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Inside Africa’s politics of patronage

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How Rwanda is defying the established mechanisms of organizing politics in Africa and why it is succeeding

Last week, we were at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) for a two-day conference on Rwanda. It always amazes me how this small (geographically), poor (economically) and geo-strategically unimportant country attracts attention far out of proportion to its position.

Critics and fans of President Paul Kagame battled each other over his legacy. Both sides agreed that the country has registered rapid state reconfiguration and economic reconstruction. For critics, however, the reasons that have made this possible were incidentally the reasons for their attacks. This article seeks to demonstrate this.


All governments (whether democratic or authoritarian or anywhere in between) need and seek support of various constituencies to consolidate and survive. Force and repression alone cannot sustain a government for long. Support is important for legitimacy and governments legitimise themselves through a variety of ways.

One strategy is ideology; by articulating such ideals as democracy, patriotism, development, poverty eradication, security, equality or human rights, governments can rally their people behind the cause. The other could be cooptation of influential traditional or modern elites through what is popularly known as patronage or “pork” (as Americans call it). Another source of legitimacy is the government’s delivery of public goods and services to ordinary citizens.

Governments don’t always choose “either or” of these strategies. Often they use a combination of all of them. The real question is the degree to which a particular government or ruling coalition – political party, military or revolutionary group etc. relies on any of these options as its “core” strategy.   In most of Sub-Saharan Africa, at the core of the regime consolidation project is patronage.

It involves co-opting influential elites representing powerful constituencies – often ethnic or religious – into the government through appointments to influential positions in the government as ministers or ambassadors. It also involves creating private sector opportunities for government tenders and contracts. These elites then deliver the block (or wholesale) support of their co-ethnics.

In Kenya, for example, President Uhuru Kenyatta (from the nation’s largest tribe, the Kikuyu) allied with William Ruto (from the country’s third largest ethnic group, the Kalenjin) and made him his vice presidential running mate. This created a formidable political force.

His opponent, Raila Odinga (from Kenya’s fourth largest ethnic group, the Luo) allied with Kalonzo Musyoka (from nation’s fifth largest tribe, the Kamba). This ethnic mathematics put the Raila-Musyoka ticket at considerable disadvantage. In the 2013 election, each of these powerful men got over 90 percent of the “ethnic vote.” This, of course, is a general outline. The real story is more nuanced.

Such alliances among these powerful men and women are characterised by a trade in private goods. For instance, the president (or ruling party) will offer a politically influential or financially lucrative ministry to a pillar of pubic opinion from a given ethnic or religious community.

The person so appointed will have access to official salary and allowances and unofficial opportunities to profit through corruption. Indeed, corruption becomes the way the system works, not the way it fails. In exchange, this powerful individual will deliver a significant block vote of his/her co-ethnics for the president and his party.

How does a man like Ruto sustain his pre-eminent position among the Kalenjin? He must be able to leverage his position to also provide private goods; jobs and lucrative government tenders and contracts to other members of his community.

This way he cultivates a large clientele of influential supporters. Meanwhile, each of these persons appointed also uses their influence to secure jobs and contracts for the political operators in their community. It cascades downwards in a reciprocal arrangement, eroding the principle of merit from the center to the lowest unit of local government.

Although the system may be technically dysfunctional (it creates distributional inefficiencies because of the personalised way it addresses problems), it is politically profitable. In the context of agrarian values (I wrote about this last week), it helps build and lubricate a network of political support.

At the lowest level, peasants seeking assistance to treat a sick relative or to educate a child will receive help from such rich patrons. Contrary to what many elites in Africa believe, a genuinely democratic system would tend to reinforce rather than erode these informal practices.

If the president can win a big share of the block vote of that community by merely coopting a few of its influential members into his cabinet, that is a much more cost-efficient strategy than delivering public goods and services to ordinary citizens.

It costs more money, intellectual exertion, time and discipline to deliver public goods and services. Thus democratic politics (multi party competition as currently organised, like the one party state or military junta before it) tends to reinforce the informalisation of power.

However, post genocide Rwanda has defied this logic. The RPF-led government seeks legitimacy largely through performance, not the distribution of favours among influential ethnic and religious elites. This is not to say that the Kagame and the RPF are immune to the politics of patronage.

Rather it is to say that patronage, although it exits, plays a very small part in the government’s strategy of legitimisation. The fount and matrix of the system is public sector performance through the delivery of public goods and services to ordinary citizens using impersonal institutions. The strategy is to win support of every individual citizen through public service delivery i.e. by retail.

This is especially intriguing because Rwanda has a large rural population and a very low level of per capita income, both of which would predict elite patronage as the fulcrum of politics. Indeed RPF initially tried this system in the mid to late 1990s and failed.

This set the country on a trajectory of entirely new politics that has set it apart from the rest of Africa. This factor, in the eyes of some, tends to reinforce the view that Kagame runs an authoritarian state, a criticism that is partly true. However, the “authoritarian” aspects of the government are necessary to liberate the state from capture by a few elites so that it can serve ordinary people.

When RPF captured power in Rwanda in 1994, it sought, like most governments in Africa, to rely on the cooptation of influential ethnic elites from the Hutu community for its legitimacy. In pursuit of this, it appointed a Hutu president, a Hutu prime minister, a Hutu minister of this and that. This way, the RPF sought to rely on these Hutu politicians to win over Hutu masses.

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