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A president’s betrayal and Africa’s sin

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Another look at Africa’s patron-client relations and the peasant moral universe

Sometime in 2003, I visited the late former Zambian president Fredrick Chiluba at his palatial home in Lusaka’s rich suburb of Kablong and we sat down over a meal of rice, chapatti and wild game. He was under attack from his protégé and successor, Levy Mwanawasa on allegations of corruption.

Chiluba felt deeply betrayed when Mwanawasa went to parliament and asked it to lift his immunity as a former president so that he could be criminally prosecuted.


Chiluba told me that in the mid 1990s, Mwanawasa got involved in a nasty car accident. When informed, Chiluba used the prerogatives of his office to send Mwanawasa for first-world medical attention abroad. Mwanawasa’s life was saved. Throughout the conversation, Chiluba kept telling me that Mwanawasa was acting in an “un-African” way.

Although Africa is diverse, many Africans often arbitrarily make such claims of a given practice being either “African” meaning favourable or “un-African” when unfavourable.  I could understand Chiluba’s claim as against Mwanawasa because we have many shared cultural understandings across Africa.

In Chiluba’s case, reciprocating an act of kindness and generosity from a benefactor would be an African act; never mind the money used did not come from Chuluba’s private bank account but from the public treasury of the Zambian state.

Across most of Africa, presidents are always under pressure to act this way. President Yoweri Museveni often helps senior politicians and other friends and their families in such cases of emergency at state expense.

Technically, African leaders can ignore such pressures. But they would incur some political costs because these acts of kindness are politically profitable; they build a large clientele of support. Politicians are power maximizing entrepreneurs. In electoral politics, they need to ingratiate themselves with voters. They behave this way because of the expectations of their constituents.

When Karl Marx described such behavior, he argued that the way people organise themselves to solve their basic economic challenges (how to clothe, house and feed themselves) requires a “superstructure” of non economic activity and thought.

The superstructure cannot be picked randomly, but must reflect the foundation on which it is raised.   For Marx, therefore, no hunting community could evolve or use the legal framework of an industrial society and similarly, no industrial society could use the conception of law and government of a primitive hunting village.   Marx, however, also noted that when economic conditions change so do social institutions through the catalytic function of ideas. Africa is also in this flux.

Although Africa is urbanising rapidly, a significant percentage of its people are poor, with little or no education and still live in rural areas as subsistence farmers (peasants).

Most economies of Africa are predominantly agricultural. There is a very small private sector and an equally small middleclass.  Peasant agriculture depends predominantly on nature and the vagaries of weather have across time and space fostered the evolution of particular social adaptations which James Scott in his classic – The Moral Economy of the Peasant – called “the subsistence ethic.”

Patterns of reciprocity, patron-client ties, work-sharing and extended family systems are social institutions erected to provide insurance against the risk of starvation. These form the moral universe of the peasant.   For example, a hungry or sick peasant goes to a better-off neighbor or relative for assistance and expects his needs to be met.  This can be on the basis of a shared ethnicity, clan, family or a marriage.

There is therefore a tendency among Africans to define relationships inclusively by appealing to connections of cousins that are clearly as distant as the sun is from the moon. Likewise, the better-off neighbor or relative responds positively because that is what is expected of him/her by the value system. To act otherwise is seen as wrong and attracts social sanction in form of negative gossip and a bad reputation.

However, such acts of generosity are investments too; in helping the needy, the rich neighbour cultivates a reputation of being a “good man.” This value system at the level of the village creates a specific form of politics at the national level; politicians who want to cultivate a following must build a reputation of generosity. They may do so using private resources (which is expensive). But they often do so using public money (which is corruption).

As a child growing up in rural Africa, I could see the social and political significance of these personal acts of generosity. My dad had retired from the civil service to his dairy farm and was seen as a rich man within the meaning of the village economy.

He always provided assistance to our less privileged neighbours every time they were in difficulty – free milk, medicines, school fees, food etc. His not-so-well-off relatives flocked to him as well. In our homestead, we grew up with cousins and all sorts of distant relatives whose fees or medical bills my parents paid.

I am not condemning these social arrangements. As an African, I know that they provide an important safety net to the needy; for it is through the help of relatives, well off neighbors, family friends and political patrons that many Africans have been able to secure an education, medical attention for their loved ones or find a job.

This became even more critical in the 1970s, 80s and 90s when the public sector in most of Africa retreated from its ambitious post independence posture under the weight of mismanagement and corruption.

Not to help friends or relatives in difficulty is actually seen as immoral. Indeed, these practices are not problematic when personal favors are given at private expense. I am concerned that when employed by those in public office, the practices create incentives for corruption and institutional dysfunction.

Indeed, as the examples of Chiluba and my dad above show these practices cascade from the top downwards in a reciprocal arrangement. Mwanawasa breached them because there was such great hostility towards Chiluba in parliament that the only way he could stabilise his own position was to attack the man who saved his life and helped make him president.

I know some of my dad’s contemporaries who did not invest in this “reputational capital.” I also witnessed its costs. One of them enjoyed a bad reputation among villagers and could never win a parliamentary election despite repeated attempts.

The other, villagers placed salted plastic bags in his farm, which killed his cattle. When he died, they refused to dig the grave and the family had to rely on hired hands. In our culture, it is ignominious to hire “mercenaries” to dig your grave. Such lessons are never lost to those who seek political office.

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