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African ‘big men’ share the power

by Naomi Buck
May 9 / 16

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Image above: Currency depicting Mobutu Sese Seko, despot of Congo for 32 years

There’s a deeply entrenched caricature of the African dictator: an egomaniacal bully who imposes his ethnic interests on everyone else. The “Big Man” theory of power, long associated with African politics, holds that rulers retain power through the systematic exclusion of ethnic others.

But a group of economists interested in the political constraints of economic development have found that power-sharing in Africa is in fact much more nuanced. Their study of political power arrangements in 15 sub-Saharan countries post independence suggests that leaders in fact go to great lengths to distribute power and patronage across ethnic groups.

According to Francesco Trebbi (University of British Columbia), a fellow in CIFAR’s program in Institutions, Organizations & Growth. the calculation is essential to political survival.

“To succeed as a leader of a failed state, you have to be extremely strategic. The potential for danger and revolt is huge. You use patronage allocation to buy your own survival, and you try to pay just enough, never too much.”

Trebbi, along with CIFAR Senior Fellow Patrick Francois (UBC), and Ilia Rainer (George Mason University), looked at the cabinets of national governments and found that their ethnic composition followed a consistent pattern. Leaders use ministerial appointments to allocate power to the ethnic groups in their countries proportionate to their population share.

Trebbi was surprised by his own findings, expecting African power arrangements to follow a “massively winner takes all” logic. He suspects that the“Big Man” theory has remained dominant in the African context because evidence to the contrary is so hard to come by.

“Believe me: it’s not easy to find out who the Minister of Sport in Nigeria in 1972 was. There is no general repository of such information.” The co-authors had to mine local sources and hire local experts to collect their data in what Trebbi describes as a “very expensive project.”

The study has political implications, not just for Africa but all countries involved in trade, aid and policy there. “Foreign donors have to pay attention to the institutional details,” says Trebbi, pointing out that autocratic elites will always be less interested in distributing resources to needy populations than in bolstering their own power. Aid often serves to consolidate autocratic regimes. The same applies to resource windfalls, and not just in Africa. Trebbi cites Vladimir Putin as a classic example of an autocratic leader who has used a booming resource (oil) to buy off potential enemies and secure his grip on power.

Going forward, Trebbi and his colleagues hope to explore whether similar coalition-building calculations apply to lower levels of government and the military in Africa. Trebbi has not applied this particular research question to other parts of the world, but in studying the ethnic composition of insurgent groups in Afghanistan is finding that, not surprisingly, ethnicity also plays a seminal role there.