Why we should be more understanding of African political leaders

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Political Capital
Nic Cheeseman
By Nic Cheeseman

Every month 'Political Capital' tracks which leaders' political stock is rising, who is on the slide, and what this means for democracy and development. Focusing on the trends behind the headlines, Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) highlights the political power plays and events that will shape the future of Africa. He is Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham and Author of 'How to Rig an Election'. Founder of www.democracyinafrica.org. Co-producer of Resistance Bureau.

Posted on Thursday, 21 October 2021 14:05, updated on Thursday, 19 January 2023 14:10

West African leaders meet to decide on Guinea after the coup in Accra
Members of the Ecowas Commission pose for a group photograph before the opening session of the West African leaders' extraordinary summit in Accra, Ghana, September 16, 2021. REUTERS/Kweku Obeng

The release of the Pandora Papers on 3 October embarrassed high profile figures around the world, exposing the offshore accounts of 35 world leaders. According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, it was their most expansive exposé of the secret financial arrangements of the rich and famous to date.

Among the many stories to emerge from the leak were reports that the family of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta have links to 13 offshore companies, including investments in stocks and bonds with one company worth $30m. The vast sums of money involved naturally encouraged a focus on how the political elite manipulate their positions for personal gain. Both the media and many members of the public rushed to condemn a political class that was, it was suggested, self-serving and morally moribund.

Days before the Pandora Papers broke, a very different story hit the headlines in Malawi. On 30 September, Clement Chiwaya, the respected former Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, killed himself inside the parliament building. In one of the saddest and most shocking stories I have covered, it appears that he deliberately entered the building with a gun in order to shoot himself in front of the clerk of parliament.

I will not speculate at length about what happened out of respect for Chiwaya’s family, but as the details filtered out it seems that one of the issues that drove his actions was financial concerns. In particular, Chiwaya felt he was being made to beg for things – most notably an official vehicle that he had been provided with – that were rightfully his. In stark contrast to the Kenyattas, this was a politician for whom power had brought neither wealth nor comfort.

As regular readers will know, I was planning to use this column for “part two” of a discussion of whether there is such a thing as a good coup. But learning of Chiwaya suicide while working with Members of Parliament in Lilongwe and reading the coverage of the Pandora Papers, I realised that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on that topic until I had written about the wealth and poverty of political leaders in Africa.

It wasn’t just the striking contrast between the two stories that captured my attention, but the way in which they reveal two equally important aspects of political life. We must recognise that politics drives poverty as well as wealth if we want to fully understand why political competition may exacerbate clientelism and corruption in countries like Kenya and Malawi.

Five types of politician

One problem with some of the lazier coverage of the Pandora Papers was that it implied all politicians are the same. This is of course not true. The numerous politicians I have met over the last fifteen years can be broken down into roughly five categories, and even this is a gross oversimplification.

Older hopefuls have usually held power at one point in their lives but lost it, and are constantly searching for a way back.

At the top are the “monarchs” whose families have been at the heart of power for decades and own a dizzying array of companies, vehicles and properties. Like the Kenyattas, this relatively small group used their privileged access to the state to amass wealth, but are now so rich they could survive without it.

Next come the Big (Wo)Men who have established themselves as ethnic or regional leaders and been able to translate this into a long career as MPs and ministers. This group – think of someone like Kalonzo Musyoka in Kenya – are often millionaires but they rarely boast the kind of business empire or offshore holdings of political royalty.

After them come career politicians, who have proved to be extremely successful at getting returned to office as MPs or governors, but never quite made it to the ministerial level. This group are extremely wealthy, earning a good salary while collecting the regular “sitting allowances” that some international donors and NGOs offer to attend their meetings – but still complain that politics is an expensive game.

In the next category are what I think of as the “yo yos” – the politicians who always stand in elections but tend to win one and lose the next. These figures live a more modest life and are perennially on the lookout for funds. They tend to be reluctant to go to expensive restaurants unless they know someone else is paying, and regularly tell you that retaining office is as much a financial as a political imperative.

Finally, there are the “hopefuls”, those leaders who don’t have power but have not given up on securing it. Older hopefuls have usually held power at one point in their lives but lost it, and are constantly searching for a way back. Younger leaders seeking to make their way up the ladder are usually full of ambition and grand dreams but strapped for cash unless they have great personal wealth.

This political hierarchy is important, because the lower down the food chain you go, the greater pressure the cost of politics puts on leaders – and the greater potential for personal ruin.

The cost of politics

Running for election is an expensive business, and political parties offer minimal help. Especially for “yo yos” and “hopefuls”, these costs are extremely hard to bear.

I have lost count of the number of unsuccessful politicians whose ambitions brought them close to bankruptcy. Legislators also regularly complain that even though they are very well paid, their salaries do not come close to covering the costs of campaigning.

This may sound like a self-serving narrative designed to deflect criticism from a privileged elite, but the numbers bear it out. Recent research by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy has revealed that just making through the party primary can cost up to $245,000 for MPs in Kenya.

In hotly contested seats, winning the general election means spending the same again. The price of victory is much lower in Malawi, but winning candidates still spend around $36,700 – 140% of an MPs annual salary.

The need to self-finance election campaigns forces candidates to search for diverse sources of finance. I have talked to candidates who sold the land they were hoping to retire on in order to run.

Similarly, Sam Wilkins finds that in Uganda candidates from “across the spectrum” are only able to stand after “saving for years, mortgaging properties, and taking on enormous personal debt.”

One consequence of this process is that many MPs enter the National Assembly heavily indebted to banks and business backers, or having borrowed money from monarchs and Big Men. This has major implications for national politics.

Those in debt to businessmen and bankers need to make money fast to repay their loans, which encourages MPs to use their positions to create successful businesses or engage in corruption. Those in debt to senior politicians may not need to pay the money back – but their political backers expect a high degree of loyalty. In turn, this undermines the ability of new legislators to challenge existing practices of graft and clientelism, perpetuating the system. The situation facing those who lose is very different.

Unable to pay back loans and debts can weigh heavily on a person, especially for those unwilling to engage in corrupt activities. So while citizens are right to denounce super-wealthy leaders who hide their money abroad, we should also remember those like Clement Chiwaya for whom politics brought a very different bounty. After all, one reason so many leaders obsess about accumulating wealth is the high cost of elections and their fear that one day political failure might lead to poverty.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options
Also in this in Depth:

The rise of Africa’s new ‘old men’

When Presidents Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan were brought down within a few years of each other, Africa appeared to be getting rid of the old men that had dominated the political scene for decades.

The remarkable power of African elections

Africa will see seven major elections over the next six months, from Guinea on Sunday through to Uganda in February next year. Almost none will result in victories for the opposition.

How Western companies undermine African democracy

As the recent election campaign in Tanzania reached a climax, opposition supporters began to notice something strange.

Africa: ‘Repression & resistance are two key trends heading into 2021’

The last twelve months have been as intense and breathless as any I can remember, both in Africa and around the world.

Africa’s growing criminalization of the opposition

As I sat down to write this month’s column opposition leader Bobi Wine was casting his ballot in the Ugandan presidential election.

The great Magufuli mystery: What a missing president tells us about politics in Tanzania

It seems almost impossible in this age of social media and ubiquitous camera phones, but no one seems to know where – or how – Tanzanian President John Magufuli is.

Politics of death: The way we mourn leaders reveals what unites and divides us

Two countries have been mourning the deaths of very different leaders recently.

Can the courts protect democracy in Africa?

Judges have hit the headlines this month for upholding the rule of law in the most difficult circumstances. Against a backdrop of growing concern about democratic backsliding during the coronavirus pandemic, the willingness of the judiciary to protect the constitution in the face of intense political pressure is a source of hope and inspiration.

Smaller African states do not necessarily make better democracies

After publishing 'Democracy in Africa' back in 2015, I spent the next few years answering all kinds of questions about the prospects for democratic consolidation on the continent.

We cannot defeat racism without decolonisation

It has been a depressing month to be English. The defeat to Italy in the final of the UEFA European Championship was the latest in a string of famous losses.

Lessons from Africa: Is there such a thing as a ‘good coup’?

Is there such a thing as a good coup?

Zambia: Why five is the magic number when it comes to opposition election victories

The victory of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema in the Zambian presidential election was as dramatic as it was comprehensive.

Chad, Guinea, Mali, Sudan… Can a coup be a springboard for democracy?

The recent spate of coups in Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan has sparked a flurry of media attention and concern.

Africa in 2021: The end of democracy?

The headlines suggest it has been a worrying year for politics in sub-Saharan Africa. But from #EndSARS to the election victory of Hakainde Hichilema in Zambia, Africans are pushing more democracy - not less - argues Nic Cheeseman.

What would an authoritarian Africa look like?

Yesterday a journalist asked me whether it was possible for an African leader to be a good democrat and an effective leader at the same time. It wasn’t the first time, and won’t be the last.

Africa in 2022: The danger of hegemonic instability

The end of December is often a time for reflection – in 2021 as much as any year. After reading the sad news of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s passing, a South African friend sent me a letter that looked back on a tumultuous year.

Africa: Why ideas and ideologies matter for politics

Political ideas and ideologies shape how leaders behave and are central to efforts to legitimise the exercise of power. From Donald Trump’s exclusionary nationalism to Vladimir Putin’s warped understanding of Ukrainian history, it is clear that beliefs shape policies and actions, often with dramatic consequences.

How (not) to persuade Africa to support Ukraine and denounce Russia

The reluctance of some African leaders to condemn Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine has been the subject of a large number of column inches over the last month.

Before criticising democracy abroad, Britain should take a look at itself

The UK is quick to offer advice and criticism to African countries struggling with democracy. But a new slew of anti-democratic bills from the 'mother of parliaments' in the UK suggests that critics should search closer to home.

We need journalists now more than ever – so why don’t we do more to protect them?

When it comes to saving democracy and fighting for freedom, no one has a more important role to play than journalists.

Why Africa’s youth is not saving democracy

Year after year, the quality of democracy has deteriorated in African countries. The continent’s 'presidents for life' show no signs of making way for the younger generation. This raises fundamental questions, such as: Why is Africa getting more authoritarian as it is getting younger?

Kenya 2022: Lies, damn lies, and statistics

The outcome of the Kenyan presidential election now lies in the hands of the Supreme Court. William Ruto may be the president elect on the basis that he secured 50.49% in the first round of voting, but his hold on power is tenuous.

The rise of the opposition in Africa: Which governments are likely to fall next?

Governments in Africa are in trouble. Economic decline, more strategic opposition parties and increasingly sophisticated electorates have left ruling parties increasingly susceptible to election defeat.

Losing an election: The five stages of political grief

Losing an election can be traumatic. For candidates who have invested their hopes and dreams in winning office, it can be especially hard to take. Defeat at the ballot box is personally embarrassing, of course. But the sense of loss that some candidates feel is much deeper and more profound than that. It is the feeling that their whole vision of themselves and their future has been cruelly cut short, leaving them bereft and lacking purpose.

The failure of leadership in Britain: an update

The chaotic rollercoaster that is British politics took a new turn recently when it was announced that Conservative MP Matt Hancock will appear on the popular British reality television show 'I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here'.

Political year ahead in Africa: Which governments will lose power in 2023?

The dust is just beginning to settle on President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo’s farcical election victory in Equatorial Guinea. Not satisfied with ruling the country since 1979, he engineered one of the most one-sided elections the world has ever seen. This included giving himself 97% of the vote in the presidential election and preventing the opposition from winning a single legislative seat. Equatorial Guinea is now a one-party state in all, but name.

When Zimbabwe stops pretending to be a democracy

On Saturday 14 January, Harare based lawyer Kudzai Kadzere was beaten by members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), leaving him with a fractured hand that required surgery.