Will the rise of the African middle class strengthen democracy?

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Sandton City Mall Johannesburg, South Africa/Jeff Attaway
Sandton City Mall Johannesburg, South Africa/Jeff Attaway
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A lot has been written about the African middle class – that it will demand greater accountability and check the abuse of power, strengthening democracy. But cynics have pointed out that the middle class is actually still fairly small, and that members of the middle class are actively involved in funding and sustaining governments that show little concern for political rights and civil liberties. So what is the political impact of the middle class? In this blog, Mathias Søgaard sets out to answer four key questions: Does Africa have a middle class, If so, how does it manifest itself, What is the danger that it becomes suppressed, and how can it be supported?
1. Does Africa Have a Middle Class?
The answer is an unequivocally yes.

That was the easy part, the next one if tougher. Since there is a middle class on the sub-African continent, then how big is it? To measure its size, we have to agree on the definition.

What Is the Definition of the Middle Class?

When can a person be included as belonging to the middle class? It seems easy, the middle class is the social and economic class that lays between the lower class and the upper class.

Reality seems to be far more difficult.

Economist William Easterly concluded that you belong to the middle class if your income could be found between the 20th and 80th percentile in terms of consumption distribution:

“Bill Easterly of New York University selected those who were in the three middle quintiles of income (leaving out the poorest 20% and the richest 20%).” (The Economist 2009)

But in some African countries, if you earn just $10 a day, you belong to the richest 20 %, but that does not mean, you are no longer the middle class, or you for that matter can be seen as part of the upper class.

Another popular method is simply to include people who earn between a fixed amount of money to another fixed amount of money.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) preferred this measurement in their report of 2011.

This brief uses an absolute definition of per capita daily consumption of $2-$20 in 2005 PPP US dollars to characterize the middle class in Africa (…) By 2010, the middle class had risen to 34% of Africa’s population—or nearly 350 million people.

Meaning roughly 1 out of 3 African belongs to the middle class of 2010, according to the AfDB.

However, under chapter 3, the AfDB says:

A stricter definition of the middle class using a minimum threshold of $4 per day, therefore, yields a middle-class population of about 138 million people in Africa.

Suddenly, the middle class drops by more than 50 % just by raising the bar from $2 to $4. That is a serious arbitrary drop.

In 2015, the Suisse Bank made their own estimate on the size of the African middle class. They used the US as a benchmark (one can ask why). To be part of the middle class, you had to have “somewhere between $50,000 and $500,000 USD in wealth, adjusted for purchasing power by country”. Their conclusion was that,

…just 18 million people, or 3.3% of Africa’s adult population, is middle class.

But the choice of only using income as threshold appears arbitrary, that tells us very little about the middle class. Your income is a factor, but it is not the only factor.

When the middle class is defined by arbitrary numbers, statistics become equally arbitrary, hence the size of the middle class becomes so politicised that numbers solely based on monetary thresholds become manipulative. I would also say such estimates are academic laziness and illustrate the danger of desk reports.

In 2014, Professor Nic Cheeseman spends a huge portion of his introduction to the middle-class arguing against the randomness by economists when they use income as the only factor when talking about the African middle class. He introduces another yet extremely important factor, power.

Most notably, Barrington Moore‟s own argument did not rest on the size of the middle class or the income distribution in society, but on the ability of the middle class to act independently of the state, and thus to undermine its hegemonic ambitions.

Income plays a role, but the middle class is important due to their perceived reforming power. Through their income, they become independent from the state, which they can try to change thereby undermining the control by a small elite and force authoritarian regimes to become increasingly democratic.

Lastly, Afrobarometer prefers to define poverty or lack thereof based on the fulfilment of people’s basic necessities. Less about a financial threshold, more on your ability to cater to your needs. They call this the Lived Poverty Index (LPI). They ask African respondents if they can afford food, medicine, cooking oil and water every day and if they access to income. A stable, sustainable income is one of the key criteria that differs from the middle class from the lower class.

That brings me to Lisa Mueller. In her bookPolitical Protest in Contemporary Africa from 2018, she defines the middle class as:

[T]he stratum of Africans who meet their basic material needs with income from sources outside the state. (Mueller 2018: 9)

Her definition includes the factor of money, the need to meet your basic necessities and the potential transforming power by not relying on the state for your income. If you rely on the state for your financial safety, then you are less likely to rebel against the state, since you do not bite the hand that feeds you.

Hey, what about the size of the middle class, you might ask? I have to admit, I do not know the exact size. The quality of data from most African countries is inferior and incomplete vis-a-vis the book Africa – Why Economists Get It Wrong by economist Morten Jerven and 23 Things They Do Not Tell You About Capitalism by economist Ha-Joon Chang.

Furthermore, what counts as income or wealth? How do we estimate the wealth of pastoralists and their cattle or the value of the land owned by farmers?

But even I do not dare to mention the size of the middle class, I dare to say, that the middle class is growing, which is visible through the noise they make. You might not have heard the noise, but the African leaders have. In 2015, former Ghanaian president, John Dramani Mahama, complained about the innumerable strikes that hit the country. He told the protesters, that he had a “dead goat syndrome“. 

2. How Does the Middle Class Manifest Itself – The Third Wave

A quick historical tour de force from colonialism to modern day Africa in relation to the middle class. Let’s make one thing absolutely clear, colonialism was poisonous to Africa and Africans. Several highly specialised African empires predate colonialism, especially in the more densely populated West Africa, but also along the African East Coast. Colonialism was detrimental for the surviving of the established middle class.

In the book Globalization and the cultures of business in Africa by Scott Taylor, he writes

In the main, black entrepreneurship throughout the continent was not only discouraged under colonial rule but deliberately quashed, deprived of finance, access to free labor, a market to in which to compete, and even of consumers, as blacks were disgorged from their own land, heavily taxed, and subjected to artificially low wages. (2012: 29)

Professor Mahmoud Mamdani exemplifies this even better in his book Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism from 1996.

Walter Rodney wrote, that the African peasant went into colonialism with a hoe and came out with a hoe; he should have added that the hoe with which the peasant with in was locally made; the hoe the peasant came out with was imported! (1996: 146)

1st Wave –  the War for Independence (ca. 1960s)

Particularly the urban African elite fought for independence, where they took advantage of the grievances of the people. But the elite turned the colonial hegemony upside down, from decentralised despotism to centralised despotism. To return to Mamdani:

The outcome, however, was not to dismantle despotism through a democratic reform; rather it was to reorganize decentralized power so as to unify the “nation” through a reform that tended to centralization. The antidote to a decentralized despotism turned out to be a centralized despotism. (1996: 25)

A small African elite replaced the white colonial power, but the colonial hegemony remained more or less intact.

Another result was that the middle class stratum became state funded through the rentier states. This middle class or rather state patrons had no incentive to bite the hand, that fed them.

This led to the second wave. It is commonly referred to as the democratic wave, I prefer a different name though.

2nd Wave- the African Spring (late 1980s – early 1990s)

The second wave happened during the end of the Cold War, where western powers began to provide conditional aid often associated with good governance. But this story leaves out the main characters, the Africans. In Africa unions grew in strength, so did people’s anger and dissatisfaction with the one-party state and the exclusive elite. This led to nation-wide continuous protests orchestrated by the unions (Nic Cheeseman 2015, Democracy in Africa Successes, Failures, and the Struggle for Political Reform). As the Arab Spring more than two decades later, the African Spring saw a huge number of dictators fell from Benin to Zambia. Several states also introduced term limits and the presidents obeyed the term limits, even some did so more willingly than others. All this due to the power of the people.

But the democratisation did not dismantle the colonial hegemony, where the police remained bodyguards for the elite rather than protectors of the people. African leaders also began to learn how to rig elections, but in such a way, that the elections appeared legit on the surface. The democratisation also led to a liberalisation of the market creating a middle class independent of the state. This sets in the motion of the current wave.

3rd Wave – the need for true democratic reforms and access to wealth (2011-?)

Following the second wave, the hopes were high. When Nigeria transitioned to a democratic, civil rule in 1999, an obituary was published. The signed author Public Victim starts the obituary with “

We happily announce the sudden death of Mr. Corruption…” (Daniel J. Smith2008: 114)

However, things did not go as planned. Nigerian Obasanjo took corruptions to a whole new level and the following election of 2003 was so corrupt, that it superseded even normal Nigerian standards.

In Zambia, President Kenneth Kaunda had been the only president the country ever had. In 1991, he allowed for multi-parliamentarism. President Kaunda faced opponent Frederic Chiluba, who was supported by the unions. Chiluba won, and he began to undermine the unions who had helped him to power and corruption grew. What should have paved the wave for progress, ended as a spectacular anti-climax.

Even more stable democracies as Senegal and Ghana have witnessed increasing numbers of protests. The people do not feel, that democratisation has fulfilled the hopes they had. The elites have also gained experience in holding elections, that seems fair on the outside, but are systematically rigged, hence the opposition parties are still running with one or both hands tied behind their back.

The third wave can roughly be divided into two groups. The middle class, who in relations to organising demonstrations act like generals and the poorer people who act like foot soldiers recruited by the generals (Mueller 2018). The latter group does not feel they are included in the current economic growth, rather they find it harder to make a living, while the elite appears to get richer and richer.

But unlike the second wave, this time the middle class are able to operate independently from the state and they have teamed up with the common people from the lower classes. This allows more people to organise protests aimed to reform the state. Between 2011 and 2016, roughly 20,000 major protests took place across Sub-Saharan Africa (Mueller 2018: 1), where the focus was to fulfil the hopes and dreams of the people promised during the second wave.

But as the example of Chiluba illustrates, when your candidate beats the dictator, your candidate is not guaranteed to listen to your needs. Once in office and he tastes the privileges from a system still having its foundation from the colonial era, you have to be able to kick him out.

3. The Dangers if the Middle Class Does Not Listen to the Foot Soldiers

Generally speaking, Sub Saharan African countries are still to an alarming extent depended on the export of raw materials while they import manufactured goods. That Ghana still heavily relies on the export of raw cocoa beans while they import chocolate, that is bordering blasphemy. To repeat Mamdani, before colonialism the peasant used locally made hoes, and during colonialism, the peasants had to purchase imported hoes.

Today production is still done outside of Africa. Things have not changed much. African countries are still under-industrialised. A minor elite controls the raw materials, and when prices on raw materials go up, this elite reaps the benefits, but the common people do not. Furthermore, this leaves a large percentage of the people either unemployed or underemployed, because the jobs and money are in the value-added production. In short, wealth is excluded to a very small circle of people. That creates a small exclusive upper class of extreme riches, a small but growing middle class and an enormous class of people living near or below the UN poverty line of $1.90 a day.

Unlike during colonialism, today, the middle class operates independently from the state, but their success is dependent on the foot soldiers, the lower class.

In Senegal, when former President Wade tried to run for a third and illegitimate term in office in 2012, the middle class went to the streets with signs saying “don’t touch my constitution”. However, the recruited foot soldiers had their own slogan “don’t touch my table” (Mueller 2018: 20).

The two groups joined hands, but their agendas were very different. The middle class was focused on political changes; the poor wanted access to wealth so they could afford food and basic necessities. Though that been said, the vast majority of Africans support democracy (Afrobarometer 2016), however, democracy has not only failed Africans, which facilitates the third wave, but several African countries are not even democratic.

Of course, this is not because democracy is failing Africa, but because most of Africa is not actually democratic. (Brian Klaas 2016: 159)

The middle class benefits from having a stable, decent income. Unlike students or vendors. This allows members within the middle class to dedicate themselves to the cause of organising protests and become protest-leaders, which has become a profession, where people cooperate across borders to learn from one another. But the middle class still live in a system that needs complex reforms to take the needed actions against the colonial hegemony the past waves failed to dismantle. To not only deracialise the system, but to democratise the system to end a system favouring despots.

However, when a person is carried all the way to the presidency supported by the middle class and the foot soldiers, it is important, the president remembers the grievances and daily problems experienced by the foot soldiers too, and not just focus on political issues.

When a person becomes president through the shared effort of the people protesting and president forgets the foot soldiers, the consequences can be dire. People feel used. They have spent time and energy to get a person elected, then the person ends hiring his own people, who then relish in the privileges inherited from the colonial system specially designed to protect the elite and disenfranchise the people.

Positively, a president’s terms in office will likely be short, as we have witnessed in countries like Ghana and Nigeria, where President John Dramani Mahama and Goodluck Jonathan each only survived one term in office before being voted out of said office.

In Niger and Burkina Faso, each president experienced a coup d’état due to the popular uprising, and protests forced the President of DR Congo, Joseph Kabila, to not proceed for a third term in office.

But Kenya and Nigeria tell a more grim story of what the marginalised groups can do when they feel betrayed.

In Kenya, David Ndii argued during the recent electoral dispute in 2017, that:

I think it’s quite clear that if change will not come through the ballot, it will come through the bullet some day.

He continues to warn Kenya, that Kenya might split into two. Behind the words, he warns Kenyans, that the current political climate, where political aspirants use people for their power greed can throw the country into civil war.

Nigeria tells a similar story. Professor Nic Cheeseman narrates how the Niger Delta has become one of the most dangerous places, not only in Nigeria but in the world. The then government party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), had redistributed small arms to local militias to secure the ballots. But after the election had been held, the gangs felt betrayed and alienated by the PDP, and they began to form independent militias leading to a proliferation of gangs and violence spiralling out of control (Cheeseman 2015: 164).

This is the main problem. If the aspirating political-middle class forget to uphold their fair share of the bargain –taking the grievances of the common people serious and securing redistributing of wealth to the foot soldiers – they might find themselves not only losing the election, but the people’s demand for bread on the table can lead from unrest to riots to civil war. As Ndii puts it, to choose between change through the ballots or bullets.

4 What Is the Danger if the Voices of the Middle-Class Are Suppressed by the International Community?

We have systems in most African countries, that still have not seen needed reforms since the first wave of independence, meaning the system of decentralised despotism is still in place, however, the African elite has turned the colonial system to benefit themselves, making themselves despots.

Elections are held in always every single African country (current exceptions are Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan, and Swaziland). But several African leaders have made rigging almost an art form. In Togo and Zimbabwe, regions known to vote for the opposition, the government makes its harder to obtain a birth certificate. No birth certificate, means you are unable to prove you are a citizen. If you cannot prove, you are a citizen, you are not allowed to vote (or the right to education, healthcare, or land). In Uganda and Rwanda, opposition candidates are placed in house arrests preventing them from campaigning.

In some places, parties offer people food or money in return for their voting registration. The seller (the voter) gets X, and the buyer (the party in power) makes sure this person no longer can vote. If you upscale this in communities known to sympathise with the opposition, you have been able to buy the election without any observer noticed anything at the voting stations.

The Kenyan election of 2017 also demonstrated a more sinister rigging strategy. Digital rigging. When you use paper, it leaves a paper trail, you can double check for inaccuracies. But if you make your election entire digital, then there is no paper trail, and it makes the system vulnerable for hacking, theoretically handing over the election to the sitting president without leaving a trace.

Some leaders use the fear of violence. During the Liberian election of 1997 and the Burundian constitution referendum of 2018, the people were not giving a reel choice. In the Liberian case, the formal election was between then-president Charles Taylor and his opponent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Taylor won. The people understood, the choice was not between Taylor and Sirleaf, but Taylor or war. They preferred Taylor.

A similar story of the Burundian referendum. The people knew, that the president was not asking if they wanted him to stay for a third term in office or not, he was asking the people, if they wanted to vote yes or to let a new civil war break out. He secured enough votes to amend the constitution.

For more, the book How To Rig an Election from 2018 by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas is more than recommendable. 

When the international community accepts such elections, that are not open, not free, not transparent and non-inclusive, they enable such dictators to thrive and hence preventing democratic changes by crushing the middle class.

We have also seen some Western donors support the status quo because it feels safe. You know what you have, you do not know what you get.

Lastly, Western countries are short-term oriented. Nothing shows this more clearly than how Europe handles the current migration waves from Africa to Europe.

While we have a democratic middle-class fighting for democratisations, then western donors support African leaders, who belong to the upper-class elite, who have no interest in changing the system, that currently benefits them.

Aid is giving to African leaders, who in return make themselves invaluable to the European cause to hamper migration. When an African leader turns into a strategical ally based on violence and force, the leader can get away with more (red rigging) and elections will still be accepted. These African leaders receive a huge amount of money they can use against protesters and opposition candidates. The EU has given Sudan more than € 200 million to halt migrations, where the money is allocated to the Rapid Support Forces, who took part in the Darfur genocide.

The same patterns can be seen in Libya, Niger and Chad among other countries.

In Sept. 2018, Deutsche Welt published this documentary where it says:

Europe is paying African states billions of euros to act as its new border police. Development aid is being used as a bargaining chip to control immigration.

More people are now dying trying to cross the Sahara Desert than trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. To watch the 43 min. documentary, click here

The result on the short-term is that yes, fewer Africans will be able to make the journey from African to the shores of Europe because they are stopped or they die. But it is done by putting a lit on the pot, then turning up the heat. The tensions between the middle class and the African despots are growing, and it is a potential time bomb. The vast number of people fighting to make a living, they will be vulnerable to militias offering them a living. If people fail to trust in the power of the ballot, some will choose bullets. That will create more refugees since war is the outcome.

5. What Can Be Done to Support the Middle Class?

Some might say, that well, it seems like I want to say that all African leaders are the problem. That is not correct. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation awards former African heads of state, that have “demonstrated exceptional leadership”.

In 2007, the first prize was awarded to the former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano. Since 2007, five people have been awarded this prize. It shows two things. 1) good leaders exist, 2) and they are not plenty.

Though even numerous African presidents have not been awarded the Mo Ibrahim Prize, does not mean they are bad. Some African presidents are beginning to listen to the people’s demands, where we see progress. African leaders are not only the problem, but they also part of the solution.

Good presidents can, however, not be elected, as long as bad presidents are awarded for winning rigged elections. So the first thing the international community can do, without spending any money, could be to simply not accept the winner of rigged elections. This should be done by the EU, but also by the African Union (AU) and the African economic communities. It will also hand over more power to the people, by making it easier for them to kick out bad leaders when they do not deliver.

Donors shall also begin to think long-term and not just short-term. Aiding despots in order to prevent refugees and migrants to reach Europe is like wetting yourself. It provides some warmth at first. In this context, the pee then turns into gasoline and turns everything into a bonfire.

Lisa Mueller provides some departing words too. Protesters can be viewed as heroes or as troublemakers. She advocates trusting the African social movements dominated by the African middle class. She argues donors are too risk-averse (2018: 202). Support the middle class in words and actions. Again, 20,000 protests. That is a wake-up call and a sign the middle class is becoming the transformative power.

As I have tried to argue, donors trying to protect the status quo, hence not taking any risks, is what among other things fuels the conflicts, therefore is risk-seeking. What can turn heroes into troublemakers.

Lastly, in his book of 2016, The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of DemocracyBrian Klaas reminds western donors, that democracy takes several forms. The versions of democracies donors hail as the best one, might not be for everyone. So we shall trust Africans can find their version of democracy, even if it differs (2016: 189), and we have to support the democratic movements, even if it challenges the status quo. For now, donors speak about democracy, but the middle class that democracy has helped to create are abandoned by donors.

Mathias Søgaard is a researcher with an MA in African Studies and Human Rights, and a BA in Comparative Religion.

This blog was first published by The African Blog.

1 COMMENT

  1. This is great food for thought! I love it. I have observed elsewhere on this website that culture trumps everything, even in the realms of politics. Africa’s great misfortune is not have a viable culture that offers fertile soil in which a ‘middle class’ may be founded and allowed to prosper. The Northern Hemisphere (The West) have Judaism and the Christian religion, the Arab world have Islam, the South and East Asian world have Hinduism and Buddhism; and, the Chinese in particular, have Confucius. Africa has never enjoyed such a gift – not even the so-called Ubuntu comes close. The absence of a unifying ‘religion or thought or philosophy’ has seriously undermined Africa’s ability to birth and grow a ‘middle class’ capable of challenging the status quo in Africa – best endeavours not withstanding.

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