The general belief is that it is almost unheard of for an African politician to resign over principle. “Resigning in disgrace” is likewise out of the question too.
African politicians, so the stereotype goes, will simply not resign, even when their values clash with the character of the government they serve, much less because of a loss of confidence by the public or their peers in their ability or integrity.
If, as the ethicist Patrick Dobel claims, the act of resignation marks the moral boundaries of personal responsibility, then African politicians, if the extensive anecdotal evidence is correct, are quite shameless. And the spectacle of a cabinet resigning en masse as a result of a policy failure, as was recently the case in Finland, would be as rare as the dodo on the continent.
The problem with anecdotal evidence, and frankly most qualitative evidence, is that outliers shake our confidence in their value more than they should.
The apparent challenges posed by outliers notwithstanding, it is actually not all that difficult to track resignations at the very top of public life and compare trends across societies.
Every such resignation is published by the Press, and the reports always make their way to the internet. We can actually make even more headway analytically if we narrow our investigation to resignations in the wake of scandals. Particularly, where the scandal relates to allegations of incompetence, corruption and/or moral wrongdoing.
On this much narrower score, I selected seven of Africa’s large democracies: Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Zambia and Senegal.
The selection was arrived at by adjusting rankings on the EIU’s Democracy Index to reflect cultural, economic and political weight in Africa.
Despite the crudeness, I am satisfied that political practice in these countries reasonably reflects the tenor of democracy on the continent. Authoritarian regimes present unnecessary complexity hence the decision to focus only on major democracies.
Next, I scoured political intelligence portals such as EIU, Africa Confidential, and IHS Country Intelligence Monitor to collate a list of incidents in these countries over the last three years matching a working definition of a “political scandal”. Incidents with such attributes as sustained, adverse, press reporting; intense protests by civil society; and widespread calls for investigations.
Ghana’s ongoing PDS debacle, Nigeria’s Babachir Lawal fiasco, and Kenya’s CMC di Ravenna spectacle are some of the incidents that made the cut.
Using similar sources, I selected comparable incidents in 12 major democratic countries from North America, East Asia, and Europe as controls.
Scandals such as South Korea’s Media Blacklist incident, various expense claims and property speculation fiascos in the United Kingdom, and the FPO contract for cash affair featured on this latter list.
As usually assumed, a few outliers notwithstanding, the African incidents were far more notable for failing to elicit resignations from senior political leaders and public figures.
Popular opinion on the matter seems right after all. The notions called “losing face” in East Asia and “falling from grace” in the Euro-American tradition do not appear to operate with the same degree of force in Africa. What might account for this seeming shamelessness?
It would be rank nonsense to assume that “shamelessness” is somehow culturally ingrained in African public life. Traditional philosophies abound with reasons to suppose otherwise. Among the Asante of Ghana, a popular saying goes, “Better death than shame”.
In fact, Asante Princes who failed to bring honour to the kingdom on the battlefront had the good sense to blow themselves up with gunpowder, and the standard course of action open to a Zulu war chieftain who failed the martial code of honour was exile. Shame, whether as a sociological construct or as a psychological phenomenon, is unlikely to be the issue.
Is it then an issue of a “bifurcated audience” to crudely invoke Peter Ekeh? I am repeating the usual argument of the modern state in Africa being made up of little more than colonial relics, substances and ideas still alien to the majority sentiment in Africa.
A “scandal” carried in the African press would usually be woven from references to arcane matters of “administrative malfeasance” and esoteric yardsticks of incompetence: contracts bungled, procurement rules breached, asset declaration forms mangled, etc.
The bifurcated audience thesis holds that for the average African politician, these matters cannot be properly framed as a “real scandal” in the way that cowardice in war, adultery, neglect of rituals, and several other violations of norm in traditional society easily presented as scandal to the native African social mind.
The small, college educated, audience for whom procurement breaches present a scandal as outrageous today as adultery did in traditional society is not the “real audience” for whom public figures and those in high society are really performing.
Whilst intriguing, the argument doesn’t completely survive scrutiny. It is true that rural voters in Africa tend to be more tolerant of incumbents than urban voters, suggesting perhaps a degree of reticence about the so-called scandals daily agitating the more “westernized” publics of Africa.
The evidence doesn’t show however that African public figures demonstrate a greater willingness to undergo the ritual remorse of resignation over violations of norms more recognizable in traditional society, such as publicized fornication and allegations of plain embezzlement, which is not all that difficult to construe as theft, a sin equally abhorred in traditional society. That christianisation and islamisation of rural Africa have reinforced some of these values is further cause for suspicion of this viewpoint.
Another variation of the “impunity due to audience blindness” argument relates to notions of “merit”.
The broad contours of that position cover several reasons why success in public life has been delinked from merit: monetization of politics, ethnic co-feeling, plain use of violence, and weak civic institutions, particularly the Press.
According to this thesis, people who have risen to the top through a process of selection that emphasizes factors far removed from the quality of one’s character or depth of one’s abilities cannot be expected to be shamed into vacating their unearned privileges if eventually they are found to lack such qualities.
It is a beguiling point, but a simple roll call of senior public figures in Africa would show that many leaders, whether or not they rose to their position on merit, or due to some other filtration process, are among the most qualified in their societies and professions. More to the point, such objectively qualified individuals do not show any greater propensity to resign than their objectively underqualified peers.
I wouldn’t however dismiss the “merit” point completely. Rather, I will modify its content. I argue that rather than the absence of meritocracy accounting for the seeming shamelessness of African public life, what is really at work here is “raw meritocracy”, meritocracy unrestrained by norms. So, in effect, “excessive meritocracy” or, even better, “antinomian meritocracy”.
Certain politically advanced societies – especially those in East Asia, Europe and America – have constructed their “public life elitism” around several pillars of “rites of passage”. Passage to the top requires jumping through a diverse range of grooming hoops and assent to a number of unwritten charters regardless of how actually brilliant, competent, or decent the public figure aspirant might be.
These strict gatekeeping codes impose a set of behavioral norms, one of which is the responsibility to resign in order to uphold the sanctity of the system as a whole.
Failure to resign draws unnecessary attention to these elite structures of privilege and discredits the entire membership. In this regard, resignation is not about individual merit at all but the preservation of group privilege.
Peer pressure to resign on even the mere perception of a violation of the gatekeeping rules, no matter how hypocritical the rules themselves might be, is ruthless and unrelenting.
The lack of institutionalization of elite structures and the poor regulation of entry and egress into elite circles in Africa has, conversely, created a situation where competition is raw and brutal and based on prevailing selection criteria, which of course change constantly with shifting political and economic dynamics.
In these circumstances, success is driven entirely by one’s ability to navigate the here and now with the help of a few allies here and there, nearly all of whom are also in the same precarious boat in the same choppy waters.
Because the peer circle has no timeless collective heritage and group privilege to uphold, one confronts, not a bifurcated audience, but an amorphous mist of media-capital city bubble-outrage with limited capacity to terminate one’s social status.
How can shame work effectively in such circumstances?