Elections in Africa are won through rallies – but those rallies are changing

A rally in Tanzania/CREDIT: Chadema
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In much of Africa, election campaigns are fought through rallies. People not only see them on the screens but attend them in person at scale. In these rally-intensive campaigns, rallies are pivotal to who wins elections and who loses them.

But these rallies are changing. The format of the rally – speaker addresses audience’ – is deceptively simple. It belies how much goes into making a rally work.

For the last ten years, I have studied rallies in Tanzania. When it comes to rallies, Tanzania is emblematic. Rally attendance is sky high across much of Africa, but Tanzania has the highest known rate of rally attendance in the world. I conducted eight months of ethnographic field research during the 2015 election campaign in Tanzania. I have wanted innumerable Tanzanian rallies since. That research has just been published.

Rally attendance in Africa

Source: Afrobarometer Round 8.

What I learned in conversations with veteran campaigners and activists is that rallies in Tanzania used to be produced by practices in which people were the agents. In some places, they still are. Organisers needed to spread the news about rallies, so they dispatched callers to go from street to street. They had party members tell their friends and neighbours. They needed to draw a crowd, so they would have party activists go from door to door and chivvy, coax and nudge people into attending. They would gather supporters at the rally so that the first to show would not feel like the only ones at a party. They would produce events that people wanted to attend. They would have a woman’s choir sing and dance. They would have praise singers perform. They would have local dignitaries speak. They would arrange a welcome committee to greet the candidate’s arrival with reverence and jubilation. They would turn to all of their activists, hired hands and shills to orchestrate the climax of the rally in celebration.

Many of these practices are kept up at rallies today. I witnessed them all play out at numerous events, big and small. But over time, new practices have been developed. These new practices fulfil many of the same functions as the old, but in them, devices, not people, are the principal or co-agents. I saw these practices playing out alongside them.

Today, in Tanzania, rallies are announced not only by callers, but PA-systems mounted on trucks. Attendees are mobilised not only by party foot soldiers on their door steps, but transported to the venue on free buses. Stages, instead of being erected on site, fold-out from custom-designed trucks, trucks which are accompanied by a procession of vehicles which transport the accompanying mobile screens, amplifiers, lights and generators.

It’s not just the preparation rally site or the drawing of the crowd which has changed, but the ceremony of candidate arrival. Today politicians arrive at the motorcades tens or hundreds of vehicles long. These trains of vehicles make the entire journey part of the campaign. They project the presence, the audacity and the jubilance of the campaign as they cut noisily across towns and cities. They make the candidate’s arrival momentous, and heap prestige upon their person. Today, some has substituted, or complemented the motorcade with the helicopter. The helicopter brings speed, but it also brings showpersonship. It watched as helicopters, instead of delivering candidates directly to the rally site, arced, banked, hovered and bedazzled those below. I witnessed crowds gather to behold it. I saw helicopters circle towns to draw others to the event. I saw the glamour and status which the helicopter draped upon the politicians that emerged from it.

In these ways, and others besides, how rallies are staged, choreographed and performed is changing. Old ways of doing so are being hybridized with new practices and devices. The rallies born of these amalgams are spectacles without parallel, crafted to entertain and to impress.

A rally in Tanzania with a helicopter/CREDIT: Chadema

Photo used with permission by Chadema.

I have unearthed many of the intricacies of these practices in Tanzania, but this is a process which is underway, and perhaps has been for some time, in many other places, not least in Africa. It is vividly apparent if one watches the live-streamed, no-expense spared mega-rallies of national leaders, from President Bola Tinubu in Nigeria to Nelson Chamisa in Zimbabwe. Yet, most importantly, there are signs that these innovations in rally production are being adopted by parliamentary and indeed municipal candidates. At the extreme, in Kenya, helicopters have been adopted en masse, perhaps by as many as one in six politicians.

In some ways, of course, this path has been trodden before, in different places and for many years. It was trodden in the integration of stenographers in Victorian Britain to make rallies not only mass events but simultaneously press events. It was trodden in the incorporation of cameras in 1930s USA to make them simultaneously events for cinematic newsreels.

But what I argue is that as this process of transformation takes place in Tanzania, it changes what politicians need to produce rallies, and compete in election campaigns. They used to need people to undertake all of those time-consuming activities. In the Tanzanian context, that meant that they needed party structures, which could recruit and organise activists. Now they need people and money, money to pay for all of those costly devices. That means, increasingly, that to produce rallies and compete in elections, candidates have to be rich or have the support of rich persons. In other words, candidates used to need organizations. Now they need financiers. Rallies are changing, and it matters.

Dr. Dan Paget is a lecturer in politics at the University of Aberdeen. You can find more of his work at danpaget.com.

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