The Moral Economy of Elections Podcast #36

Gabrielle Lynch

Nic Cheeseman
Nic Cheeseman and Gabrielle Lynch discuss their book 
The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa. The podcast explores how Africans think about democracy from three country case studies including Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda. Their research for the book was wide and comprehensive including comparative analysis, historical accounts, surveys, and on the ground field research.

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The Moral Economy and Democracy

It’s common for Westerners to lecture Africans about democracy. Most Africans will admit their different political systems have many problems. Money is exchanged for votes, elections are rigged, and sometimes violence even breaks out. But the challenges African countries face in the process of democratization are not absent in the rest of the world.

The 2020 American Presidential Election exposed many problems in the United States. The storming of the American capital proved that even violence is possible in the world’s oldest democracy. My point here is not to disparage American democracy, but to recognize every nation has a lot to learn. 

Nic Cheeseman and Gabrielle Lynch along with Justin Willis offer us an opportunity to consider democracy in an unfamiliar context. Their examination of Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda allow us to identity universal aspirations and ideals citizens hold in very different settings. But it’s not the differences which I believe are important. It’s their similarities. 

Nic Cheeseman and Gabrielle Lynch

Nic, Gabrielle, and Justin are the authors of the book The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa: Democracy, Voting, and Virtue. Nic is the kind of political science rock star who gets quoted in The Economist. He is among the foremost experts on democracy in Africa, a professor of political science and democracy at the University of Birmingham in the UK, and the co-editor of the website Democracy in Africa. Gabrielle Lynch is a professor of comparative politics at the University of Warwick. 

I invited Nic and Gabrielle to discuss their new book, because their research is always informative, not just because it exposes us to another part of the world, but because they are able to draw connections to larger ideas from their experiences. This is a conversation about Africa. This is a conversation about democracy. This is my conversation with Nic Cheeseman and Gabrielle Lynch…


Nick Cheesman and Gabrielle Lynch, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Nic and Gabrielle

Thank you. Pleasure to be here.


So Nick has a way looking at something very specific and drawing very big picture ideas. And I feel like your book, this new book, does that as well. And that’s really where your book starts, with a big picture idea. For example, you write “Elections are… full of claims and demands that are explicitly moral – by which we mean not that they are good in some objective way, but rather that people cast them in terms of what is right, and what should be done.” And you even go on to write even more succinctly, “Electoral politics draws on ideas of virtue.” It comes back to how you title the book, a sense of the moral economy. Please explain what you mean by this concept.


The first thing to say is that we recognize that some people are going to come to a book called ‘The Moral Economy of Elections,’ and say, ‘Hang on a minute. Aren’t elections all about amoral behavior, immoral behavior, election rigging, manipulation. How can you be talking about morality?’ And we’re not saying that well, as you said in the quote, that you very helpfully just used, we’re not saying that elections are good or that people behave well. But what we’re saying is that when people act in elections, they are trying to justify their behavior in moral language. The way which they evaluate it by others is in a moral lens.

And therefore, we need to be able to understand this activity as a kind of attempt to claim a version of virtue or to evaluate people against a version of virtue, even if objectively, you might say that they’re acting amorally or immorally. And that we’ve often ignored the fact that elections are bound up with these kinds of moral claims and evaluations by focusing in a kind of more dry political science sense on who wins and what explains how people vote looking at say ethnicity or evaluations of government performance and so on. And this kind of much more personal evaluative, moral aspect has been lost.  But it’s important to note  we see this as a moral economy of elections, that to some extent, is present, in different kinds and versions, in every election that’s held. 


As Nick was saying, we use the term moral, because of the strong sense based on our observations, that when people talk about how to behave in elections they look to a language of virtue. And we speak about the moral economy of elections, because of this idea that there’s a contestation between different ideas of virtue that are playing out. That it’s not just that it’s not obvious how to behave, but that the same people at the same time can often seek to kind of balance or negotiate between two different registers of virtue, which we found in our country case studies, which we refer to as the civic and patrimonial registers.


I felt like the idea of the moral economy was incredibly important within an African context, because we typically think of it as a patrimonial or a clientelistic form of politics. If you described the moral economy within American elections, I don’t think that it would have had the same impact on the reader because there’s a lot of discussion about ideas and ideologies ,and trying to do what’s right. But within an African context, it brings things to a very universal level that this is true within all elections.

Now, to discuss the patrimonial form. Vote buying is a very common political norm within Africa. Nick has discussed it in a past book How to Rig an Election. But your book has examples where sometimes the most generous candidates don’t win. One example that, you literally could have made up the name, it’s Alan Cash. Why couldn’t he simply buy an election? Can you describe the example and what it says about African democracy that he wasn’t able to simply pay off the voters to win a seat in parliament?


Absolutely, and as you say,  I think the real value of the book is to demonstrate that civic ideas, ideas about virtue that are related to being civic to citizenship, to the idea of having an impartial state have a purpose and are African and are as every bit as African today as patrimonial ideas. And that’s one of the real things we wanted to get across. And you’re completely right. The Alan Cash example brings that out. So we should say , Cash is not his name. That becomes his nickname because of his reputation for handing out money and his relationship to money as a device of building political support. 

And he was already very well known and famous in Ghana. He was the country’s ambassador to the United States. He was a minister for trade industry and private sector development. So he was already a well-known figure, but he’s perhaps in some ways, most notorious for the election campaign to select the new leader of the New Patriotic Party in 2007. That year John Kufuor, many people know him as the president of Ghana, was standing down because of presidential term limits. The ruling party needed to select someone to replace him and Alan Cash decided to run. And his main rival in this election was Nana Akufo-Addo that most people will know is now the current president of Ghana. So, you know already that Alan Cash loses this election during the campaign. 

And I actually did some interviews and field work with NPP leaders during this campaign.It was a really fascinating discussion because a lot of people assumed that Nana Akufo-Addo would win. He was one of those candidates that refused to kiss babies. He refused to do populist campaigning. He was described to me by some of his aides, as you know, a brilliant mind, but not necessarily the world’s most natural or comfortable politician, in terms of actually doing the populist things you might assume would make you win. 

And Cash was handing out vast amounts of money. I mean really significant amounts of money to members of the party in order to try and gain an advantage in this election. And so exactly, as you said very nicely Justin, if you just assume that this is a patrimonial process, vote buying is effective. Populist politics are more effective than technocracy. You would have imagined that Alan Cash would win out. And yet Alan Cash doesn’t win out. Not only does he lose to Nana Akufo-Addo who goes on to be the NPP leader, and later on to win election. Not only does that happen, but he loses subsequent elections as well. And so we start the chapter that looks at vote buying with this to make the point upfront that actually votes aren’t simply bought.

That if you are not seen to have the right kind of character, that if you can’t imbue the money with a kind of moral authority, because of the legitimacy of your other sets of behaviors, that vote buying will actually be seen as illegitimate, and it will not translate into victory. In other words, if you want to use vote buying effectively, it can’t be seen as vote buying at all. It has to be seen as something else. It has to be seen as an ongoing relationship between you and a candidate that is about mutual support, solidarity, perhaps there’s ethnic kinship in there, perhaps there’s defending the community against other forces. But it will be embedded within a longer term relationship, which won’t simply be thought of as vote buying.

And it might be that you’ve received a little bit of money from a candidate for funeral fees, for school fees, for something else. So the little bit of money you might get around the election is not exceptional and simply being given in return for the vote. It’s part of an ongoing sort of support system that’s there. And what we find in that chapter, and I think to me is one of the most interesting things in the book, is that voters really distinguished between these two kind of kinds of candidates that are distributing money. 

The legitimate ones that have sort of paid their dues and earned their legitimacy, for whom that exchange of money can be very productive, and those people who actually, you know, fly by night, they’ve come in. They don’t really work for the constituency. They’ve maybe made the money corruptly for whom actually you can spend a vast amount of money and still not get the votes and the support of the constituents. So the great thing about that chapter, as you say, is we’re able to describe a lot of people who actually spend the most money and don’t win. And that’s really, I think, illustrative of why we need to pay attention to the moral economy of elections, because what these people, what Alan Cash failed to understand, was how the moral economy works.

He failed to translate his vast financial investment into something that has moral authority. And because of that, it didn’t actually mobilize people to vote. And so that’s something we really need to understand when we’re looking at African politics, I think more broadly. That there’s a lot more complex and a lot more interesting, and that the nature of patrimonial politics is a lot more contested and complex than people have often given credit.


In all three of the countries that we did field work it’s quite common for people to differentiate as Nic was saying between different types of generosity which was seen to just simply be an attempt to buy your vote and therefore as illegitimate and that which was seen as evidence of generosity or a real commitment to promote people’s interests to support their livelihoods and so forth. And these are seen in very different ways 

And to come back to the example of the NPP leadership campaign in 2007, if you look at these two candidates, as Nick was saying, Alan Cash had this reputation for handing out cash, but a Akufo-Addo was from a key political family. He’d shown his commitment to the party by supporting Kufuor in the 2007 elections after he’d lost to Kufuor in the 1998 NPP leadership competition. And it seems that for many of the NPP delegates, and this was an election by delegates rather than ordinary voters, Akufo-Addo was seen as both more likely to bring particular benefits to support us in the party, but also help bring national development and stability. And I think people appreciated not just the length of time that he’d been in the party, because Alan Cash was also a founding member of the NPP, but the way in which he had stood in a previous contest of this kind, but then when he’d lost, come back, come in behind the winner and really helped Kufuor to win the 2000 elections. And been a key member of that political campaign to earn his could party credentials if you like.


There was a great example in your book where you reference a study that people are offered money to be able to vote a certain way. And it’s a laboratory study, so it’s not real. And many of the participants would leave the envelope of cash sitting there and make it very explicit.  Some didn’t make a big deal out of it. They just left it there and moved on, but I thought it really brought out the idea that Africans are much more complex in terms of how they think about elections, how they think about politics, and how they inject a sense of morality and virtue into the process. A sense that they need to be able to do what’s right as well. And obviously not every African does that. It’s a diverse continent with lots of different viewpoints, lots of different people. But I thought it was interesting that the sense of patrimonialism is much more complex than we normally take for granted. 


Absolutely. And one of the things the book does is, it tries to really identify the great differences between the three countries we look at. So we look at Uganda, Kenya, and Ghana, and we try and demonstrate those really profound differences between those countries as a result of a number of factors: institutional, historical, demographic changes.

But there is something that we,  identify in common which is that individuals are really thinking hard about, you know, the kind of validity and morality of those decisions. And that actually, people do not want to be thought of or to think of themselves as kind of performing badly. They want to see themselves as acting in the right way. Now that might involve what we might see as a kind of spurious justification. It’s okay for me to rig the election, because I think the other side is already started rigging and therefore it’s moral for me to rig because I’m simply reversing what they’re doing on the other side and the end justifies the means.

But we see it particularly around money and what the study that you referred to. So maybe this is a good moment just to introduce the readers to the vast array of research methods that we perhaps slightly suicidally signed ourselves up for. So we really wanted to get a rounded view of this, and we understood that this was going to be a tough thing to study because one of the things, the book asks is, how does participating in elections change the way that people think about themselves and their relationship to the state and their relationship to the government? You know, we were taking off a little bit in that from Staffan Lindberg’s kind of hypothesis that if you repeatedly hold elections, it trains voters in democratic arts, it boosts and builds democratic norms and values.

And therefore over repeated elections, you get perhaps greater commitment of citizens to democracy, but also a sort of strengthening of the democracy over time. And we really wanted to get in and test that idea. But of course, that’s really difficult because to test that idea, you really need to be able to get inside people’s heads. You need to really understand how they’re thinking about politics and how that’s shaped by their own experiences in elections. And we always knew that was going to be really difficult. 

So we sort of threw every kind of research method we could think of at the wall. We threw oral interviews and histories with hundreds of people across all three countries, comparative analyses with these three countries, but also comparing nine constituencies within nationally representative surveys in all three countries, archival research in all three countries to put this in historical perspective. But we thought it would be really interesting also to play laboratory games and to get people to basically play a game in which they could benefit electorally and financially by paying a bribe and seeing whether or not people in that controlled environment would be willing to pay a bribe. And then the voters who were also playing a part in that game, whether or not they would be willing to reward people.

And we find two really interesting things. One is that actually people who do not pay the bribe, actually get rewarded by the people they’re playing with who actually vote for them more than people who don’t pay the bribe. So actually not paying the bribe turns out to be more electorally successful in this particular context, because the voters see that I want to reward that behavior and therefore give the vote anyway even though this means the voter is going to lose money and knows they will lose money because of the way the game is set up. 

And then as you say, even people who win money through the game, some of those people actually physically left the money on the table that they could have won and taken home to their families. And these were not particularly high income groups that we would generally play in the game. So a really strong statement that I do not want to benefit from bribery. And I think this goes back to what we were saying just a moment ago that when we played the game in this way, precisely because it was artificial.

And because the candidate was not someone who was known to the voter, they were a hypothetical candidate, somebody sitting in another room, because their game was constructed in that way it did not have this deeper set of relations between people that would legitimate the exchange of money and place it in a morally acceptable context. And because it was not in that context, a lot of people responded to it by saying that’s illegitimate. It breaks the formal rules. I know what the rules are. I’m a rule following person. I’m going to reject the bribery. I’m going to reject the money I received through the bribery. 

And so it’s another piece of evidence in a kind of complex jigsaw puzzle that we put together through the book that over the different pages really builds this argument that people have very specific kind of views of when certain forms of behavior are legitimate. And if you don’t legitimate it in that way, your behavior will be seen as being immoral. And it will therefore actually rebound back on you and not be successful. You will actually spend money and lose money, and not win the election as a result.


One other thing worth highlighting was the observation. So the fact that there were three of us and we had three constituencies in each of our three countries meant that = during the course of the campaigns and the election itself and the immediate aftermath we could spread out and one of us could be in each of those three parts of the country, so we could observe political rallies, the voting, counting, tallying, and so forth. Obviously, people don’t always act as they should according to the official rules and regulations. But even when people don’t follow the official rules and regulations, they often justify their behavior according to either the civic and/or patrimonial register. 

So I think sometimes people would assume that any kind of rule-breaking would be justified only by the patrimonial register, but actually you see it justified by both. So one example would be in speaking with some Ugandan lawyers about their voting in previous elections in Uganda. One of the gentlemen explaining how he actually voted multiple times in one of the previous elections. He had gone to the polling station, gone in, voted left, quickly gone and peed on his finger to get the ink off his fingertip. And then with the collusion of the local polling station staff voted another couple of times in the same day. 

And his justification for this was that In his mind, President Musevini was gonna steal the election. He was gonna do this to, not just control power, but to favor his own supporters, to the disadvantage of others. And that actually the country needed a change of leadership and it was a good thing for development, stability, progress for all for there to be a fair election. And if there wasn’t going to be a fair election, then for people to proactively try and get Musevini out and get a change of leadership in place.


So Gabrielle, Africa is a continent of dramatic change. There’s population change. There’s demographic change. There’s economic change. In the three countries you selected, Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda, are three countries that have quite a bit of dynamic change within them. The idea of the moral economy that you bring up, creates a sense of universalism, that this is the way how elections function, not just in Africa, but everywhere, all of the time.  But are some of these features of the moral economy, of the sense of virtue within elections, does this represent a change within Africa? Does this represent a difference within younger Africans versus older Africans? Does it represent a change between more urban Africans versus rural Africans? 


So I think we see these two registers and this kind of competition between these two different registers of virtue playing out over time over different spaces within these three countries and between different types of voters and actors. Those actors whose job it is to ensure the rules are followed tend to more explicitly speak to the civic register. So election officials or voter educators or election observers, while the politicians and voters, they may more commonly speak to the patrimonial register, but you see both of these registers across.

One of the key differences you see is how these registers play out and the relationship between them. So, for example, in somewhere like Ghana, where you have established parties, you have regular transfers of power. People are fairly confident that if their candidate loses in one election, they’ll have a chance of winning in the next.

And it’s relatively easy for a politician to appear as both a good patrimonial leader to their community and as a good civic leader to the electorate more broadly. Whereas, for example, in Kenya, that there’s a much greater tension between being a good patrimonial leader to your community and a good civic leader to the nation, because of the country’s history and a sense of ethnic bias and the history around land and land disputes. Many kind of political stances that might be taken are often seen as being in the interest of some communities, but actively against the interests of others.

So there’s a feeling that if you’re promoting the interest of  one community, then the other communities they need to have reason to fear your leadership and to try and vote against you and ensure that you don’t win. So there’s a much greater sense of competition between different communities that have much greater tension between being both a good civic and patrimonial leader when it comes to non-coethnics in particular, 


I just had a conversation last week with Thomas Caruthers and Andrew Donahue and Kenya came up many times in our conversation as an example of ethnic polarization. And the violence that they’ve had in some past elections. I believe it was 2007, was a very violent election that surprised many within the democracy promotion community. But on the other hand, Ghana has been an example that has been a shining star of African democracy. It’s rated as free, according to Freedom House, one of the very few nations within Africa to have that rating.  It’s done an admirable job of alternating between political parties like you just said. So Nic, what sets Ghana apart from other nations within Africa?


So if we work back from the sort of moral economy of elections, one of the things we argue is that essentially whether or not civic ideas and civic virtues are successful and starts to become more common within the broader political system is partly based on popular experiences of elections and in particular of institutions and whether or not they’re shown to be credible. And in the Ghanaian case they are shown to be credible because we have repeated transfers of power between one party and another that demonstrate that elections can actually lead to change. In the Ugandan case, of course, every Ugandan election, has led to the government staying in power. We’ve never had a transfer of power through the ballot box.

In the Kenyan case, we’ve had one transfer of power in 2002 and that’s it. Whereas in the Ghanaian context, we’ve had numerous. And therefore, we talk about the way in which that experience of living through transfers of power has kind of consistently given a spur, a shot in the arm to civic ideas of virtue and in that kind of debate battleground tension between civic and patrimonial ideas that enables people to invest in believe in civic principles. 

You know, I think many people want to believe in that civic virtue idea, in the idea that the state will deliver for everybody, everybody is a citizen that resources won’t simply be given to one community over others, but it’s very hard to genuinely believe in that and to act consistently with that when every day the way that the government and politics operates suggests that that’s actually false, it’s an illusion. And something else, an ethnic calculus is really motivating things. 

In the Ghanaian case people have had the strongest evidence over time that that civic ideal is realizable and therefore more willing to invest in it. But that then leads to the question, you know, moving back from there. Why is that the case? And in the book we actually trace, and in particular, for example, the development of political parties and two kind of very broad political networks in Ghana that can be traced in a way from the sixties all the way through to the present day and the way in which those political networks structure politics. The way in which the two party system, breeds a kind of degree of discipline. 

The way in which Ghana, a form of politics and political discourse has evolved in which actually most people, sort of look like they vote broadly along ethnic lines. If you look at communities, they tend to vote in the same way, but actually nobody talks about politics in quite that way. It doesn’t have that same ethnic connotation. It is not the first word on everybody’s lips when they’re talking about politics in a bar or a rally. And so there’s kind of a form of politics that’s evolved that structured around these two historic political identities, these two sets of political elite networks which enables tense political competition to take place without focusing so much attention on ethnic identities.

And that if you kind of combine the strength of those political parties and the way in which Ghana, there was evolved a way of sort of practicing politics that doesn’t focus so much on ethnic divisions, and then slightly stronger political institutions early on in the multi-party period. And then the way in which transfers of power have given confidence to both political actors on all sides, that if they lose office, they will be allowed to have a chance to win office again in the future. And therefore they don’t need to grab hold of power and to use force to retain power because it’s better to actually, , you know, lose gracefully and have a chance of winning in the future. All of that combines to explain partly why Ghana has been significantly more successful than our other two cases when it comes to consolidating democracy. 


Just to kind of add onto that, in all three countries, people want their leaders to be both good civic and good patrimonial leaders. That difference comes in when leaders can justify breaking the rules, according to the civic or patrimonial register, based on assumptions or expectations of what others are going to be doing. And if you’re in a system where, such as Ghana, where actually there isn’t a history of others organizing violence, stealing elections, then actually it’s more difficult to justify or wanting to go against the rules. Whereas if you’re in a context where you have experience of other people breaking the rules of a biased state, then it makes much more sense to support those who might break the rules, but are doing so in your view for the right ends.


You wrote a piece, you both wrote a piece along with Justin Willis, who was a coauthor of the book as well. It was called “The Ebbing Power of Incumbency,” literally about the 2016 election in Ghana. Can you explain why that election was so important for democratization or as a symbol of democracy that already existed within Ghana?


Well,  the critical thing about the 2016 election is that of course we have a sitting president who loses. All of Ghana’s transfers of power before 2016 had come when a president had got to the end of their term limits and had to stand down as a result of the legal requirements. And that then creates a window of opportunity for the opposition because the ruling party has to pick a new candidate. And as we actually talked about earlier in the interview, you get battles like the one between Alan Cash and Nana Akufo-Addo. This can cause party splits and create windows of opportunity for the opposition. 

So what was really interesting about 2016 is we had a sitting president and that president lost. And that was quite an important moment in Ghana because it suggested that Ghana wasn’t simply following this kind of pattern where every president gets two terms and then that party loses. But actually there was more, shall we say, immediate accountability. A president who was seen to presided over economic difficulties. And at the same time had been accused of high levels of corruption and therefore the interaction of the corruption accusation and the economic decline, people seeing that decline might have something really to do with the corruption itself, all of that then generating, you know, more willingness of people to support the opposition.

And one of the things that I actually found, you know, cause I was located in Ho, which is an NDC area. So the president at the time, his home area, in terms of his party’s kind of historical vote banks, and it was really interesting for me to watch that in those areas, voters were not swapping from the ruling party to the opposition, but they were simply not going out to vote. They were basically staying home. And one of the narratives that the opposition used in the election was we know that some of you aren’t going to be willing to vote for us. Because  politics is about these rigid teams and you’re going to feel very uncomfortable going into a ballot box and actually ticking our logo. But how about you stay home and you allow change to happen. 

And that was the kind of phrase, ‘Allow change to happen,’ and what that demonstrated was a number of things. I think one, again, going back to this slightly richer understanding of how politics works, you can’t take your ethnic vote for granted or your regional vote for granted or your religious vote for granted. If you take people for granted, and if they feel that you’ve underperformed, they’re not necessarily going to go and vote for your rivals, but they might turn out at lower rates. 

And in close elections, and it’s important to remember that elections in Ghana are pretty much always close, in close elections that means that you’re going to lose significant thousands of votes, and that makes you very vulnerable to defeat by the other side. And so in a way there was a powerful message being sent there by people which is, ‘Do not take us for granted.’ I mean, there was famous signs put up in Ho around that election that read, ‘No lights, no votes.’

Right. You know, a very clear message. If you do not deliver what you promise to us, even though you are our guys, we’re not going to turn out for you at the next election. And I think that’s a point that’s true, more broadly, you know, you may still get the majority of support from a certain ethnic group if you’re seen as being the leader of that community, but turnout may be significantly lower if you’re seem to have performed poorly. And if turn out amongst your group is low, you’re going to really struggle to win the election. And that’s as true in somewhere like Kenya and Nigeria as it is in Ghana. And that leads us back to this point that we need to have a much more sophisticated understanding of how politics is operating. 

That actually, people are using multiple different logics. They are evaluating the performance of leaders at the national level. They’re also evaluating that at the much more constituency sort of personal level and an individual level, and then weighing that up against their ties that they might have as a result of identity and their history with political parties. And they’re coming up with ways of behaving on the basis of that, that aren’t simply predetermined. You can’t simply assume that because your ethnic group is 20% of the population, 20% of the people are going to turn out and vote for you. And I think that again  means that we need to think about elections in a much more perhaps subtle way and complicated way than we have been doing in the past.


So when we think about elected officials, especially within a patrimonial logic,  if you hold office, you’ve got access to resources, you’re able to deliver things for your constituents. In a semi-democratic or semi-authoritarians state like Uganda, or even Kenya, how does an opposition or an independent member of parliament deliver for their constituents?


So I think it’s important to remember that delivering to constituents. Isn’t all about the delivery of direct goods, be they private or public goods. It’s also about standing up for the community, promoting and defending their interests more broadly, and also struggling for national goods, be it development, security, democratization. So often, an opposition candidate, although they may not be able to bring the kind of direct goodies that a government candidate might be able to do, might be able to both show that they are generous with what they have, and therefore, if they got into power would be able to bring more substantial benefits to the community. 

But they can also show that in other ways. As I said, both through protecting and promoting community interests more broadly. This may be, for example, standing up regarding a land dispute, and also developing a reputation for struggling for national goods more broadly be that democratization and so forth. So we see this, you know, somebody like Bobi Wine in recent elections in Uganda. He didn’t have the resources that president Musevini had, but was able to make significant headway because many people believed that here was a candidate who would bring about change, who would promote a more equal society, ensure a greater distribution of resources, and further promote democracy, and equality.


Africa has faced numerous challenges, both in governance and in the process of democratization, but I’ve found Africans are among the most optimistic about democracy. In the entire world. Why do Africans remain so optimistic about democracy despite so many challenges? 


Well, I think that the first thing you probably got to do is get away from the term “Africans” and really break it down, because we do see massive variations. You know, there were some countries where overwhelming numbers of people are very optimistic and some countries where there was a lot more pessimism now. I agree with you in general. I mean, if we look at the Afrobarometer survey data and we look at it over the last 20 years, there’s been quite a lot of positivity, both desire for democracy being quite high and patience for democracy. The Afrobarometer actually used to ask a question about, ‘Has democracy kind of delivered? Do we need to be more patient.’ And patience for democracy was quite high. 

But I think one of the things we have started to see over the last year, 10 years, is a worrying drift. The demand for democracy has gone down a little bit. What’s gone down even more is satisfaction with elections and belief that elections are delivering fair outcomes. In some countries that’s gone down by 10, 15%, in some countries as much as 20%. And I think that is partly driving a growing cynicism about what democracy can deliver. Because effectively elections in some countries have been hollowed out from having genuine meaning. And one of the things that’s a really good question is, is the kind of dynamic moral economy that we identify in these three countries, which have reasonably close elections, even in Kenya, when the ruling party wins, it wins 55% of the vote versus an opposition at 45. It’s not a landslide. 

And Uganda, Mussevini wins by a bit more, but the opposition is still able to win 35, 40% of the vote and significant numbers of seats in parliament. So none of these are kind of closed authoritarians systems where the ruling party simply wins 90% of the vote. And I think one of the things that we obviously aren’t able to answer, because we only look at these three countries, which have these more competitive elections, is how much damage it does to the kind of composition of the moral economy of elections to be in one of those countries where elections are always stage-managed, always won 90% by the government, because going back to what I was saying earlier, in a situation like that, you really have very little reason to believe the civic virtue can ever win out. 

You have very little to reason to believe that the process is ever going to be respected, that the bureaucracy is going to be meritocratic, the electoral commission is going to do its job. And so you don’t really have a lot of incentive to invest in those institutions and to commit yourself to them because of course doing so makes you more vulnerable in multiple ways. And so I think it makes a lot of sense to me that in those countries we see this particularly high level of disappointment and therefore lower levels of support for democracy. And so I think one of the things that we have to be a bit careful of is going from the fact that so many societies in Africa had been so positive about democracy, at least in the way we see it expressed in surveys.

 But we need to be aware that that is changing and that in many of the countries where elections seem to be poor quality that is ebbing away. And if current trends continue for another 10, 15, 20 years, we could be seeing significantly lower figures, much more problematic figures than we’ve seen so far. So I agree with you in general, but I think. disaggregating across countries, looking in particular at the political experience of countries and really sounding a warning bell that if we care about and believe in democracy, the signs in most countries, sadly, aren’t fantastic. 


Just to follow up on Nic’s point, I agree with the disaggregation. But also I think if you think about our three country case studies, Uganda is a place where changes only ever come about through the gun. Never the ballot. So why do people still turn out in such large numbers for elections in Uganda as they did just last month? And I think, this may be because people hope that this time things will be different. But I think it’s more complicated than that. Even though the playing field is clearly uneven, even prior to the polls, turning out to vote, it’s an opportunity for people to show who they support or who they oppose. It’s an opportunity for them to have some voice in the kind of leadership that they want both at the presidential level, but also at other levels. 

We have to remember that these elections usually consist of multiple elections on the same day. So even if the presidential results, you may have good reason to believe might be tampered with, you may have more confidence in the local elections, which may be still very important to you and the people around you.


Well, Nic and Gabrielle, thank you for joining me. Your book is really outstanding. I just really want to emphasize it was a fantastic read. It’s always enlightening to read about democracy and elections within Africa, because it takes me outside of my own comfort zone and makes me think about these concepts in different ways. So thank you so much. 


Always a pleasure to talk to you, Justin, really enjoyed it. Thanks. 


Thank you very much. I really enjoyed it. 

Key Content

Ghana: The Ebbing Power of Incumbency

The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa

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