Patronage: a glue that knits African politics together
by Vincent Obiro Orute
It is now widely acknowledged that waiting for the government to do everything for you is an epic waste of time and resources. And if you are a rural African waiting for services to reach you, you may well be required to wait till the cows come home. Governments in Africa, you see, have many more pressing things to do or preoccupy themselves with, political mano
euvres, large scale workshops to woe private investors to come and invest in their countries, racing around in gleaming convoys, and of late cat and mouse games with donors.
But the question most people ask is : If successive African governments have outdone each other in sheer uselessness, and waiting for change is a foolís pastime, then what, really, can anyone do to improve things?.
The tendency of most African people especially leaders is to wrap themselves up in a cocoon and focus on improving just their own lives and those of their families. That has become the new African way: me and mine, to hell with everyone else. Without sensible governments in place, selfishness is the only winning strategy in Africa.
If our leaders canít worry about communities, about poor people, about social capital, then why should we? And even if we chose to worry, what can a poor African living on less than a dollar a day do in any case?
Lessons to be learnt from Africaís political scene:
A lesson to be learnt from Africaís political scene or arena is that it will take decades before we Africans abandon politics of patronage.
But how does patronage politics work? In Africa, when we elect our leaders, it is as if we enter into unwritten contracts with them and commit them to reward political loyalty with appointment to big jobs in the civil service and Parastatals.
We expect our leaders to build our schools, and dole out privileges to the electoral areas that supported them. When our leaders visit these areas, it is the turn of the political elite of that area to demand their share of public appointments. And in the mind set of our contemporary ordinary citizen, the big man has solutions to every single problem he or she has on earth.
The more electoral areas the big man visits, the longer will the lists of demands for patronage resources be.
If you look at it closely, these visits have now been turned by ordinary poor citizens into forums for demanding public appointments and other favours from leaders.
In Africa, leaders seek political power, not to implement programmes, but to be in a position where they can hand out benefits such as jobs and other favours to their political allies.
If you look at political parties in Africa, they are not political parties in the sense of entities which bring people together to pursue specific policies and programmes. They are instead, mere patronage structures created by the political elite of the day for the purpose of capturing scarce resources on behalf of members of their ethnic groups and their political allies.
The problem with patronage politics is that it inevitably breeds corruption. You end up putting or exerting too much pressure on your leaders to deliver the goods without worrying about where the money is going to come from.
And, when our leaders are arrested and charged in court for corruption, we rally behind them and claim that they are victims of witch-hunt and political persecution.
The politics of patronage play to the advantage of the big man and his cronies very well. Once he is elected, he can weaken his opponents politically by making sure that their tribesmen and people from their regions are discriminated against in appointments to public positions.
The big man and his cronies can play the politics of "divide and rule" by doling out resources to the areas which support them and starving the areas which oppose them.
In Africa, attention has now shifted from "who" the leader is to what he "does". This is what has bred an attitude that is so entrenched in the mind-sets of this continentís leaders and equates politics with the doling out of scarce resources and other favours.
Patronage politics is why the political playing ground is always so tilted in favour of the incumbents in this continent. It is why political competition is so poor. Which brings me to the politics of patronage. In my view, politics is a mere illusion, a circus sideshow that keeps us distracted.
I say so because patronage is a glue that keeps African politics together. If you disrupt or distort the system, the political consequences will be grave. We have to learn to see through the illusion, and concentrate on what matters; selfless and immediate action: Why are we here? To do something. Find out what it is, and do it instead of waiting for the government to do everything for you. Because when you do this, you might wait till the cows come home. The world is changed not by the booming waves of history, but by the little ripples happening in unseen tidal pools. Start a little ripple yourself today, instead of waiting for the government to do everything for you.
Vincent Obiro Orute is a seasoned banker and micro finance expert