Ep. 102: A conversation with Noah Nathan about the Ghanaian election

Nana Akufo-Addo has just won the presidency in this week’s Ghanaian election with about 51 percent of the vote. We interview Noah Nathan, who has just published a new book on electoral politics in Ghana. He also tells us about his upcoming work on political brokers and party and state bureaucracy.

Rachel and Kim tell us what’s going on in African news this week, including in Western Sahara, the Ugandan election, and more about presidential term limits.

Listen to the episode below!

Our Guest

Books from the Episode

Gandah-yir: The House of the Brave: the Biography of a Northern Ghanaian Chief (ca. 1872-1950) by S.W.D.K. Gandah

The Silent Rebel by S.W.D.K. Gandah

Ethnicity and the making of history in northern Ghana by Carola Lentz

Other Links and Articles

Western Sahara: A Fragile Peace” by Hannah Armstrong

Morocco and Israel to Establish Diplomatic Relations with U.S. Backing” by Anne Gearan, Karoun Demirjian, Mike DeBonis and Souad Mekhennet

African Affairs Ghana Virtual Issue

The Uncertainties of Ghana’s 2020 Elections” by Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai and Naaborle Sackeyfio

Bobi Wine and Goliath” by Liam Taylor

50 Notable African Books of 2020 by Brittle Paper

Liberia’s Weah Might Be in for a Rude Awakening at the Polls” by Robtel Neajai Pailey

Opposition Leads Early Results in Key Counties” by William Q. Harmon

The Perils of Presidentialism” by Juan J. Linz

The Connections of Party Brokers” by Sarah Brierley and Noah Nathan

Clientelism’s Red Herrings: Dead Ends and New Directions in the Study of Non-Programmatic Politics” by Allen Hicken and Noah L. Nathan

Previous Episodes We Mentioned

Ep. 1: A conversation with Dr. Kojo Asante on Ghana’s 2016 elections

Ep. 64: A conversation with Hannah Armstrong on politics in Algeria, the Sahel, illicit trafficking, and borders


Kim: Welcome to Ufahamu Africa, a podcast about life and politics on the continent. I’m Kim Yi Dionne, your host and I’m joined by my co-host, Rachel Beatty Riedl. Hi Rachel!

Rachel: Hi Kim! So, today we have a news wrap talking about Western Sahara, the Ugandan election, more about presidential term limits and then, we turn to this week’s episode which features a conversation with Noah Nathan where we talk about the Ghanaian elections held this week and his new book out with Cambridge University Press, Electoral Politics and Africa’s Urban Transition: Class and Ethnicity in Ghana. We also touch on some new work on political brokers and party and state bureaucracy.

Kim: That’s exciting. I really loved Noah’s book. I’m looking forward to listening to your conversation with him. Now, with the recent news about Western Sahara, namely that this week, US president Donald Trump’s administration announced recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, becoming the only Western democracy to do so, I want to point our listeners to an article that was actually written in June of this year by Hannah Armstrong who was our guest in Episode 64. She’s a writer and researcher whose work is centered on North Africa and Sahel and she’s reported quite a bit out of Western Sahara in the past. Now, in this June 2020 piece that Hannah wrote, it can get unfamiliar listeners up to speed in terms of understanding what is probably the least known long-term conflict in the world and let me just start by reading the overview that comes at the beginning of her piece to illustrate to our listeners what they can learn from reading it. “The Sahrawi is a mix of Arab Muslim and indigenous Sahara and Berber tribes who over centuries developed their own distinctive forms of language, dress, and matriarchal leadership seek a return to the territory they claim is their national homeland 300 miles to the West, an arid stretch of Atlantic coastline, slightly larger than Oregon, just south of the Moroccan border. They were forced from their villages after a failed battle for liberation that began in 1973, when a group of students, soldiers, and nomadic herders seeking independence from Spain formed a guerrilla movement called the Popular Front for the Liberation of el Hamra and Río de Oro better known as Polisario. So, if you see Polisario on the news, that’s what they’re talking about. So, continuing the Spanish relinquish control of the territory three years into the conflict but Moroccan troops quickly advanced to seize it. Polisario waged a guerrilla war until in 1991 it signed a UN brokered ceasefire agreement with Morocco. They called for an independence referendum the following year. That referendum never took place mainly because of stonewalling and obfuscation by the Moroccans who had already walled off most of the territory and enjoy de facto control. In 2007, Morocco presented a plan for Sahrawi autonomy rather than independence marooning the refugee camps in an unending state of uncertainty, permanently impermanent officially unofficial. Today the United Nations in the neutral language of political stalemate classifies the contested territory as “non-self-governing”. So, for all of our listeners who have ever seen a map of the African continent, this is that region that usually has kind of this dotted line on the on the Northwestern edge of the of the continent. Now, more interesting to me and perhaps even more interesting for our listeners, Hannah’s piece focuses on a profile of Mariam Hamada, the Polisario’s “iron lady” and a governor of a Western Sahara refugee camp. In shadowing Hamada, Hannah is able to share a day in the life of the Sahrawi leader and she observes that the time that Sahrawis have been in the refugee camps has cemented women’s place in the revolution as well as their role in governing.

Rachel: Kim, that’s so fascinating! I can’t wait to read the piece. I love Hannah’s work; I loved her episode with us and she has this very in depth knowledge of the region to be sure. But also, to think about women’s roles in refugee camps, women’s roles in negotiating peace and conflict and particularly their leadership in making demands about what their communities need during that time. I think it’s such an important element of research and one that is often excluded from the story. So, I really look forward to reading that piece. Now, also I wanted to return to the topic of Ghanaian elections since Noah and I talk about the Ghanaian election in detail. I wanted to mention a wealth of research on Ghana that’s really now available at African Affairs, the journal in an open access virtual issue which starts off with an article by Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai, and Naaborle Sackeyfio which is entitled The Uncertainties of Ghana’s 2020 Elections. Along with these articles on the elections, there are also some topics about cyber election security, Sino-Ghanaian resource politics, tax and fiscal capacity, also some articles about perceptions of ballot secrecy, which is co-authored by Karen Ferree, a really great piece, and more about social networks. So, it’s really a great issue. One thing that stands out to me is the way in which in this new work on clientelism and elections and voter behavior and party strategies, by Noah and by others in this collection, for example, the ways in which these scholars of Ghanaian politics are really leading the field and comparative understanding of modern democracy, and its practices and its challenges, moving away from a theory of democracy, and towards an understanding of polyarchy, really, and how its practiced. And also, about the relationship between order and security, human rights, personal freedoms, and state and authority. So, one key takeaway that I think we’re really looking at about democratic resilience, both in the Ghanaian elections and more broadly, is the role of an activist and democratic civil society, the CDD in Ghana, for example, the Center for Democratic Development is well known by many of us in terms of their research and expertise. But they also this week, reached out and publicly thanked the thousands of volunteers from across the country, that served as nonpartisan election observers through the coalition of domestic election observers who really work tirelessly to protect the integrity of the 2020 elections. And it’s the work of those who serve a variety of posts like constituency supervisors, rapid response observers, regional coordinators, civic educators, data entry clerks, and poll observers and so much more. That really demonstrates citizens actively working to protect their democratic process. And that is both inspiring and necessary.

Kim: Yeah, you know, listening to you talk about CODEO, The Coalition of Domestic Election Observers, it just takes me back, you know, the very first episode of Ufahamu Africa was with Kojo Asante. And we were talking, you know, our first episode launched in January 2017, right after the 2016 elections in Ghana, and we talked a lot about CODEO. And a little bit about CDD, as well, and the work that these important, democracy oriented civil society groups and organizations were doing in Ghana and serving as a model, not just for the continent, but really for democracies around the world.

Rachel: So true, Kim, and especially, I mean, we know so many people who volunteered as poll observers themselves, often for the first time in the US this year, and after having done some election observation in Liberia, which was just up again, for elections this week. You know, it’s really a testament to participating in the process, right, that makes one both thankful for it, and also an active guarantor.

Kim: Yeah, I can’t recommend it enough to our listeners, if you haven’t participated in this version of the democratic process, right. So, helping others get to the polls, and helping others you know, get through the process of voting or serving as an observer to make sure that we’re paying attention to the democratic process and that everything is happening as it should. You find an opportunity in one of the next local elections near where you live, and I’ve never heard of anyone doing that and not feeling really great about it. I think it’s a great opportunity to really kind of observe and practice democracy. And there’s, for many of us, there’s so many opportunities to do that. And then we shouldn’t let them pass us by. Now, as we’re talking about elections, I read an excellently reported article in The Continent. You know, everyone’s favorite weekly free magazine that can come to you via WhatsApp. The article was on Bobi Wine, the leading opposition candidate in the upcoming Ugandan elections. And I’m sure a lot of people have been reading various reports about the challenges that he has been facing in his candidacy, you know, since the campaign season has officially begun for the Ugandan elections. Reporter Liam Taylor wrote along with Bobi Wine and his entourage on December 1, and chronicled how just a single day you know, of campaigning how the candidate tried to meet with voters and to campaign but he was regularly thwarted by police and military forces, whether in the form of roadblocks or actual violence and intimidation coming from, you know, guys with guns, to the point where his music producer who was traveling with him that day was actually injured and had to go to the hospital. And it’s really an insightful piece to just get a sense of what that must be like in such a difficult circumstance to try to campaign for office. Now our favorite weekly magazine is going on a December break. But we did want to alert our listeners that the continent is featuring a special issue later this month, and it’s titled Africans of the year. And they’re inviting their readers to send in nomination. So, if you’re a reader of The Continent, be sure to send in your nomination before too long, so they can include that in their special issue upcoming this month.

Rachel: Oh, that’s fantastic Kim. We will also include a link about 50 Notable African Books of 2020. So, kind of rounding up our links of nominations, and books to read and favorites. This will also be on our website to take a look at. Now, I wanted to make a quick return to our conversation of last week about term limits, because this week, as I mentioned, Liberians went to the polls for legislative elections. And they also faced a referendum on whether or not to shorten presidential and lower house terms, just sort of five years instead of six, and for senators to serve seven years instead of nine. Now, what’s interesting about this kind of proposal is, as we’ve seen in neighboring countries of Ivory Coast and of Guinea, as we’ve been discussing, and in many others from Senegal, to Burkina Faso and elsewhere, this kind of constitutional maneuver to change the length of term really sets the stage for possible later justification for seeking an illegitimate third term in office by presidents claiming the pretext of constitutional change to right off the first term or the first and the second term depending on when that change took place. Now, Robtel Pailey has a really excellent explainer in Aljazeera about the ways in which this particular constitutional referendum might lead to a constitutional crisis, as well as punishment at the polls for the ruling party. We’re still waiting for the results at the time of our recording for this week, but early reports have suggested a possible opposition lead in key counties. So, it’ll be quite interesting to see whether or not citizens do hold the government to the ruling party and the president accountable for this kind of push in the early stages, but potentially connecting it to these kinds of strategies. Now, interestingly, the referendum in Liberia also introduces separately the choice to repeal a 1973 ban on dual nationality, which is a move which somehow could be a real economic boon, and potentially signal greater accountability in the country, given that many thousands of Liberians live overseas, particularly due to the past resettlement and migration due to the civil war. So, currently, if they adopt another nationality, they’re then barred from owning the owning property at home and other restrictions, they certainly can’t run for office. Now should voters opt to lift this dual nationality ban, Liberians with two passports will still be barred from holding elected office. But this move overall may be popular with expats, those who have family abroad, and therefore families who are living in Liberia but who may receive remittances at home and have influential members of the family based abroad. But I think it speaks more broadly to conceptions of exclusive and inclusive citizenship. And here it’s possible that given Liberia’s socially divisive and hierarchically ranked society, a legal reform to allow dual nationality may be kind of put in context right now, as the country’s thinking about or the ruling party is thinking about strategically financially motivated reforms, like ways to increase remittances or ways to get Liberians living abroad to be more invested in Liberia. But what’s interesting, is that kind of economically motivated reform could have really socially cohesive and inclusive consequences over the longer term. So, I’m very interested to see how this pans out in the actual election, what kind of voter support there is, or is not for it. And then potentially, in the longer term, if it passes.

Kim: That’s exciting, Rachel! I didn’t know that up for the vote in the referendum was this choice to repeal the ban on dual nationality. In my own work on remittances, you know, this could actually be quite a risky move for government, because in places, you know, in certain places where remittances are high, it can actually coincide with, you know, protests against the government or more voting for the opposition. So, I will be curious and following what’s happening and, and seeing, you know, if it does pass, you know, and we do see, for example, an increase in remittances to Liberia, what that might mean because, you know, in my work, but also in work I’ve read by Beth Whittaker, for example, understanding these transnational ties and how remittances may be tied to, you know, political support back home. You know, there’s still there’s still need for more research and work on this. Now, before we go, I did want to mention for our listeners, I don’t know if we had previously when we announced our essay competition, where we’re inviting people to write these one-page reflection essays, I don’t know that we announced our deadline. So, again, if you hadn’t already heard we’re having an essay competition, where we’re encouraging people who have listened to an episode of the podcast to write a reflection, however, you’re compelled to write about, you know what you heard on Ufahamu Africa and what it made you think about. These essays are due by January 29, 2021. And you can submit them independently or part of a class assignment. The first 100 participants will get some info Africa swag, and three winners will have the opportunity to read a portion of their essay for a future episode. So, get those essays written by January 29. We look forward to reading them.

Rachel: That’s all for this week, and we will post links to that essay competition as well as bonus material on our website, ufahamuafrica.com.  Noah, thank you so much for joining us for this podcast, Ufahamu Africa. We’re a big fan of your work and we’re speaking at an important time in terms of those who follow Ghanaian politics, which is just a few days after Ghana’s presidential and parliamentary elections, which are held on Monday, where incumbent president Nana Akufo-Addo is facing off against former president John Mahama. And election results have just been provisionally announced. So, I’d love for you to tell us what is happening, how you see it.

Noah: Great. Well, thanks so much for having me, Rachel. I’m a big fan of the podcast and happy to be here. So, I think what’s happening in Ghana this week is, it’s now been announced that Nana Akufo-Addo, the incumbent from the MVP has won the presidency with about 51% of the votes. So, control over Parliament remains unclear, both major parties have about one or two seats short of a majority with a few seats outstanding that are being contested. And so, it’s really unclear whether there might be a chance of divided government in Ghana for the first time with the opposition, MDC having the majority of Parliament, potentially, with Nana Akufo-Addo and then MVP staying in the presidency. And the other big thing that’s happening is the MDC is really upset about the announcement of these election results, they’re disputing the results, refusing to concede for now and claiming that there was malfeasance in the election. And I think it’s important to sort of think about that in the context of two things. And one is that civil society in Ghana is just incredibly robust at sort of playing a big role in keeping democracy honest, especially this organization called CODEO, The Coalition of Domestic Election Observers, which is run out of the Center for Democratic Development, or CDD, which is an organization that I think many Africanist scholars know well, and they did a parallel vote tabulation. So, an independent count of the votes alongside the official count, and it basically exactly matches the results that the government announced. And that raises my confidence that there wasn’t like massive malfeasance in this election and that Akufo-Addo really legitimately won. I also think it’s important to put what’s happening now in the historical context, which is that Ghana is a very well consolidated democracy now. But the loser in Ghanaian elections almost always invariably claims that there were irregularities and that there was fraud. So, what the NDC is doing right now isn’t a huge deviation from the past. MPP did the same thing in 2012 when it lost the presidency, it dragged that election out for months going to court to try to prove fraud, which it failed to do. I think that’s part of why organizations like CODEO and CDD are so important is that they give you sort of this neutral arbiter that shows that yes, this election happened, but counting is honest, and it seems like Akufo-Addo won.

Rachel: That’s such an important point that you raise about the role of domestic observers and civil society, think tanks, particularly those that are on this kind of pro-democracy agenda. And in particular, it harkens back to kind of the legacies about contested elections, as Ghana was moving from single party to multi party, right, and the ways in which first elections were much more contested. So, how do you see the reports about election violence related to this contested outcome given the historical perspective that you just gave us?

Noah: Yeah, well, on violence specifically, I saw some reports of very isolated incidents in a few places, and that seems to happen just about every Ghanaian election. It seems like very broadly, the election was overwhelmingly peaceful, and that’s a great sign. I think what’s going on this weekend in Ghana have a lot to speak to sort of thinking about the long-term trajectory of democracy and I think it’s important to think about the Ghanaian election in the context of what’s been going on in the surrounding region. So, Ghana is still a consolidated democracy like I said but it’s surrounded right now by democratic backsliding basically on all sides. So, even like formerly very democratic states in West Africa like Senegal and Benin have really turned out in recent years. I Ghana is being a sort of a bit of an island as a democracy right now in West Africa. So, I’m still pretty bullish that Ghana is going to continue on that democratic path, but I do see some warning signs from this election not necessarily related to violence but just from the election and the contested election more generally that I think are worth paying attention to going forward. So, one of those warning signs is what happens if we get divided government. So, it works out for the MDC did in fact win the parliamentary majority and that’s something that’s possible in any Ghanaian election that you could get different parties in parliament and presidency, but it just hasn’t happened to occur before. Historically, the parliament in Ghana has been very weak and subservient to the presidency. MPs don’t propose independent legislation on their own. Party line voting is basically 100% absolute and most of the ruling party’s MPs actually double as the president’s cabinet. So, they’re in both the parliamentary and the executive branch at once which means there’s very little oversight from parliament on the executive’s behavior. If there’s divided government, I think there’s a real opportunity for parliament to assert itself more and develop sort of a more robust role in governance. That could be really positive for Ghana’s democracy but I also think there’s a flip side to that and what immediately came to mind when I saw the potential for divided government was Juan Linz’s famous article, The Perils of Presidentialism, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, which for listeners is sort of argues that a lot of presidential regimes face pretty serious crises of government that lead often to authoritarian openings when you have divided government, when you have sort of two equally valid representatives of the people: a legislature and a presidency, each can claim a mandate to rule as they want and I worry that this could set Ghana up for a crisis like that. In part because party line voting is so easy to enforce in Ghana that it’s going to be hard to get intra party compromises and I could talk more about that. But that’s sort of one thing that I’m worried about. So, the second thing I think that it’s concerning from this election that we should be paying attention to going forward is sort of long-term faith in the electoral process in Ghana. So, I think this election was pretty clean compared to other Ghanaian elections, at least on based on what I’m seeing from the observers’ reports from CODEO and other organizations, but the MDC ran this whole campaign as much as a campaign against the electoral commission as they were running against the new ruling party against NPP and the opposition party in Ghana always complains about the electoral commission. I’ve seen this in just about every election and I’ve experienced in Ghana, but it seemed to be a whole another level this time. The whole campaign they were complaining that the voter registration was being rigged that they’re the NDC was not treating them fairly and this happens in the context of the MPP regime I think really pushing the envelope in a broader way on sort of testing out anti-democratic practices during their first term in power. I felt like at the top of the MPP, there’s a strong commitment to democracy but it also became clear over the last four years that there are at least some elements in the party that are willing to sort of test the limits and push their luck as regimes and elsewhere in West Africa in doing. So, in the last four years MPP shut down the main NBC radio stations on sort of trumped-up tax violations which might be true, but it seems like selective enforcement. Prominent investigative journalists were assassinated, others were arrested when they were writing about the regime. Right now, the national chairman of the MDC is actually on trial in a court in Accra, for sedition from a leech audio recording. And we’ve also seen concerns about sort of violent party vigilante groups associated with the MPP being sort of folded into the state security forces and these are all sort of little things that each on their own maybe you could excuse but they are happening. And I wonder now as Akufo-Addo has won, whether these elements in his regime will feel emboldened to sort of keep pushing on this path especially if we get sort of a showdown and they get divided government where you know major legislation can’t advance because the NDC is obstructing it. So, I do think we can’t be sitting on our laurels about Ghana’s successes though I think it’s amazing. We have to sort of keep watching these things and that’s what I’ll be paying attention to going forward.

Rachel: Those are such important points Noah and I think it just reinforces this kind of global trend not to diminish Ghana’s successes to be sure but just to really point to the fact that you know democracy is never fully consolidated, it always has to be claimed. And I think you know there are always kind of potential threats. We see that in the United States, we see that in Europe to be sure and we see that even in democratic successes such as Ghana.

Noah: I mean in the coverage of the US elections; we’ve been seeing similar kinds of dynamics. I saw a tweet, someone made a joke referencing the movie Jurassic Park, they said the raptors are testing the fences. And I feel like that is really sort of describes what I would see the last four years of Ghanaian politics is like where I feel like there are elements in the state that are trying out, see how far they can push, for example, arresting and putting the national chairman of NDC on trial, and if there isn’t sanction, they might keep doing that. They just lose a lot of seats in parliament. And they might see that as sort of rebuke of the path they’re taking. But it’ll be interesting to see whether they sort of dial that down, or they feel emboldened now that they’ve won the election.

Rachel: Exactly, exactly. So those are trends will continue to watch. And speaking of electoral politics in Ghana, I wanted to talk to you specifically about your new book, congratulations.

Noah: Thanks so much.

Rachel: Yeah, I’m so happy for you. I’m so happy to see it out and really contributing to these conversations. It’s titled Electoral Politics and Africa’s Urban Transition: Class and Ethnicity in Ghana, published by Cambridge University Press. And Noah, really, there are so many things that I love about this book, I’m really excited for you to share your findings with our listeners. So, I wanted to just start with what is often thought of as a standard assumption, which you really rebuke in your book. And that standard assumption is that urbanization changes political behavior in significant ways, in particular, because of changes to class identity with the growth of an urban middle class, and because of social interactions, kind of given high levels of ethnic diversity that exists in cities, and therefore we would expect increasing frequency of inter-ethnic social interactions. And so, in this way, we would expect that these factors would help to spark a transition away from both ethnic competition and clientelism towards more programmatic elections. But you really find that the rise of an urban middle class often fails to move politics away from clientelism and that the ethnic heterogeneity of urban spaces often does little to diminish the importance of ethnicity and electoral politics. So, fundamentally, why is this the case and what’s really happening with these urban transitions, that’s such a driver of much of the demographic trend that we see across Africa and in Ghana, in particular.

Noah: Yeah, thanks so much. To think about sort of the broader effects of urbanization, I’ve decided to focus in the book, really, in a really detailed way on the politics of one very large city which I think exemplifies a lot of the trends across the continent and urbanization. And the book argues that elections in Accra are what I would say are caught in a trap. And what I mean by that is there’s been significant demographic change at the type you’ve mentioned, there’s a booming urban middle class, it’s now up to a quarter of the adult population, which is large enough to be a kingmaker in local elections. There are high levels of ethnic diversity in the city, as there are in many other African cities. And yet I find in the book that politicians in Accra really don’t face strong incentives to move away from sort of the types of non-programmatic clientelist, often ethnic appeals that they have been using as their main mode of trying to win elections. And I argue that I expect those forms of electoral competition in sort of non-programmatic politics to be very sticky for a long time, even in the face of continued urbanization, even as the middle class continues to grow, even if ethnic diversity continues to rise. And I think a key constraint on sort of shifting to new forms of politics in urban areas, is that these are often contexts of low state capacity in which politicians are going to face significant credibility problems pivoting away from clientelism as a related strategy to start using programmatic appeals. So, you have a growing block of the urban electorate that doesn’t really want clientelism that does not demand patronage from their politicians. Once programmatic politics, that does care about policy. But I showed that in the book, but I find that politicians face a substantial credibility problem in convincing these types of voters that when they make programmatic policy promises during their campaigns that they’re actually going to follow through and those voters can trust them. And this is happening in a context of a very long history of policy failure of politicians making sweeping promises of programmatic change that often get perverted for corruption rent seeking clientelism, ethnic favoritism, never implemented as designed. All of which is fueled in a context like there is high levels of voter distrust in the major parties among well educated, more middle-class voters, who would be the main sort of audience for that type of politics. And that disrupt I find in the book feeds into the exit of many middle-class voters from active voting and political participation. And so, the easiest path I argue that many middle-class voters face, it’s actually just sort of retreat from the state to privately provide services you want, if you can afford to do it. You have your own generator, your own walls, your own security, your own private schools, and they ignore the politicians who you don’t trust will ever be able to meet your policy demands. But this creates a feedback loop because politicians can see the middle class ignoring them, sort of retreating from the state, from sort of a social contract with politicians. And even if the middle class is large enough to be potentially pivotal on elections, politicians can figure I argue that, you know, it might actually just be easier to invest the sort of marginal unit of effort I have in campaigning into doubling down on the voters that I actually know how to get to support me who aren’t so hard to convince, which is poor voters. And so, I find that even as the middle class is growing, politicians are saying these voters are too hard to convince, they don’t trust me, I’m going to focus on clientelism and ethnic appeals targeting the poor. And so, these decisions then sort of reinforce each other in a negative feedback loop as politicians choose to focus on clientelism and ethnic appeal, the quality of urban governance declines, policies are not implemented as designed. That just makes the middle class more distrustful and disillusioned with the current political environment, which just reinforces their incentives to sort of retreat and withdraw from politics. And you get this loop continuing and sort of leads to continued clientelism in politics. And so, that’s a big argument of the book in brief, that sort of a trap that prevents these demographic changes from having the effects we might expect.

Rachel: And Noah, I’m wondering here, I mean, I really buy this argument that, you know, the middle class is growing, they’re distrustful. And so, they disengage, right, both through the provision of private services, we certainly see this with the creation of entirely kind of private communities with their own water, and, you know, their own total security regime. And I wonder to what extent, you see investments in other districts, particularly, you know, rural districts, as part of this strategy, by voters and by politicians alike, right, that people who live in urban environments, maybe pull out of their investments in the city? Are they still making investments in their rural areas? Do they engage in politics there? Or is it a retreat from the state writ large?

Noah: That’s a really interesting question. And that’s something that coming into this project, which started as my dissertation that I was thinking a lot about, there’s much older literature on urban Africa, the focus is on sort of many urban residents as being absentee villagers who still maintained strong connections to the rural areas. I know you’re doing some work on this in Kenya. But you know, they live in the city. But that’s not really where their focus is. And so, I actually went into this project expecting to find that in Ghana, and I didn’t actually find a lot of evidence of that. So, I think Ghana is pretty far along in its urban transition, compared, especially to countries in East Africa that are still heavily rural are still experiencing a lot of first generation rural urban migration right now. So, the majority of urban residents in Accra, and other Ghanaian cities have lived in cities their entire life, they’re not first generation rural urban migrants. And people talk about, oh, my hometown is best, my parents hail from this rural area, and maybe they’ll go back there for weddings or major holidays. But I did not find, I asked explicitly about this, in my survey, I did not find that people were voting with an eye to developments in their rural home areas. And so, I do think that among many middle-class voters, the only place I’ve ever lived in their lives is the city. These are urban people. And they are not focusing on rural areas. Instead, it’s that they’re just sort of this broader withdraw and disengagement. So, maybe they’ll vote but they’re not going to be involved in political parties. Actually, even that associational participation in civic society, surprisingly, is lower amongst the educated, urban middle class in Ghana than among poor voters, which I think really sits at odds with that, as we see in more developed democracies.

Rachel: That’s really fascinating. So, that the retreat is not just from partisan engagement, but also from associational life? And what do you think is driving that finding in terms of how do the poor voters kind of have the capacity, the time, the energy, resources to put into that associational life whereas these middle class voters don’t?

Noah: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t engage that much in the book directly. But I think it speaks to something else that the book discusses, which is that a key part of what sustains clientelism in urban areas is that yes, the middle class is growing. But the reality is that a majority or more of the urban population lives in small neighborhoods, which are often tightly organized, densely settled, very close social networks. And it’s often in the context of this neighborhood life, which people like Jeff Paller have really amazing work about that we see a lot of associational participation. And so, I think part of what sustains clientelism in the urban areas is that a lot of the slum neighborhoods are really sort of viable social environments for that kind of politics to thrive. And I think that plays into participation in Susu scheme, you know, rotating credit schemes and church groups and things like that. And so, I do think that’s part of the urban landscape, it’s really important.

Rachel  34:33

Absolutely, in some ways, maybe the urban middle class is a bit more geographically, spatially, you know, disconnected. So, what do you think are some of the implications of this argument when we think about local party strategies? You’ve said that they’re opting into targeting those lower class voters not adapting to that urban middle class kind of making these strategic decisions. How do you think parties are not changing?

Noah: Yeah, I think it’s important to view that this sort of the broader context and you mentioned this a little bit at the beginning, but I think among a lot of people who discuss urban politics in Africa, both in the scholarly community but also policymakers, NGO world, people in the media… People seem to almost be rooting normatively for the idea that urbanization is going to lead to all these great things like less ethnic voting and less clientelism. In the media coverage, urban politics in Africa is often just sort of breathlessly stated as a fact, that this is true, and this has already happened. And I realized that in response to that the book maybe gives somewhat pessimistic message. But i wish that were true, too. I really wish that were the case, but I think that what we’re seeing is that there are just significant institutional incentives pushing against politicians having to change the way that they’ve sort of adapted to elections. I think it’s helpful to view this in the broader context of literature on clientelism in the developing world. So, there’s this long-standing view for modernization theory and related ideas that we get more development, clientelism is going to go away. But in the last decade or so, as there’s been a lot of recent research in other contexts including work by Herbert Kitschelt and others shows that’s not just really true. Even in middle income countries that are very well developed if you think about the work on Hungary by Isabela Mares and Lauren Young. You still have clientelistic politics and I think what we’re seeing in all these different contexts, including my own, clientelism can sort of create these self-reinforcing incentives and be really sticky for a long time. So, something the book ends with is by making a comparison between urban Ghana to machine politics in the historical urban US in the late 19th and over the course of the 20th century. I think it’s useful to think about sort of what the future trajectory for party strategies in Ghana might be in the context of that comparison. So, in the scholarship on machine politics in the US, we see almost an identical argument which is you get a huge middle class emerging over the first half of the 20th century, significant ethnic migration. You get the great migration of African Americans to the north and other major ethnic changes in the composition of the cities, significant wealth. Yet, clientelism persists in some major northern cities deep into the 1970s or even early 1980s in some cases. And what breaks these machines were not further demographic changes but structural changes to the institutions that determine the ability of politicians to supply clientelist politics. So, things like the rise of the federal welfare state with the new deal in the great society, civil service laws that prevent patronage hiring, not just the growth of the middle class. So, if we think about Ghana at the end of the book, I sort of think about it would be those kinds of changes that I think would actually force politicians’ hands to start, you know, taking the middle class more seriously. At least until the middle class becomes such an enormous percentage of the population, they have no choice but to engage with them. For the short term or the medium term, I think it’s going to be pretty sticky, these types of policies.

Rachel: So, the advance of the state in terms of offering programmatic capacity rather than a kind of structural adjustment retreat of the state might further the efficacy of programmatic policies on the side of parties.

Noah: Yeah, that’s a great way of thinking about it. I do think that there’s space for maybe a populist candidate to emerge that targets sort of this there is this huge untapped middle-class discontent which this week I was reminded as I follow a lot of a lot of Ghanaians on Twitter related to the election. You know the people who are tweeting are disproportionately people in the middle class and they just… The disdain that drips from these tweets for both the NPP and the NDC is really something. It’s just clear that there’s a sentiment there among this population in urban areas to tap. So, there’s a space for some sort of outside force to emerge and something I’ve been thinking about recently is like if that were to ever happen and I don’t really say this in the book but something I thought about since then is that it might have been through the church. So, thinking about some of the work that you and Gwyneth McClendon have been doing in the role that sort of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches which are really important form of associational life that does draw in a lot of urban middle-class voters in Africa. I wonder if we’re going to see some sort of like conservative religious movement that that, just speculating, but that might try to tap this discontent and it’d be interesting to see if that’s how the cycle I described eventually breaks.

Rachel: Absolutely, and then we return to kind of what can be considered outsider forces either through a populist appeal or a conservative religious appeal right that would say enough with the established you know the fairly wellness institutionalized two party system to offer an alternative, right?

Noah: There’s a lot of constraints on that happening as you mentioned. There’s an institutionalized two party system which in that it’s institutionalized, it’s going to make it really hard sort of startup costs for any outside entrance and I think that’s why we haven’t seen that. In this election actually there was a new third party that ran for the first time with this sort of like Christian Evangelical appeal. And it got 1% of the vote, which is a lot for a third party in Ghana but that’s a very far away from really changing any of these dynamics, but something to watch in the future.

Rachel: Do you think that when we look at this experience of the Ghanaian elections, and as particularly, you know, you’re talking about in the book, the comparison to the historical evolution in the United States with machine politics? Do you think when we look across urbanization patterns across Sub Saharan Africa more generally, are we likely to see ethnic appeals and distributed private benefits reign in cities of the future? Do you see different dynamics when you look outside of Ghana?

Noah: Yeah. So, I think a key thing that makes ethnic politics remain so viable in urban Ghana is that even though the city overall is quite diverse, you have many segregated neighborhoods that are bastions of particular ethnic groups. And that’s something you see in a lot of African cities. And because you have that sort of micro level, neighborhood level segregation within what is otherwise a diverse city, politicians still have the ability to target club goods and local public goods and patronage programs in this sort of micro way that pits neighborhoods against each other. But I think something that is actually a really interesting comparison is to African cities that were settler colonies and has very different spatial patterns of urbanization. So, in much of West Africa, I think a key dynamic that feeds this trap is that in Accra, as you mentioned earlier, the urban middle class and the poor are quite mixed together. So, in almost every electoral district in the city, you have a mix of middle class and poor voters, there is actually only one electoral constituency in the entire country, where the University of Ghana is located that has a majority of middle-class electorate. And that’s because across the city that grew without significant urban planning, there was a little bit of urban planning in the 1950s and earlier, but it’s a city that’s grown haphazardly through the private market. And so, you have these wealthy neighborhoods right across the street, there’s a slum all mixed together. And this allows politicians in every local constituency in the city, there’s enough poor people that they can get away just going after them and don’t have to focus on the middle-class voters. But in some cities like Johannesburg, or Nairobi, which had this much very different sort of urban spatial architecture that’s related to the history of settler colonialism, you have much clearer segregation. So, whoever is the is the local Councilor for Karen in Nairobi, does not have to have the votes of poor people. And that’s just a totally different game. And so, they can specialize. They can be sort of a policy entrepreneur appealing to middle class voters in a way that just doesn’t exist in Ghana. And so, a comparison I make in the last chapter of the book as well, it’s actually to Latin American cities, where something really interesting is that Latin American cities, especially cities, like Bogota, and Santiago, Chile, the literature there shows that they’re much more segregated by class at a district level. So, Santiago is a major mega city, but it’s actually governed as multiple separate municipalities with their own local elections. And there are basically entirely homogenously middle-class municipalities and entirely poor municipalities. And the mayors of those different municipalities because they have local power, and they have these sorts of homogenous local districts can become policy entrepreneurs. And the people in the rich areas can specialize in programmatic politics, that people in the poor areas can specialize in clientelism. And you can get sort of two modes of political appeal coexisting. And that doesn’t work in Ghana, because of sort of, and I think many West African cities because of how sort of jumbled everything is, but in other parts of Africa, where you have these very clean lines between the rich parts of the city and the poor parts of the city, I think there is more space for people to sort of specialize their appeals.

Rachel: That’s really fascinating Noah, and I love the way in which you bring kind of the spatial geography of the city into the politics of voter behavior and party strategy. Now, I want to kind of extend our conversation a little bit, because I know you’ve been doing a lot of interesting work recently on party brokers. So, I was wondering if you could tell us kind of what this term means to you, what role they play, how they shaped the social and political arenas in where your work is developing in this in this light?

Noah: Yeah, so a new project that I started is sort of after finishing the book with a colleague, Sarah Brierley, who’s at LSE was to really try to zoom in on clientelism in Ghana and think about how the party organization and the party machine really works to sustain clients, sort of peel back the black box a bit and think about the inner workings of the machine party. And key players in these machine party organizations in Ghana and in many other countries of clientelism are people that we call brokers, you could call them grassroots intermediaries, their local neighborhood level fixers, who link voters to politicians serve as sort of a go between, between politicians above and voters below and sort of facilitate exchanges of resources and patronage and mobilize votes for the party. And so, we have a new project that we’ve been working on for several years with a paper that’s coming out on the JOP that looks at how the ruling party today, the MPP, selects and hires these grassroots intermediaries within its party organization. And what we find sort of challenges some of the conventional wisdom, at least within the political science literature on how clientelism operates at the local level. And so, there’s a common idea that parties want to hire these fixers, intermediaries or brokers, because they have privileged information about voters, because they are really socially embedded in social networks and voters. They know a lot about voters, and you can use that to monitor and enforce clientelistic transactions with voters. So, if we give you a benefit, this guy who’s so embedded in your community can make sure that you reciprocate with your vote. But there’s been a recent recognition in the broader political science literature that clientelism often really isn’t a monitored and enforced transaction. Often it isn’t a quid pro quo. And we think that’s what I found in my book in Ghana. That’s what Sarah’s found, it’s one of her work. And we think that’s true as well in Ghana, and it reflects itself and how the MPP manages this machine at the local level. So, in this work, we got access to the from the party to the full voters register of the whole country. So, the faces and names of every voter. And what we did is we took that, and we quizzed people who are contesting to get selected by the MPP as the broker for their local community, on their knowledge of people in their community. We show them the faces of people who live in their neighborhood. What we find is that having more information about your community, having more social embeddedness with community had absolutely nothing to do with whether the MPP hired you to be a broker. Instead, they were picking people who had connections in local bureaucracy, were really tightly embedded in the local party machinery, who could be effective at sort of helping voters extract resources from the state, not people who would be effective at sort of monitoring and punishing voters for deviating from the MPP sort of clientelistic inducements. And so, I think that’s a really interesting change in sort of a view of clientelism. And it’s something we’re trying to really get that sort of this inner workings of the machine in Ghana.

Rachel: I love this project, Noah. I think it’s so exciting. And it really helps us expand our knowledge about how clientelism works, what voters want from a clientelistic system, what the kinds of expectations they have, and how parties work to respond to that or what kind of supply they provide, and what the real mechanisms for that supply might be. So, I think it really expands our understanding of clientelism quite significantly. Do you think that this is something that travels quite widely? Do you think it’s quite specific to the nature of party systems and voter behavior in Ghana? What do you think are the implications?

Noah: Easy to say that it travels widely because I don’t have to prove it? But I think this is part of a broader agenda for me. I also wrote recently an annual review article with a colleague here at Michigan, Allen Hicken. And we tried to sort of extend some of these points in a much broader way, which is that I think, for people studying clientelism, in general, the sort of dominant model we get is that this isn’t enforced and monitored, quid pro quo. Voters are sort of trapped by politicians in these exchanges that they can’t defect from. And what we did is we reviewed the broader literature on clientelism across the entire world over the last 15 years. And we found that that there’s basically no evidence at all, anywhere of monitoring actually happening. Tons of scholars assert, theoretically that it happens because it sort of makes this theoretical story makes sense. But we’ve not found a lot of empirical evidence of it, not just in Ghana, in Indonesia and Philippines, Latin America, even in scholarship on Argentina, where this was most famously said to be happening, more recent scholarship has argued that it doesn’t happen, there isn’t monitoring. And so, I think the work that I’m doing on Ghana, as part of sort of a broader reconsideration of the literature on clientelism. A lot of people are doing right, now think of work of like Eric Kramon, who studies this in Kenya, for example, where they’re realizing the clientelism is not really about this quid pro quo. It’s more of a signaling game where parties are trying to help people to show that they’re capable. It’s about reciprocity, social reciprocity, with voters to sort of other mechanisms that are driving this kind of behavior. And it’s not the sort of pernicious literal vote buying that I think, sort of the stylized example leads us to believe. So, I see the work of Sarah, on the machines in Ghana as sort of one little piece of sort of chipping away at this dominant view of clientelism that a lot of different people are working on.

Rachel: Absolutely. And I think it relates so well, to our kind of conceptualization of the work that brokers are doing in terms of both credit claiming and providing linkages to state resources, be at the local level, through the municipality, or through the central government, and where they can bring things back to their voters.

Noah: Yeah, I think brokers in Ghana more as problem solvers than monitors. There are people who basically provide an informal social support network to their communities which i think is a really positive thing actually. The main role of these local party agents is that voters who have problems, there’s a health crisis they need money for a funeral, they go and they say can you help us solve this problem and their ability to get votes for the party seems connected to their ability to go and navigate the local bureaucracy and find a way to give individualized assistance. It’s not like proactively targeting voters sort of trap them in these exchanges.

Rachel: Absolutely, I think that really resonates with a lot of the conversations with voters in terms of thinking about voter behavior and their expectations of their interactions with party officials at any level and party agents are supposed to help people with the problems that they face and that’s the main reason for contact when people reach out to a party representative.

Noah: Yeah!

Rachel: So, Noah I’d love to have you share with us as we ask of all of our guests on the podcast, what you’re reading? What might you recommend to our listeners?

Noah: Well, I’ve been reading a lot of books recently outside of political science and history and other related fields that have been really exciting me. It’s all part of a new project I’m working on, a new book project on state building in northern Ghana. So, it’s probably going as far away as you can from across the country and the same place. So, one book that i’ve been totally fascinated by that actually helped launch this new project is Carola Lentz’s work. She’s a historian in Germany, she has a wonderful book from 2006 called Ethnicity and the making of history in northern Ghana. I think it’s a book that all African scholars should benefit from reading and it’s something that sort of launched my new research agenda reading that and reading that also led me to some really fascinating historical memoirs of figures in northern Ghanaian history. So, I spent a lot of time in the spring reading sort of different kinds of evidence, but it’s been really useful evidence for thinking about my new project. So, there’s an anthropologist named Gandah, who’s from the upper west region of Ghana, he was an associate of Jack Goody, the famous anthropologist and he wrote two just absolutely rich and fascinating memoirs of one of his childhood growing up in the colonial era in northern Ghana and another sort of documenting the history of his father who was the very first traditional chief in his community in a position that was invented by colonial authorities. So, I’ve been doing a lot of reading in history and sort of on these kinds of books and sort of think about new directions for my research.

Rachel: Fantastic! I really look forward to reading those, we will share the links with our listeners on our website and Noah thank you so much for sharing both your new book and your your forthcoming work.

Noah: Thanks so much Rachel for having me!

Kim: Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of Ufahamu Africa to find any of the articles, books or links we talked about on today’s episode, head to ufahamuafrica.com. We are also available on Spotify, Apple podcast, SoundCloud, and Stitcher. This podcast is produced by Megan DeMint, with help from production assistant Fulya Felicity Turkmen. We are generously supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and receive research assistance from Cornell University and the University of California Riverside. Our music is courtesy of Kevin Mcleod. Until next week, safiri salama!

2 thoughts on “Ep. 102: A conversation with Noah Nathan about the Ghanaian election

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