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October 21st, 2014

Africa: Money and Politics – Friends or Foes?

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Editor

October 21st, 2014

Africa: Money and Politics – Friends or Foes?

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Since the 1980s and early 90s the majority of African countries have held open, competitive and inclusive elections. This marks remarkable progress compared to the preceding post-colonial decades where one-party rules or dictatorships reigned throughout much of the continent.

These steps towards democracy have, in part, manifested through a more transparent and credible electoral process. However, it does not mean these elections have been without their flaws. Indeed there are still several challenges that remain.

A man puts his voting slip into a ballot box
Photo: Rui Vieira/PA

One of the key obstacles that persists in the running of campaigns and elections is the rising costs of organizing elections and the sources of this money. In the quest to consolidate its democracies, many African countries are being swayed by the monetary investments coming from a few elite individuals.

The power of the voting box is increasingly coming under threat by the power of the purse. Money – its origin and the way it is used during elections – is fast becoming a determining factor, influencing not only who wins, but also how the democracy eventually functions.

The problem with money

It goes without saying that electoral campaigns are expensive endeavors. But the problems with money – from the high cost, its (potentially questionable) sources, to the concomitant effects this has on democracy – is neither new nor particular to Africa.

Money issues in elections ring true the world over, from older more ‘established’ democracies through to the newer ‘nascent’ ones. For example, in the US 2008 Presidential elections, candidates spent a total of some $2.3 billion (Obama spending around US$715 m and McCain around US$446 m).

In France’s own 2012 Presidential elections, where the ceiling on expenditures for each of the two candidates competing for the second round is set at about US$29m, Hollande and Sarkozy spent around US$28m and US$27m respectively.

In African elections, while most political parties do not publish their expenditures, we can estimate (based on media and attestations from individuals directly involved in election campaigns), that each major political candidate and party may spend upwards of US$20m to US$60m.

These figures look quite high when compared to the ceilings in France and the UK.

The politics-money issue has been broached in different countries and at various times, but usually in regards to the same two questions: who are the source(s) of these funds, and what impact does this bear on political decisions made post-elections? Established democracies, such as those in the US, UK or France, themselves grapple with these questions, while young democracies, such as those in Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America, often do not even know where to start.

Sources of funds

The costly nature of running campaigns leads some political parties and candidates to engage in unlawful activities. This may involve exploiting state funds to support daily activities during the electoral campaigns, such as relying on state vehicles to transport candidates, using state institutions’ office equipment or monopolizing state-owned media to become their personal mouthpieces.

Other ways leaders may try to generate more funds to support their campaign endeavors include the use of public funds as they are generated from the manipulation of public procurement processes (i.e. by awarding the implementation of public projects to those willing to return back a portion of the money), from the misappropriation of funds provided for projects that are not actually implemented, or from financial investments that are not actually made in the interest of the public.

The impact of these funding malpractices can pose disastrous consequences on the management of public businesses. For example, when appointing individuals to decision-making positions, politicians will favor those most willing to play the “misappropriation game” and not necessarily those who are most competent. Obviously this bears subsequent effects on the quality of state-implemented projects. And last, but certainly not least, these malpractices tend to lead to the allocation of public funds to finance low-priority projects that may be completely irrelevant to the actual development needs of that country.

A second source of funding that politicians may turn to when financing their political activities is wealthy and influential domestic and foreign businessmen. In Ghana’s 1992, Cameroon’s 1997 and Benin’s 2011 presidential elections, candidates were reported to have been backed by (small) groups of businessmen who provided large donations to fund these electoral campaigns. These large donations to presidential hopefuls may come with “strings attached”, as exemplified in Benin after recent elections resulted in a select few benefitting from the privatization of one of the country’s key economic sectors, the cotton industry.

In other countries, it has been reported that large donors may also nominate state secretaries to control specific governmental portfolios (for example, ministries in charge of trade, agriculture, health, and other ministries where large public procurements take place).

Alternatively, the government may simply involve themselves directly in money laundering schemes with affluent businessmen.

And perhaps worse of all, a third possible source of funding is emanating from money laundering and drug trafficking. Using this type of “dirty money” to fund political activities undoubtedly contributes to the distortion of the electoral politics – leaving an uneven electoral playing field where money may be used to buy votes and criminal activities can ensue. Quite obviously this type of manipulation has disastrous effects on the governance of most countries. The latter may include a weakening of state institutions, corruption and cooptation of government officials, a perversion of the justice systems and even instability in some of the countries in question – Mali and Guinea Bissau serving as prime examples.

Use of funds

Aside from analyzing the source of money funding political activities – particularly during election time – another key area to scrutinize is how this money is used. A typical way that funds can be exploited is in the manipulation of state institutions and intermediary bodies. For example, buying votes, through direct distribution of cash or other forms of remuneration is not uncommon during, and even post-election. It is not uncommon to hear of vote-buying practices of parliamentarians or civil society organizations (or even having the latter entirely created and run by politicians who work in cahoots with those in power).

The consequences of these illicit practices on the development and the consolidation of democracy are severe. Presidential candidates may not be elected on the basis of their political or economic vision for the country, but rather on how much money is spent before and during elections. It is the state institutions, and the other intermediary bodies, whose failure to ensure the proper use of public funds that weakens governance systems as a whole. Then everyone – except those select, moneyed few – suffer the effects.

Ways forward

How can young democracies, such as those in Africa, manage with the funding issues explained above? There are no simple answers, and a multi-dimensional approach is required. First and foremost, the gaps in legislations on the financing of political activities must be bridged.

Legislation that improves the opportunity for all parties to fairly take part in elections should be put in place. This can be done by attributing an annual budget to political parties. With some countries having hundreds of registered political parties, the State cannot possibly provide funds to all – which would in fact likely encourage the creation of more parties. To prevent this situation, funds provided to political parties could be given in proportion to the results obtained in the previous election.

Second, public disclosure of funds raised, the source of funding and the amount spent should also be mandatory. This would ensure transparency at all levels, during the electoral cycles and beyond, and could prevent the misappropriation of state institution’s funds and the use of funds emanating from illegal activities.

Third, there is a need to make institutions in charge of monitoring political parties more effective. This can be done by ensuring they are held accountable in carrying out their mandates and that they have the necessary resources, including human capacity and legal backing, required to do so. Their ability to monitor political parties’ activities, investigate and verify transactions is often times limited by a lack of financial resources, minimal capacity and/or an inadequate legal frameworks. These must all therefore be re-enforced.

And finally, building awareness among citizens and encouraging collective responsibility among political parties are two other key measures that can help curb the practice of illicit political financing.

People must be sensitized about the link between the quality of their governance and the source and use of campaign money that put leaders there in the first place. It is only when citizens have the ability to monitor, and have the right to hold their leaders to account, that leaders will be less inclined to mishandle state affairs.

Holding political parties responsible for how their representatives in government behave is another highly effective way of ensuring accountability and transparency. For example, if and when a party member mismanages state resources it should be up to the party who placed them there to share in this responsibility. When there is both collective and individual engagement and responsibility, there is less likelihood of illicit practices.


To counter the nefarious effects that may arise from questionable financial sources and inappropriate use of funds during electoral periods, transparency measures must be put in place. The list of recommendations mentioned above is neither exhaustive nor does it offer immediate solutions. There are certainly other measures to consider.

Asset declaration from individuals running for office (before and after their mandates), the strengthening of anti-corruption courts and an improvement in the monitoring of public procurement processes are all examples of other ways to limit the embezzlement of public funds when running campaigns. They may also limit the attribution of key economic sectors to those select individuals contributing large amounts of money to candidates running for office.

Until young democracies in Africa get a firm handle on how to control and monitor the source and use of money during elections, these nations will forever struggle to consolidate their democracies. And until these democracies are strengthened and established, political systems in these places will never fully meet the needs of all its citizens. Money is certainly required to run elections but it must also arrive in full disclosure and with no strings attached.

This post originally appeared on AllAfrica.

Mathias Hounkpe is the Political Governance Manager of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).  Olivier Bucyana is OSIWA’s Political Governance Program Associate and an LSE alumnus.

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