Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ethnic Polarization Enables Corrupt and Totalitarian Regimes to Thrive in Africa

I have been wondering lately why Africans are stuck with atrocious governments. I am mystified by the level of acceptance and tolerance Africans have for incompetent public servants and despicable public service.

Why isn’t there public outrage and street protests over something as basic as lack of reliable water supply when citizens actually pay a public company to deliver water? Why aren’t African parents outraged by the fact that the public school system is broken and that it fails too many kids? Why for instance does the Kenyan public continue to travel by “Matatus” when this inappropriate mode of transportation kills and maims thousands of people through road accidents every year?

I recall the so-called freedom struggles that led Africa’s liberation from the yoke of colonialism. These struggles were galvanized by a collective aspiration and conviction that colonial rule was a purveyor socio-economic injustice. Africans wanted self-determination. Africans wanted a more equitable society. For instance Africans wanted a greater expansion of economic opportunities through unfettered participation in commerce. African parents were agitating for better education opportunities for their children. Africans wanted access to land and rights to grow cash crops.

The problems Africans face today–lack of political voice and inequitable access to services and opportunities–are fundamentally similar to the grievances that inspired our forbearers to deploy a virulent and bloody liberation struggle. I wonder why there is no popular uprising against the injustice and misrule perpetrated by contemporary African rulers. What is disconcerting about the African governance and socio-economic crises is that a majority of the obnoxious African leaders acquired power through political competition. And they won by impressive majorities. Omar Bashir, Robert Mugabe, Yoweri Museveni, Meles Zenawi are good examples. In 2007 Kenyans, stuck with a choice between two corrupt leaders, were thrown into a vicious ethnic conflagration. And today Kenya has a legally constituted coalition government, presided over by ethnic lords.

My sense is that the mobilization against colonial rule was motivated by racial rather than political grievances. This is has parallels in independent African states. The only notable uprisings in post independence Africa have been motivated by ethnic rather political grievances. I recall the united opposition against Kenya’s president Moi with the advent of multiparty politics in Kenya. There was a determined ethnic coalition against the Moi regime led by the Mr. Matiba, the late Odinga and the so-called young Turks. But Moi was just way smarter. He mastered and skillfully applied the cardinal imperatives of Kenyan politics, self-interest and ethnicity.

Similarly, the people of southern Sudan executed a brutal civil war against the Muslim north for over five decades. Today, the government of Southern Sudan, under the leadership of Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM), is pursuing retrogressive policies and is engaged in blatant corruption but this is yet to incite any mass protests. So was the civil war just about Sharia law and domination by the Muslim north?

The reason Mugabe has stayed at the helm in Zimbabwe is because he projected the “imperialist British” as the archenemy of the Zimbabwean people. Mugabe then polarized the Zimbabwean public, casting the leading opposition parties as pro white imperialism. Thus Mugabe cut himself a blank cheque for misrule and got a majority of his citizens to sign it off.

I am inclined to believe that ethnic polarization and petty self-interests are the greatest obstacles to structured social mobilization for political and economic transformation in Africa. However, African societies can mobilize virulent violence when their collective racial or ethnic interests are threatened.

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