Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
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In Africa: An Intersection of Citizenship and Clientelism

August 3, 2010

Theoretical models cannot fully account for the diversity of West African political identities and experiences, argued Lauren MacLean, assistant professor of political science at Indiana University, during a talk at the Institute last semester. In Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, indigenous understandings of politics challenge the conventional opposition between “citizenship” and “clientelism,” MacLean said.

Theorists often associate African politics with the clientelism model, which almost always carries negative connotations of corrupt and exploitative patron-client relationships. However, citizens of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire look favorably on facets of their political reality that might be considered clientelist, MacLean said, which suggests the need for a closer examination of the effects of politics on everyday lives. She points out that voting is not the only way people engage in politics.

“You need to look beyond elections to everyday politics to understand how people think about their role in their political community,” she said.

MacLean designed her research to reveal both cross-national and sub-national variations in everyday politics. First, she examined different conceptualizations of politics in diverse regions of Ghana. Second, she compared the political attitudes of two villages – one in Ghana and one in Cote d’Ivoire – that shared common ethnic heritage, socio-economic standing, and level of education.

The political diversity within Ghana was remarkable, MacLean said. While in many regions, Ghanaians knew more about local political actors than national or pan-African representatives, Ghanaians felt more closely connected to national politicians. This kind of variation should make political scientists cautious when generalizing about “Ghanaian politics” or “Ivoirian politics,” she said.
MacLean also identified a divergence in political attitudes across national borders. Political interactions were personalized for Ivoirians, who referred to politicians by name. Ghanaians, however, referred to their politicians by their offices, suggesting a greater distance between citizen and representative.

Understandings of political rights also differed starkly. While Ghanaians hoped their political representatives would provide roads, electricity, social services, and other goods for collective use, Ivoirians demanded goods for individual consumption, MacLean said, recalling one Ivoirian who wanted her representative to build her a house.

Though her study focused on indigenous understandings rather than causal explanations, MacLean argued that such differences stem from Ghana’s and Cote d’Ivoire’s diverging histories of state formation.

MacLean’s fieldwork suggested that the clear differences between citizenship and clientelism might not be so clear after all. In contrast to the lack of transparency often attributed to clientelism, Ivoirians and Ghanaians privileged institutional measures of accountability – such as written laws – over informal measures of accountability, MacLean said. Likewise, individualist political demands in Cote d’Ivoire do not fit the clientelist framework.

Ultimately, this divergence between theory and reality underscores the need for a more “ethnographic approach to studying politics,” MacLean said.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Juliana Friend '11