When the Levee Breaks

While I was away, a couple of questions were playing on my mind. The first related to the desirability of a season of revolution in the southern part of Africa, as witnessed in North Africa and parts of the Arab world recently. Three readers gave their initial thoughts. One suggested that my thoughts might be premature in any case, as the Ugandan example was rather deceptive and not actually indicative of a really fundamental democratizing force in that country. This may well be true (I would be the first to admit that I am no specialist on the politics of Uganda). However, the theoretical question of whether a series of political upheavals would be a positive thing remains.

Another ventured that as long as the upheavals are genuinely democratic, they must be good things. There’s an obvious logic to this position: representative government is a good in it’s own right, regardless of its developmental impact. Plenty of others have discussed whether democracy or a kind of benevolent dictatorship is the ideal developmental form of Government (we’re all pretty much agreed that purely predatory dictatorship is a bad thing all round), and I don’t mean to rehash this argument here, except to say that the state that is most developmental in any given circumstance depends on the polity it governs, and there are probably multiple equilibria of varying stability that can be achieved.

Rather, I wonder if the principle reasons that there have been so few movements towards revolution or inquilab in any form in southern Africa has been that there is almost no gain from such action – that in some cases there is no alternative that is significantly more representative as opposed to differently representative. This is the point that MJ raised in his comment. Relatedly, it is also possible that how representative the Government is may actually have little impact on how well it responds to its citizenry.

Take the first possibility: that in few countries are there significantly better leaders waiting in the wings. One characteristic of contemporary commentators on upheavals is that they often put too much stock on the act of change, without spending enough time thinking about the content of change (I myself have often been guilty of this). There is some intrinsic value in upheaval and violent or forced change, namely that it creates the credible threat that bad governance will be punished even where political process leaves no space to legally generate punishment. However, we tend to get excited when a ‘bad’ leader is deposed even before we start considering how much better the new one will or can be. It is quite possible that changes, even those that depose leaders showing signs of authoritarianism, may simply usher in a worse or equally bad leadership.

Malawi is an example where this may be true. I’m not fully up to speed on Malawi’s contemporary political scene, but unless a new generation of political leadership has sprung up in the last three years, it’s difficult to see that any other politician placed in the same position as Bingu wa Mutharika will be any more democratic of progressive. His predecessor, Bakili Muluzi, was not a particularly progressive leader, and indeed Malawi had a significant improvement in the terms of its governance (particularly economic) under Mutharika. There has been some backsliding, but it’s clear that Malawi in 2011 is in a better place than it was in 2003. If Bingu were to leave power tomorrow, who are the alternatives with sterling democratic credentials? It’s not clear that any other leading politician would be travelling a significantly different path to Bingu.

Of course the absence of clear figureheads didn’t hamper some of the revolutions in the Middle East or North Africa, but this may actually be a reason to fear for the outcomes of these revolutions. The longer a power vacuum exists, the more likely it is that it will either be filled by another despotic entity (possibly an army) or the country will descend into factional rivalry. In many countries in sub-Saharan Africa there are a number of competing groups vying for power, be they tribes, regions, or religions. The possibility of a power vacuum existing after any revolution must be quite high, and the competition to fill this vacuum may well be a higher cost than the benefits gained from regime change.

Indeed, this brings us to the second possible issue with rebellion in Southern Africa: a more representative Government is by no means necessarily a ‘better’ one. Matt made the excellent point that as a result of his fertilizer subsidy, Bingu has widened his support base by beginning to remove the regionalist character of Malawian politics. It’s arguable that since democracy began, Malawi has never had a more representative leader. However, it is his very sense of security borne from his broadened support base that has allowed Bingu to pursue an increasingly intransigent set of policies; he now has such a majority in Parliament and  was voted in by such a broad range of Malawians that he believes he has an almost divine sanction to rule.

When his premiership was more fragile, during his first term, he was a much more circumspect and consensus-building leader, and there’s a lesson here. A more representative Government may sometimes result in a new tyranny of the majority, or worse, tyranny of the majority’s chosen leader. A leader who has a constant credible threat of removal is far more likely to govern equitably, and this threat is not provided by revolution or rebellion if the state is backed by a majority identity group (ethnicity, tribe or any other) because these tend to rebel against their own representatives only in exceptional circumstances. Proper accountability of routine Government activities requires a constant threat or peril to the Government; in some cases, particularly in less well developed polities, this may be more realistic when a less representative state is in power rather than vice versa.

These thoughts don’t really have a clear conclusion – they just reflect my feeling that there’s more complexity to issues of regime change than the triumphalist tone the coverage of the Arab spring has taken on. I want to see a profound change in the level of political accountability in sub-Saharan Africa as well; too many Governments are getting away with substandard performance, be they democratic or not. Risings, rebellion and demonstration play a role in achieving this, but the local realities of political leadership and fragmentation may determine whether the effect of such dramatic forms of accountability have a positive or negative outcome.

3 thoughts on “When the Levee Breaks

  1. MJ

    May 19, 2011 at 5:33pm

    excellent analysis! political and social change has its own rhythm. some enlightened leaders can have a degree of impact, sometimes quite significant in one or two countries, but overall it will probably take a few decades for sub-Saharan polities to ‘mature’ to a similar level as Western democracies. (not that we’ve exactly got everything right ourselves.) the political maturation, for the most part, will probably go hand in hand with the economic growth. along the way there will be advances and regressions, and probably not very much that outsiders can do about any of it. the broad sweep of history is something of an unstoppable force in itself!

  2. westwood

    May 25, 2011 at 5:54am

    It is hard… we all keep looking to formulas, to other examples. But when it comes to democratization, it seems as though each country must go their own route in their own way on their own time.

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