Woyomegate: the Last Stage of “Competitive Clientelism”?

Mon, 5 Mar 2012 Source: Idun-Arkhurst, Kobina

Public imagination in Ghana has recently been seized by the payment of GHS51 million in judgement debt to Mr. Alfred Woyome, a self-styled financier of Ghanaian politicians, who allegedly did not have any contract with the government of Ghana to deserve such a payout. The purpose of this short treatise is not to contribute to the public trial of Woyomegate. Instead, it is to analyse the deeper institutional malaise of which "Woyomegate" is only a logical manifestation; for, Woyomegate is a symptom of a bigger political economy disease known as "competitive clientelism".

Competitive Clientelism:

In brief, “competitive clientelism” implies the use of electoral competition as a vehicle to gain control of the realms of state and then distribute patronage to the rank and file of ruling coalitions. This political strategy structures a rentier system of mutual expectations in which (a) party foot soldiers expect to disproportionately benefit from the re-allocation of public resources; (b) higher ranks, such as party officials and financiers, pursue rent-seeking, including benefiting from government contracts and influence peddling; and (c) the ruling government expects to be returned to power by the coalition in the next elections.

Because the stability of this coalition is necessary to deliver victory in future elections, government officials can go to great lengths to use state power to transfer public resources to party functionaries, financiers, and supporters, or offer them political protection. Given that he has allegedly financed the electoral campaigns of both the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP), the two parties with real chance of forming government at any elections and between which power has changed hands since 1993, Mr. Alfred Woyome cannot be said to be a stable member of any ruling coalition.

Instead, he might be a skilful businessman that finances politicians, as a group or as individuals, in return for either business contracts or the backing of political power, or for both. What makes Woyomegate even more interesting is the intricate web of beneficiaries that appears to go beyond political office holders to civil servants to party foot soldiers to heaven-knows-who-else. The outpouring of sympathy from NDC foot soldiers for Mr. Woyome following his arrest, only after the opposition had flagged and politicised the alleged wrongful payment, might also indicate how the ruling party may be compelled by expediency to shield members of the coalition, even through means not necessarily illegal.

While we follow the legal process, the wider institutional and economic implications of competitive clientelism must not be lost on us. For experts in criminal and corporate law, Woyomegate may become a landmark case in how to think about and fight corporate and white collar crimes. Below, however, I show how competitive clientelism has persisted in Ghanaian politics over time and why it is a major explanation for Ghana's illusive search for economic transformation since independence.

Genealogy of a Political Culture

Over the half-century of its post-colonial life, Ghana went from electoral autocracy to military dictatorship to market democracy. Despite this apparent political progress, one thing remained common across all three regime types: the persistence of political patronage and clientelism. Between the 1960s and 1980s, the authoritarian and military regimes maintained political control not only by incarcerating opponents, that is, "instilling a culture of silence," but also distributing patronage resources to buy a critical constituency of support.

The construction of ruling coalitions simultaneously involved strategies to weaken economic classes perceived to be real or potential members of the political opposition. For example, both Nkrumah and Rawlings were antagonistic toward the nascent capitalist class even while implementing different ideological blueprints. Nevertheless, neither the CPP nor the PNDC prevented its own functionaries from the individual pursuit of wealth, whether through legal or less legal means, as such accumulation was essential to financing regime survival and dominance.

The Acheampong regime (NRC/SMC I) was unique in actively promoting the interests of local capitalists. But in order to maintain the ruling coalition, it, too, had to appropriate rents from the rural economy to finance urban consumption. These clientelist political strategies had adverse implications for economic policy and outcomes. Despite Nkrumah's good intentions his ambitious investment programmes had very little to show in terms of growth. Akyeampong's urban bias decimated the rural economy and its supporting infrastructure.

In fact, the inefficiencies of the Nkrumah era and the neglect of agriculture in the Akyeampong era had similar effects by starving industry of much-needed foreign exchange to import raw materials, inputs, and equipment. Similarly, the PNDC’s crony capitalism proved woefully ineffective as a key to structural transformation.

By the early 1990s, both supporters and critics of structural adjustment had converged on the need to bring "the politics back in" in the reform agenda. The thinking here was simple: electoral competition would produce more accountable, efficient, and equitable outcomes. But just as market reforms were easily internalised in the logic of clientelism to produce crony capitalism, electoral competition only democratised clientelism by extending the opportunities for patronage-clientage beyond a hegemonic authoritarian regime.

Notwithstanding the consensus on the need for economic transformation, both the NDC and the NPP have failed to come up with policies for any significant upgrading, or development of new, productive economic sectors. In part, this is because political competition has not revolved around serious thinking about policy alternatives for long-term development, but around winning elections in the short-term, the strategy for which is propaganda and access to easy rents from foreign aid, natural resources, and self-styled party financiers.

Not surprisingly, political office holders expend considerable energies on these areas of non-tax windfalls and most new programmes are linked to them. Consider the case of the recent social interventions. While the political parties may claim credit for them, these programmes actually reflect shifts in donor preferences toward humanitarian and so-called pro-poor initiatives, while allowing politicians to extend patronage reach, such as through cash transfers and other non-tradeable services.

In both the NDC and NPP governments, party functionaries have overnight become businessmen and women; prominent financiers have been favoured in government contracts; and previously unemployed party foot soldiers have been found jobs in all manner of schemes. The ruling elite’s sense of political vulnerability and dependence compels it to tolerate high levels of impunity from the lower ranks of the coalition. The result is constant inter-party and intra-party acrimony, intensified by the failure of the ruling elite to create conditions for the expansion of employment.

In some cases, impatient party foot soldiers have even seized public facilities (including public toilets), dismissed the previous employees suspected to be members of the opposition, and then installed themselves as the new employees and bosses, while government officials looked on haplessly. Whereas high-flying cases like Woyomegate dominate the public debate, all of these are part of the primitive accumulation needed to ensure electoral survival.

But there is also the dangerous prospect that the hasty award of judgment debts, sometimes without the full facts of the case having been established, might very well be part of this strategy of primitive accumulation to build an electoral war chest. The overall effect would be to divert significant national resources from productive uses toward political patronage and regime survival. To put it in simple language, what we have as democracy is simply a political system in which every four or eight years we send a different group into government to “chop” from foreign aid and resource rents. This is probably one of the reasons why the system is stable: most of the elite, from politicians to civil society activists, get the chance to chop, while bribing the rest of the population that they claim to represent, or speak for, with small change in the form of humanitarian aid and social interventions.

If competitive clientelism, in all its various manifestations, continues to persist in Ghana’s political culture, newfound oil wealth cannot become the magic wand for development any more than could cocoa, gold, timber, bauxite, diamond, and manganese revenues combined. How to deal with it?

Kobina Idun-Arkhurst (kobkurst@gmail.com)

Columnist: Idun-Arkhurst, Kobina