How to be dictator for life in Africa

Former President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe

For a long time, I was of the view that one of the many reasons Africa is the poorest continent in the world (at least in material possessions) is because it is good politics for its rulers.

It seemed like poor people were easier to control because they lacked the resources to expand their horizons. They couldn’t afford to buy things like a radio, a newspaper, or travel and “see things for themselves”, as good Africans say.

Male power (aka patriarchy) always understood this, hence it came with the notion that “a woman’s place in the kitchen”. Many think the idea was that women should only cook, mop, and have babies. No, they feared if women left the kitchen, they would expand their knowledge, and challenge their world order. And, indeed, when women could go to school, work outside the home, and travel, it was the beginning of the end for male power. It is why, to this day, in parts of Africa tradition still forbids women from riding bicycles. In history, the humble bicycle has been subversive. When a woman in a traditional household can ride to the next ridge on her own and sees a whole new world out there, the power of the ka-fellow at home begins to be threatened.

So it is with poverty. In addition, poverty keeps the cost of politics down. People who have nothing will be happy to get an Tsh500 bribe from a politician for their vote. The working-class voter with his small house, might not take Tsh10,000. You have to fork out at least Tsh100,000.

The flipside of this “poor people are easier to control” notion, is that the better off and more educated ones are harder to crack.

In recent years, as competitive politics and contested elections spread across most of Africa, there were many moments when I wasn’t sure that my line was valid.

Everyone probably has a story of a bloke or woman with a PhD “behaving worse than an uneducated villager”, to use another popular African expression.

Now, those researchers who will not leave us live peacefully in our settled world views, are suggesting that not only is my view not valid, but it could be downright wrong – or at best simplistic.

The Economist just published a story examining a recent study by researchers at Indiana University and Susquehanna University, in the USA, that found that in sub-Saharan Africa increased access resulted in mostly less political engagement.

Thus, The Economist reports, although South Africa is one of the most electrified countries in the region (85 per cent of the population is connected to the grid) people there tend to be less politically active. They protest less or are less likely to contact their local representative—than their poorer regional neighbours.

But there is always a problem in these scenarios, as we all know. Did access to electricity cause the fall in political activity, or was it merely correlation?

To get answers, they went to Ghana. The research results suggested that electricity access did cause a dip in political engagement. “Once they got access to electricity, Ghanaians were more likely to stay at home—watching television, for example—instead of socialising with neighbours, where they might pick up news of problems in the community. And of course, with electricity, they may have felt more satisfied in their home lives and therefore less inclined towards activism”, the paper said.

It gets better. Ghanaians who have money and can set up their electricity without government help (the solar panel on the roof), paid for their street lights or purchased a private generator, didn’t think an elected official was willing or able to meet their needs so they didn’t bother with politics.

They note that; “The only exception to the trend, in Ghana and elsewhere in the region, was for people who were already involved in civil society, such as women’s organisations. For them, living in an electrified neighbourhood was associated with increased political activity.”

In the detailed study itself, the researchers say these findings were quite contrary to their initial hypothesis. They note that from the Ghana case, “we theorise a causal mechanism that refutes classic understandings of modernisation theory. Rather than modern amenities increasing engagement, electricity access is associated with disengaging from some traditional types of political participation as citizens enjoy the benefits of electricity at home. Some of these benefits, which include cooled air, television, and smartphones, potentially enable new modes of digital participation.”

Indeed, and so you have your keyboard warriors, the social media revolutionaries, and podcast democrats.

We had always known some of this. It’s a common criticism that rich people and the upper-middle class are often pro-status quo because they don’t want to lose their goodies.

Now, it has been demonstrated starkly for our leaders. If they want to control the people, to be president for life without much challenge, they should try the very opposite of what they’ve been doing – make all their citizens reasonably well off, or push policies that make it possible.