government was overwhelmingly defeated for a second time in Kenya’s history.

These two developments bring out a new style of Kenyan voting. Voters accept hand-outs, but vote their preferences. Soon, no use of money or salt will earn a vote in Africa. People are getting connected to the issues of governance and will soon ask politicians to show in measurable terms what they can deliver.

To what do you attribute these changes and how can they be promoted and sustained?

Opening up Africa. Initially, few people owned radios and communication was minimal. To make matters worse, most broadcasting channels were either government or former colonial government owned. This narrowed people’s world view. Today, most countries in Africa have allowed private players to join the media, hence more voices that consequently change the way people look at things.

Initially, news and political activities were concentrated around the city centre, But now, information moves so fast that it is not only the city where politicians are concerned about, but now, rural areas because  they also know what is going on. Communication has played a very big role. Literacy levels have gone up. Unemployment is increasingly challenging the “straight-jacket” thinking where governments “know it all” People are beginning to question government policies.

To reach the stage where absolutely no “salt” will be given for votes, Information flow should be enhanced. Ultimately, politicians will not come just before the elections, build a school and buy people’s votes.

Africa is moving in the right direction. The role of regional groups, such as the East African Community, and African Union, makes countries look beyond their borders. People start comparing their state with neighbouring ones; shun nationalistic “building up borders” policies and pressurize their governments. The African Union connects regional groups and builds up overall pressure on all heads of states. This never used to exist. These are good signs of imminent change.

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