Thursday, October 8, 2009

Urbanization in Sudan.... reflections from Burkina Faso

I've just finished reading a nice article by Ernest Harsch, in African Affairs, 2009, Vol 108, "Urban Protest in Burkina Faso."  Since the press liberalized over the latter part of the 1990s, it became possible for someone to do a count of all the urban protest events in the major Burkinabe cities and towns.  Obviously there are some biases in the reporting and publication, but it is a really useful exercise, and I am glad someone has done it.  What do we learn from the exercise?  Something that is common sense, but important to raise in tems of salience, and espcially relevant for Sudan.  Urbanization is proceeding quickly in Burkina, Sudan, and other African countries.  The skills of managing large urban centers are very different from those of managing rural hinterlands.  Indirect rule through tribal chiefs just isn't possible, and instead a political leader has to manage an enormous bureaucracy, a bureacracy prone to commiting many acts of commision (bulldozing a residential area for "improvement") and omission (letting a marketplace become a chaotic fire hazard). 

The political leader becomes responsible for all of these flashpoints that generate urban protest movements that have the capacity to snowball.  Burkina's experience offers a good lesson for dictators like al-Bashir.... get on the decentralization bandwagon quickly and effectively.  What Harsch seems to suggest is that a lot of the urban protests are local- they are directed indeed at the local municipal officials.  The national government then gets to play the role of mediator/fixer, which adds to its legitimacy.  That's a good place to be for a regime with little legitimacy. 

Why doesn't every dictator do this?  Presumably because the more decentralization, the more a city official might become a threat to the President's clique.  Here's where another paper I've been reading Lindsay Whitfield "‘Change for a Better Ghana’: Party Competition, Institutionalization and Alternation in Ghana’s 2008 Elections", also in African Affairs 2009 "(detecting a pattern here?) comes in... She discusses the successful national election in Ghana in 2008, and attributes the largely peaceful alternance that has greatly strengthened Ghanaian institutional legitimacy as due to an ever-stronger coalescing around a two-party system that cuts across ethnic, regional and class lines. 

So the right thing for a national dictator to do seems to me to replicate as much as possible two-party competition at the city and town level, so that city politicians have to keep their eyes on working for the city, and it becomes harder for them to challenge the president- the distraction of national politics will cause them to lose the next city election.

Side note: Maybe there is more democracy in English-speaking Africa because the word change is so easy to use in English, and bores deep into the brains of English speakers, while in French the word alternance is a plate of soggy frites.... I mean freedom fries....

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