Available now: USAvailable now: UK

Democracy and Extremism  

An age-old question in political theory is how democracies, particularly democracies trying to be inclusive to use the terminology of Why Nations Fail, should deal with extremist groups.

If inclusiveness is about preventing the monopolization of political power in the hands of any segment of society or the sidelining of different opinions by the dominant ideology, perhaps giving some public space even to unsavory views and characters can be justified.

One can also argue that not providing such public space is likely to lead to a spiral towards greater extremism, and violence, among the supporters of such groups.

Take the Greek far right party, the Golden Dawn. Is the recent clampdown, triggered by the murder of the rapper and activist, Pavlos Fyssas, the right way to deal with it, or will it push some of its supporters to further extremism, for example as suggested by The New York Times?

There seems to be a lot of evidence that the Golden Dawn is not only a neo-Nazi party, as hinted by their swastika-like symbol, but it has also been involved in pervasive violence against immigrants and opponents, all sorts of crimes and racketeering.

But beyond this specific case of the Golden Dawn, for which sympathy would be hard to muster, there are two general reasons why democracies may need to take a hard line against extremist groups, even those organized as political parties.

First, these groups are often constituted around the intimidation of, and even violence against, marginalized groups, such as immigrants, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, and sometimes civil society activists. Their unrestrained mobilization thus threaten to further reduce the political power and the voice of those who have already been sidelined by existing institutions and norms in society.

Second, their activities are often supported by elements within the security forces and even established political parties. It has now been documented that many in the police force and the military have tolerated, or even been complicit in, Golden Dawn’s violence against immigrants or perhaps also their more radical agenda, and several high-ranking police and military officials have now been removed from their posts because of their links to this organization.

In fact, the German experience with the rise of the Nazi party provides the starkest warning on how extremist parties receiving implicit support from a large part of the political and bureaucratic establishment can rapidly gain strength and even rise to a situation of national power. Richard Evans’s magisterial The Coming of the Third Reich links the ascent of the Nazis to the sympathies that many in the German establishment had to their cause and their animosity both against the Weimar democracy and the minorities.

Though the rise of a fringe extremist party to power appears — and of course is — far-fetched, it is not far-fetched to imagine that their intimidation could have a major effect on national politics and also start shaping the policy agendas of mainstream parties, particularly when there are many elements within the establishment sympathizing with their cause.

Lawful activism against these extremist groups from parts of the judiciary and the establishment opposed to such extremism may then be an important tool for democracy to defend itself and those that are already marginalized and mistreated by existing institutions.


Indirect Rule and Weak States  

In our post last week, we discussed how the unrestrained power of chiefs is keeping rural Sierra Leone poor. That’s not the only economic institution stocking the cards against development in Sierra Leone, however.

Sierra Leone’s state, like that of many other nations in sub-Saharan Africa, is pathologically weak, unable to provide the most basic public goods or even keep a minimum of law and order. What explains this weakness of the state or the extreme lack of state capacity?

There has been no shortage of explanations. Jeffrey Herbst in his important book States and Power in Africa suggested that the African state is weak because African polities did not engage in the type of strong inter-state warfare and competition that European nations underwent, and linked this to the low population density in Africa, resulting from its geography and ecology, making the competition for land less severe. Alternatively, one could extend the arguments of Paul Lovejoy in Transformations in Slavery: History of Slavery in Africa or Nathan Nunn’s work to relate the lack of development of state capacity in Africa to domestic or trans-Atlantic slavery.

Frederick Cooper’s thesis probably has even greater validity. In Africa since 1940: The Past of the Present, he argued that colonial states developed as “gate-keeper states” which sat on the coast and were only interested in ruling and extracting natural resources, not building the institutions required to develop the colony. Such states persisted after independence when they were taken over by Africans, and naturally led to states with little capacity to rule over to the territory they control.

Perhaps the most intriguing perspective is that of Mahmood Mamdani in Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Mamdani suggests that African post-independence institutions have been shaped by colonial indirect rule, which delegate chiefs to run the daily lives of colonial subjects on behalf of colonial authorities. Crucially, indirect rule made chiefs mainly accountable to the colonial authorities and even more unaccountable to their people than they were before. This made them even more despotic and less subject to checks by and communication with the society over which they ruled. This unaccountable, despotic behavior persisted after independence and became the basis of African states. Extending this argument one could link the inability of the states to build capacity to provide public goods or enforce laws to their lack of legitimacy and accountability, and their focus on despotically look after the interests of the elites controlling the state.

In a short paper we have written with Isaías Chaves and Philip Osafo-Kwaako for an edited NBER volume, we argue that the legacy of indirect rule in sub-Saharan Africa is more complex.

Mamdani’s perspective has a lot of validity for Sierra Leone. Indirect rule persisted in Sierra Leone because the post-colonial state was largely created and then subsequently controlled by the traditional elites who were empowered by, and then did the daily running of, the indirect rule system. These traditional elites, for example, formed the first political party and dominated late colonial and post-colonial politics in the country. This enabled the institutions of indirect rule, under the control of traditional elites, to re-create themselves after independence and the traditional elites to capture the central state.

But the resulting state was weak and ineffective for several reasons. To start with, because indirect rule by traditional elites provided little accountability for rulers, those in control of the central state were simply encouraged to extract rents from natural resources and agriculture and to chronically under-provide public goods. In addition, as we saw in our last post on Sierra Leone, the local state was based on lineages and local ruling families, and this made the central state also patrimonial and thus in consequence, weak. It also made power rest at the local level, making it more difficult for a national identity and powerful central state to emerge. Finally, the indirect rule system, which delegated all power to ruling families and elders, also made it difficult for the central state to establish a monopoly of violence because it had created an underclass of “lumpen youths” alienated from the society and ready to engage in violence on behalf of state or non-state actors, and traditional elites were very willing to use this type of violence for their benefit.

But this path is very different from the one we observe another colonies that were also ruled indirectly, most notably Ghana and Uganda. What differentiates these from Sierra Leone is the presence within their borders of a dominant, powerful and to some degree politically centralized pre-colonial state — the Asante in Ghana and Buganda in Uganda. These pre-colonial states significantly altered the distribution of power within the system of indirect rule. Whereas in Sierra Leone the British had to create the ruling families and increased the power of paramount chiefs, they were already dealing with powerful kings in the Asante and Buganda, and they happily worked and conspired with them.

After independence the King of Buganda, the Kabaka, became president of the newly-created nation of Uganda. But this power also created a problem for traditional elites. They were neither the instigator nor the main driver of independence movement, and the leaders of the movement, often located in urban areas with roots in professional occupations, did not trust them and feared their powers. In Uganda the first Prime Minister Milton Obote, for example, did not wish to rule via the Buganda chiefs, and when he had the opportunity, he forced the Kabaka into exile and changed the constitution to strip him of his powers.

Perhaps its first paradoxically, this implies that the greater power of traditional elites in Uganda, and also similarly in Ghana, made it more attractive for the post-independence leaders took dismantle the institutions of indirect rule and marginalize traditional elites.

Of course, Ghana and Uganda have had their own political problems. Once indirect rule was dismantled, the military became more powerful and military strongmen, Ignatius Kutu Acheampong in Ghana and Idi Amin in Uganda, were able to overthrow civilian governments and rule despotically and kleptocratically. Nevertheless, the extent of state weakness appeared different than that in Sierra Leone, and the conflicts did not boil into a deadly civil war as they did in Sierra Leone.

Whether this thesis can help explain the differential post-independence political dynamics across Africa nations remains to be investigated. But it does suggest that, though the indirect rule is probably an important reason why the Sierra Leonean state is so weak, its implications in other parts of Africa appear quite different.


Reader Comment on Chiefs in Sierra Leone  

Here is an interesting comment on our last post by Peter Richens:

Very interesting post on chiefs in Sierra Leone. 

The main problem with traditional African systems of land tenure (as influenced but not created by colonialism) as I see it, is not insecurity per se, but that security is expensive in terms of the required investments in social capital. This is supported by quite a bit of anthropological and historical literature, I’m thinking particularly of Sara Berry who I see you cite. If this is the case, you would expect to see more investment in social capital (by the villagers rather than the chiefs) where traditional systems of land tenure are stronger, ie. where chiefs have more discretionary power. This, I believe, is also consistent with your “puzzling” results.

Peter Richens also uses a reference to his LSE dissertation.


Chiefs Again

In our early posts in February 2012, we discussed the economic institutions that keep Sierra Leone poor, and pointed out that many of these are not just national but also local. These village-level institutions are dominated by chiefs, who raise taxes, hire the local police, deal with conflicts and control the land.

We have been working on these local institutions and chiefs in Sierra Leone with Tristan Reed. The final version of our paper on this topic is here and the online appendix can be downloaded here.

Our strategy in this paper is to use the colonial organization of the chieftaincy in Sierra Leone to investigate whether unconstrained power of chiefs holds back economic development.

In 1896 the British empowered paramount chiefs as the main, perhaps only, authority in rural Sierra Leone. Chiefs, and the sub-chiefs and headmen, continued to retain their power to this day. British also developed a system in which paramount chiefs are elected for life by a ‘Tribal Authority’ made up of local notables. But importantly, only those from ‘ruling families’ of a chieftaincy designated by the British can compete to become paramount chiefs.

At one fell swoop, the British thus created the rural elite of Sierra Leone that has persisted to this day. But also useful for our identification strategy, there is considerable, and mostly historically idiosyncratic, variation across chieftains in the number of ruling families. And the number of ruling families matters greatly. In chiefdoms with few ruling families, chiefs and their ruling family can act more despotically, with much less constrained power. In chiefdoms with many ruling families, there is fierce competition and much more coalition-building when the time comes for the election of a new chief, and we document that chiefs or ruling families that ask despotically tend to be kicked out of power (but of course this is slow since chiefs are in it for life and good alternatives are not always abundant).

This institutional structure suggests that political competition will be greater in chiefdoms with more ruling families and economic institutions less extractive.

This is exactly what we find. In chiefdoms with fewer ruling families, villagers do indeed have less secure property rights. Moreover, they are less educated, have lower literacy, are more likely to work in agriculture, have less wealth and lower quality housing, and their children are less healthy. The effects are quantitatively sizable. For example, moving from the bottom quartile to the top (from 1.8 ruling families to 7.7) is associated with a seven percentage point increase in literacy.

All this seems to confirm our expectations that, regardless of its exact form, political competition tends to put constraints on how the elites can use their power and how extractive economic institutions can become.

But we also did find some very puzzling patterns.

We have access to information on civic participation, social capital and information on villagers’ respect for the authority of chiefs and the chiefdom institution. Inspired by Putnam and his collaborators’ work in Making Democracy Work, one might have expected that where chiefs have less constraints on their power, there should be less civic participation, less social capital and less respect for their authority.

We find exactly the opposite pattern. In chiefdoms with fewer ruling families, there is more social capital of both the “bridging” kind (linking elites to non-elites such as community meetings) and of the “bonding” type (where non-elites participate more intensively in civic activities and collective action). Perhaps even more surprisingly, when they have less constrained power, chiefs appear to be more highly respected.

So what’s going on?

We suggest a simple explanation: a bridge can be crossed in either direction — that is, bridging social capital can be used as a vehicle to assert social control by the elites rather than as an instrument for constraining elites as Putnam suggested.

If this view is correct, powerful chiefs may not just distort the allocation of resources to education or discourage t the development of the non-agricultural sector. In order to enhance their control over society, they may also need to monitor it and bring people together so as to tell them what to do. And the more they do this, the more deep-rooted their control over every aspect of village life becomes.

Though we have no direct evidence proving that this is the right explanation for our at first puzzling findings, our interpretation is consistent with the anthropological literature. For example, William Murphy, in his important work on politics in rural Sierra Leone, emphasizes that committee meetings in Sierra Leone are often used as a form of social control, and are used by elites to construct the appearance of governance based on community consensus. He states:

public forms [of discourse] are often recognized as an illusion masking alternative commitments arranged in secret. … [A] key attribute of the mature person or a successful group is the ability to strategically construct … public appearances.

We believe that what we have uncovered in rural Sierra Leone may be a much more general pattern. It’s similar to what Lungisile Ntsebeza describes in Democracy Compromised: Chiefs and the Politics of the Land in South Africa as:

traditional authorities derive their authority from their control of the land allocation process, rather than their popularity amongst their subjects … the need for land … compelled rural residents willy-nilly to cooperate with the traditional authorities.

Or as succinctly put in a related study by Jesse Ribot:

legitimacy follows power.

It may not be confined to sub-Saharan Africa either. For example, work by Siwan Anderson, Patrick François and Ashok Kotwal finds that in parts of western India where landownership is dominated by elites, development outcomes are worse, but measured social capital is higher. They also suggest that this might be related to the capture of social society by elites.

It’s too early to say, but this pattern may be the rule and Putnam’s the European exception.

If it is, some recent trends in foreign aid delivery might need rethinking. For example, The World Bank is investing heavily in Community Driven Development schemes based on the idea that these will tap into the independent power of civil society in less developed countries, especially in rural areas. But if civil society is captured by chiefs or elites, then efforts to strengthen it without freeing it from the control of traditional elites might just strengthen the power of chiefs.

Alas, there may be no silver bullets in kickstarting institutional change in societies where extractive institutions have deep roots.


Why Hasn’t Botswana Diversified out of Diamonds?  

Everyone agrees that Botswana has much better institutions than pretty much anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa.

A decade ago we argued in a joint paper with Simon Johnson that these institutions are the reason why Botswana has succeeded economically while most around it have failed.

Yet despite this and the fact that diamonds are running it out, it has struggled to diversify out of diamonds, and it also has very high levels of inequality. There has not been a resource curse in terms of economic growth, but the economy has not diversified out of diamonds and into more modern sectors either.

Why not if its institutions are good?

There is no clear answer to that but one way to think about it is via the lens that Jonathan DiJohn and James Putzel (2009) apply in their paper “Political Settlements” to development problems.

DiJohn and Putzel characterize Botswana as an example of an “elite political settlement” which has built a consensus about building strong institutions since this was in the own interests of elites.

Post-independence politics in Botswana has been dominated by chiefs and a political party, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) started by chiefs.

That the BDP has been in office continually since independence would indicate, according to this analysis, the hegemony of these elites who initially were heavily invested in cattle and had a vested interest in strong property rights and a state which could expand market opportunities.

So dominant was their power that they were able to take the long view in the 1970s when diamonds came on stream and build institutions which were socially desirable but more importantly, in their own interests.

If this view is correct, it might explain the very high levels of inequality and why industrialization has been so stymied in Botswana.

To see why this might be, it is good to recall that as Tony Killick first brilliantly analyzed in his book Development Economics in Action, there has been a lot of animosity towards the private sector in post-independence Africa. In the Ghanaian case Killick argued that this was driven by the fact that the government of Nkrumah saw the emergence of an autonomous private sector as a threat to its political dominance and it therefore tried to stop this.

If a similar argument applied to Botswana it could help explain why economic growth has led to so little economic diversification – because in reality the BDP and the elites around it did saw this as a threat to their political dominance. It is the lack of diversification that has allowed the elites of the BDP to maintain their grip on the society for 50 years.

Page 1 ... 6 7 8 9 10 ... 44 Next 5 Entries »