Sometimes, voting along tribal lines can be the 'smartest' thing for an African voter to do - study says

When an election is like a time travel machine. It can propel the big man's clan a good three years ahead.

ZAMBIA’S new President Edgar Lungu was sworn in Sunday and, not surprisingly, he made sure to denounce what some have called the “African curse” – tribalism.

Lungu, who hails from the minority Nsenga ethnic group, hit out against the threat of tribalism in the country of more than 14 million people.

“Tribalism is a threat to national security and peace. We need to shape the direction of our country, and together we can shape it,” he said to applause.

Of course if Zambians had voted along ethnic lines, Lungu wouldn’t have won, so perhaps he needed to have given them more credit. 

Still, the dominant view of African politics is that most voters ballot strategically to ensure that “their man” has a chance at the top office, so that the benefits of patronage could trickle down to them too. As they say in Kenya – and immortalised by Michela Wrong’s 2009 book – “It’s our turn to eat.”

Voters are often the weakest link in the chain of democracy, as their ignorance and poverty is easily exploited – often through bribery – along ethnic lines to vote for their tribesman, the reasoning goes.

But one study by researchers Raphael Frank and Ilia Rainer, which examined voting patterns in 18 African countries throws this into a tailspin, and pokes holes in the conventional wisdom that ordinary African voters are just poor, helpless creatures tragically selling away their vote for a half-kilo of sugar, and suggests that voting along ethnic lines can sometimes be the “smartest” thing for an African voter to do.

Where tribalism works 

The study examines data on primary education and infant mortality in the 18 countries since the independence decade, using Demographic and Health Surveys, and compares how these indicators shift with the changes in the ethnicity (the word tribalism is both scientifically and politically wrong, so it shall be used sparingly and only to evoke familiarity here - Editor) of the country’s leadership over the past 50 years.

First, they found that ethnic favouritism – the tendency by a leader to favour his own ethnic group (or clan) with jobs, schools, hospitals and other “fruits of development” – is not equally probable in all countries.

Ethnic favouritism is more prevalent in countries with high ethnic diversity, and less prevalent in countries that have one dominant religion.

But importantly, it is particularly prevalent in countries where, in addition to being very diverse and not having a single religion, also have a strong fiscal capacity, such as Kenya, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon and Togo; simply because they collect more revenues, they have more to dish out.

The study looked at the impact of having your “tribesmate” as president on educational and health outcomes.

They found that the respondents whose primary school years fully coincided with the rule of a co-ethnic leader were on average 2.47 percentage points more likely to attend primary school and 2.04 percentage points more likely to complete it than the respondents who grew up under a leader from another ethnic group.

Likewise, the children born when their mother’s co-ethnic leader was in power were 0.53 percentage points less likely to die during their first year of life than the children born when their country’s leader belonged to another ethnic group.

How do we know if 2.47, 2.04 or 0.53 percentage points is a big difference or a small one? The researchers looked at how much a country gained annually in improving enrolments and keeping children from dying.

They found that on average, primary school attendance and completion rose on average by 0.87 and 0.51 percentage points per year respectively, while the average annual reduction in infant mortality amounted to 0.12 percentage points.

In other words, having your co-ethnic as president accelerated the health and education outcomes of their home community by an equivalent of three to four years of the national average.

In some of these countries such as Congo-Brazzaville, Ethiopia, Gabon and Kenya, the effects of ethnic favoritism on education are particularly large, exceeding 10 percentage points for some measures of education.

In other countries, like Benin, Central African Republic, Ghana and Togo, these effects are more moderate but still substantial, ranging from 2 to 8 percentage points.

In Benin, Malawi, Niger and Senegal ethnic favoritism reduced infant mortality by 0.39 to 0.85 percentage points.

The effects of ethnic favouritism were even larger in Burkina Faso, Chad or Uganda, where children born when their co-ethnic leader was in power benefited from a 2 to 4 percentage point reduction in the probability of dying during their first year of life.

You might think that if a president is building schools or improving sanitation among his “home community”, it would take a couple of years for the improvements to show up in the data. (By the way, African governments love to ask for “time” and “patience” for the effects of their good policies to be felt – like Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria, who is campaigning on the promise that if re-elected, he will deal with terrorism, when he already has had four years to do so).

Immediate impact

But remarkably, the benefits of having your co-ethnic in power are not even held back by any time lag – the progress happened almost immediately, they found.

This is because more than anything, African leaders like to appoint their fellow homeboys to government positions, and the new “big men” do the same, hiring their brothers and village-mates all the way down the ladder.

It can reach absurd proportions: You might have a situation where in a particular ministry, for example, everyone from the minister to a cleaner is from the same community.

Civil society and democracy activists hate this kind of thing, as it is a most brazen display of tribalism. But almost immediately, these newly-hired cleaners and messengers have more money, and so are able to send their children to school – perhaps even re-enrol one or two who had dropped out – and their next baby is likely to be born in a hospital and be vaccinated.

It’s an “instant makeover” for the ordinary people who are lucky enough to be co-ethnics with a leader in power.

When the political system is designed to channel benefits to certain people and leave out others – as in much of Africa – an election is not just a civic exercise, it’s a high-stakes venture that is almost like stepping into a time travel machine, as the benefits you get can instantly propel you years ahead of the national average.

It is a controversial and even repulsive thought, but far from being mindless pawns in the power games of politics, in a system like that, a “tribal vote” is the most far-sighted thing one can do. A tribal vote, on rare occasion, is actually a vote on policy in that sense.

But this clear effect of tribalism on social outcomes has been blunted by the Millennium Development Goals, with their emphasis on universal primary education.

And remember, when a new government comes into power, they too will come in with “their people”, so it doesn’t last forever.


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