The Nordic Africa Institute


Clientelism and ethnic divisions

Started • 01 January 2013
Ended • 01 December 2014

Researcher: Ann-Sofie Isaksson

(joint work with Arne Bigsten)
Project established in 2013

African politics is often described as clientelist. Scholars stress that African rulers tend to rely on the distribution of personal favours in exchange for political support, and that voting is often based on particularized loyalties based in kinship and ethnic ties and to what extent benefits accrue to the own group rather than broad-based policy accountability. Politics relying on clientelism focuses on private transfers rather than provision of public goods or projects of national interest. If we want a democracy where citizens vote for broad-based policy accountability rather than narrow personal gain, and governments that formulate development policy that places the common good ahead of narrow and local interests, this constitutes a serious concern. Understanding clientelism is thus important both from a democratic and a development policy perspective.

In the African context, clientelism is often suggested to have an ethnic dimension. Ethnically based parties tend to redistribute toward their ethnic group rather than provide public goods, the argument goes, and citizens tend to vote for candidates who represent their group, regardless of their quality. Implicit in this argument is the idea that clientelism should be more prevalent and accepted in ethnically divided societies. However, we are not aware of any studies exploring this assumption. This project investigates the relationship between ethnic divisions – measured in terms of regional language group representation and reported strength of ethnic sentiments – and experiences with, perceptions of and attitudes to clientelism. For this purpose, we use data from the Afrobarometer, a comprehensive multi-country survey project collecting data on political and economic attitudes and behaviours of African citizens. The study is part of the broader project ‘Political participation and governance in Africa’ (with Arne Bigsten) funded by UFORSK/Sida.