Old versus young lions of Africa

Yesterday I wrote about Uganda’s elections. Both pieces I quoted provoked ideas relevant beyond this election, and beyond Uganda.

Across Africa, I think the old lions of politics will die rather than walk or fade away. And many of them have at least a decade or two of vigor left. So I expect the shenanigans of Ugandan and Kenyan and Ivoirian elections to persist for some years. I can’t think of many (any?) places below the Sahara ready for a Tunisian or Egyptian style street revolution.

But behind the scenes there is a very different generation of younger political leaders, men and women in their forties and fifties rather than their sixties and seventies. The generational difference is important, far more so than in the West.

A 70-year old politician in Africa is more likely to have grown up in a small village, in a position of privilege, possibly the son of a prominent local leader. He came of political age at Independence, in a climate much friendlier to autocracy and central planning, and where democracy and capitalism had been thought to fail.

A 40-year old leader was more likely to grow up in a town or city, and while undoubtedly privileged, probably came from a broader and public system of schooling. He or she came of political age at the end of a lost decade of growth, at a peaking of war and political instability, and at the failure of an unfree and statist model of governing.

None of these experiences are necessarily better or worse. Different readers will have different reactions. But the point is that these are very, very different formative experiences. It’s difficult to predict how the African leaders of 2020 will behave.

(To head off the obvious criticism: Yes, the variation across leaders may be more important than the change across generations. Blah blah politics is very complicated blah blah. But life is too short to avoid provocative and interesting generalizations.)

Andrew Mwenda is optimistic, possibly because he sees himself in the Ugandan seat. But I’m optimistic for other reasons as well. There are a lot of crucial elections in the next few months. Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire were just the beginning. We are headed for interesting times. I hope I remain optimistic.

9 thoughts on “Old versus young lions of Africa

  1. I wish I shared your optimism. The reason I don’t is precisely this:

    I can’t think of many (any?) places below the Sahara ready for a Tunisian or Egyptian style street revolution.

    As you wrote elsewhere recently, democracy can’t really be granted; it must be seized. For this reason I find the focus on leaders and leadership mostly unconvincing. If you look at the countries in today’s world that truly seem ripe for democratic progress–Tunisia, Egypt, Iran–the “leaders” of those movements (e.g. Mousavi, Elbaradei) are more like buoys that rise on the populist wave than actual wavemakers. Frankly (frustratingly, disappointingly), I can’t think of a single country in sub-Saharan Africa where a critical mass of the population is willing to take to the streets to demand a legitimate voice in their government.

    I think this “young lions” fallacy is one to which foreigners writing about Africa too easily fall prey. These are the guys who we’ve worked with. We’ve eaten dinner at their houses and played with their children! They’re so smart and impressive and convincing when they talk about how they see their country and their commitment to progress and democracy. These guys are nothing like the Mobutus and the Bandas and the Kenyattas of years past.

    If you go back to the Western literature on Africa from, say, the mid-1980s I’d be surprised if you didn’t find North American and European scholars basically falling over each other to argue that This New Generation of Africa Leaders (Mugabe, Museveni, Biya, et al.), in contrast to the independence-era kleptocrats, were poised to usher in a new era of democracy and prosperity. Sadly, if the population isn’t prepared to assert their right to a government that represents their views and ideas, venality always seems to win out.

  2. I read this in the East African today…

    By December 2010, the midway point of the Ugandan financial year, Ush6.4 trillion ($2.75 billion) had been appropriated of the Ush7.3 trillion ($3.14 billion) 2010/11 national budget.
    “The money has gone into the campaigns and not productive sectors. If it were for capital development, it would be known. It is being consumed and to recoup it will take us about three years. This means the cost of living is going to go up while the standard of living will go down,” said Nandala Mafabi, chairman of parliament’s Public Account Committee.

    Frightening stuff. But no doubt with the spoils from oil as the prize, it’s a rational bet from Museveni and his cronies that over the next five years there’s going to become a whole lot more rich pickings to be had.

  3. I beg to differ. Spatial distribution based on ethnicity (and at times economic interests) and malapportionment against urban centres (to be fair most of the Continent is rural, but cities are still woefully under-represented in parliaments), mixed with the toxicity of ethnic politics will continue to perpetuate rural, ethnic-based tyranny in most of Africa. The fact that University of Nairobi student council elections invariably go tribal says it all.

  4. ‘Life is too short to avoid provocative and interesting generalizations’…great comment and I do agree! Here in Kinshasa where I’m working on a Rule of Law project with USAID many of my Congolese colleagues have taken to grand sweeping comments about change following the inspirational and riveting spate of events taking place in North Africa. That they are dreaming and hopeful and inspired is cool. Africa is definitely watching!

  5. A great book on some of the old lions and elephants, korouma’s when the wild beasts come to vote. Have a read, for anyone that lived in an African country with a long serving dictator, this will be a good read.

  6. One of the main issues in Africa is the choice for presidential systems instead of parliamentary systems. Presidential systems look always for the next big leader, the Saviour, instead of focusing on improving institutions and outcomes. They aim for strong government instead of accountability, populism instead of policy, and win-lose instead of collaboration.

    So while the press is moving from charismatic leader to movie star, under the radar, a new consensus is built by the next generation with a more global view. Through international contacts the judiciary becomes used to the global standard for human rights. The military becomes a guardian of the constitution instead of an usurper, as for them too, the reference is more and more the world instead of the village.

    When a new leader arises, he will only confirm what lives already under the surface.

    Beat this for optimism. I was just reading the chapter on corruption in “the logic of life” by Tim Harford.

  7. If you want to get a peek into the hopes and demands of the youth you should check out Andrew’s series of interviews in central and western Uganda, which we are posting on the Independent website. For example, he interviews youth in the new Sheema district here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTK8mSNC3MM&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL
    Many of these youth have never known life under another president, and many of them are ready for a change, any change. They will likely be a majority of the adult population (over 18) by the next 2016 — this is the last election Museveni can win by recalling the bad old days.

  8. Sam Gardner,
    Thanks for that. Except its Arap Moi, and he was the son of a very poor family, much like all of Kenya’s older politicians. There really isn’t any difference here between the two age-sets, absolutely nothing between them.

    Presidential systems are the pits, and its odd that Kenya decided to go with one, one even less responsible to the people and to the popular will between elections than under the old constitution. The absence of proportional representation systems and the popular rejection of coalition governments, even in situations like Kenya’s or the Ivory Coast where you have thin margins at elections will continue to blight the continent’s experience of democracy.