By Bahram Rajaee, APSA director of international and external relations
The APSA Workshop on Elections and Democracy was convened in Accra, Ghana, from June 22 to July 10. It is the second of three annual residential workshops APSA will be organizing in Africa from 2008–2010 (the first workshop took place in Dakar, Senegal, in July 2008 at the facilities of the West African Research Center). This workshop series is generously supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and is a key part of APSA efforts to support the development of applied research networks linking U.S.-based scholars with colleagues overseas and supporting political science communities outside the United States.
The Accra workshop took place at the facilities of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon. It brought together 28 political scientists: 20 Africa-based participants from 10 different countries and four U.S.-based participants who were competitively selected last spring in addition to the four workshop leaders (two U.S. based, two Africa based). This diverse group included six women and 22 men as well as scholars ranging in age from their twenties to their early fifties. The full roster included:
Four U.S.-based graduate students were also selected to participate:
The Accra workshop leaders were:
Most of the workshop participants have submitted essays discussing their workshop experience. The following pages include a short introduction drafted by the workshop leaders and reflective essays submitted by three of them. All the remaining essays are available on PSOnline (http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal?jid=PSC)and will be reproduced in the 2009 Workshop Proceedings this fall. A special word of thanks goes to Helena Saele, the APSA staffer who has now been on the ground for both workshops, and the four workshop leaders for their respective roles in this very successful event.
For more information on the 2009 workshop or the overall project, including the calendar, picture galleries, syllabi, reading lists, as well as the official Workshop Proceedings, please visit the project Web site at http://www.apsanet.org/africaworkshops or contact us directly at email@example.com.
By Beatrix Allah-Mensah, Kevin S. Fridy, Daniel A. Smith, and Ukoha Ukiwo
The 2009 APSA Workshop on African Elections and Democracy was convened in Accra, Ghana, from June 22 through July 10. Generously supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the workshop was the second annual residential program APSA has organized in Africa. The workshop series is intended to increase research linkages between U.S.-based scholars and their African colleagues and advance the research of scholars in Africa. The sessions took place at the Institute for African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon. APSA staffer Helena Saele provided invaluable administrative and logistical support during the three-week program. Volunteer Natalie Wenzell recorded workshop proceedings.
The workshop was co-led by two America-based political scientists, Kevin S. Fridy (University of Tampa) and Daniel A. Smith (University of Florida), and two Africa-based political scientists, Beatrix Allah-Mensah (University of Ghana, Legon), and Ukoha Ukiwo (University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria). The workshop was comprised of 20 African-based scholars from across the continent and four America-based Ph.D. students. Participants presented current research during plenary sessions, discussed in small groups a large body of scholarly readings, interacted with guest speakers involved in Ghanaian politics, and began collaborative research efforts. Site visits included discussing politics with officials from Ghana's Electoral Commission, the national headquarters of Ghana's two major political parties, representatives of the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers and AfroBarometer, and members of Parliament. Participants also took weekend excursions to Kumasi, the heart of the Asante Kingdom; a slave castle in the coastal town of Elmina; and a canopy walk at Kakum National Park.
By Kevin S. Fridy, University of Tampa
Early on in the 2009 APSA Workshop on African Elections and Democracy in Accra, Ghana, a pattern was established that would dominate discussions throughout the three-week meeting. Whether the topic of a session be elections, social cleavages, party organizations, or campaigns, the same debate arose time and again. Sometimes heated though often playful, the recurring disagreement surreptitiously seeped into dinner conversations, social outings, and bus rides.
One side of this epic divide was populated primarily by the Africa-based scholars. Those in this camp argued that the concepts we as political scientists are, or at least should be, interested in are deeply experienced and not easily reducible to election results or Freedom House scores. Though the argument took many nuanced forms over the course of the workshop, two variants were more prevalent than the rest. Version one posited that in Nigeria things are just different. Our large contingent of Nigerians was more than happy to lead this charge in any and every venue. Democracy? Human rights? Development? Different, different, and different in Nigeria. Version two adopted sub-alternity as its lens. No matter how many people a particular analysis takes into consideration, there are a large group of Africans, several participants argued, who remain unseen and unconsidered, and on the subject of democracy in particular this is a sin. Without taking into account the opinions and concerns of market porters, bush meat hunters, and illiterate widows living far off the beaten path, our research is little more than status quo reconfirming propaganda.
On the other side of the workshop chasm the four workshop leaders and America-based graduate students took the lead. “Sure Nigeria is an interesting case,” I said in more than one break-out session, “but is there nothing we can learn from Ghana, or South Africa, or Mali, or the United States for that matter, that can help us better understand Nigerian politics?” The point here was that case studies done in isolation run a grave risk of turning into erudite anecdotes. Though the conference did not have a methodological agenda, participants taking up this mantle argued for more systematic studies, be they quantitative, qualitative, or experimental, and pushed those on the other side of the divide to think more “scientifically” about the projects they presented to the group. If I had a pesewa for every time a paper presenter was asked to add more cases, better explain how variables are functionalized, or find some way to account for a possible problem with endogeneity, I could buy several bags of groundnuts with the proceeds.
It took very little time for the substance of these disagreements, namely variables, to become to stuff of workshop legend. After asking two particularly pointed questions about variables in successive sessions, one participant became our honorary minister of variables. For the long trip back to Accra from Lake Bosomtwe, several participants imbibed an “independent variable” in the form of palm wine with the hypothesis that it would make the journey home less arduous. Our closing social event was held at a popular Accra nightclub at which point a sign appeared on the dance floor reading “Bring on the Variables.” While we had plenty of fun at variables' expense, the levity complemented what I think was a deeper message for us all. Validity in a variable is extremely important and reliability is equally so.
When I teach my introduction to political science course I stress to the students early on the merits of variable validity and reliability. I tell my students how important validity is because if they are interested in better understanding freedom, or poverty, or regime stability it makes little intuitive sense to look at a country's FIFA world ranking. We then revisit the concept from time to time in reference to a scholarly article that deals, usually statistically, with a particularly abstract variable like democracy or development. Reliability, on the other hand, we spend several weeks on. If any of my students decide to go on to advanced degrees in the social sciences I think it extremely important that they know how to select cases and make comparisons systematically and within the boundaries of “good” science. Though we do not get into many of the methods that are so prevalent in the pages of the American Political Science Association's journals at this introductory level, my goal for the largely first-year class is to diminish the role of anecdotes in building causal arguments.
This pattern of praising variable validity and reliability as equal components of well-done political science while simultaneously privileging reliability in our disciplinary discourse is a characteristic I come by honestly. It is a characteristic that problem-solving political scientists coming out of U.S. institutions of higher education have by and large either been self-selected for, or have been trained to accept as the status quo. There are notable exceptions within political science, especially within the field of theory, but it is this norm that makes these exceptions notable. My Africa-based colleagues taught me time and again at the workshop that the tables are reversed for them. Their institutions train and reinforce a very critical lens when concepts that embrace multiple meanings and interpretations are encountered. This inclination is reinforced when the concepts are foisted upon the continent by foreign academics, funding agencies, and governments.
The take-away message for me was that this continental clash of ideas needs to make all the workshop attendees a little more self-reflective in their own research. For me this means not just tucking my variables' social constructedness into a footnote, at least not without some serious internal dialogue and full disclosure. Having dealt with ethnic identities as an independent variable in the past I know the literature I need to cite about the construction of ethnic identities to assuage criticisms of primordialist interpretations. While taking a snapshot of ethnicity given some roughly constructed categories in a particular state should not be off limits for scholarly investigations, such an approach comes with built-in biases and it is a good idea for those doing this research to at a minimum be aware of these biases and take them seriously into account before coming to any programmatic conclusions. Anyone doing research with surveys or indexed variables constructed by “experts” would do well to follow suit and put serious effort into pushing our well-worn variables closer to the “real” concepts they purport to abstract. And my Africa-based colleagues are not without their own bit of work to do. It is not enough to simply fluff off statistical analysis, formal models, or survey techniques as not useful. While they may, or may not, be of use to an individual researcher, the need for reliability remains. How great would it be for Africa-based political scientists to come up with, or reinvent, systematic techniques of case selection, data collection, and analysis that move us closer to the ideal of reliability without sacrificing so much validity in the process? If we can all embrace these criticisms the discipline of political science and all of our beloved variables cannot help but be better off for our efforts.
By Ukoha Ukiwo, University of Port Harcourt
I was socialized into the scholarship tradition that privileged political economy in explanation of social reality. This tradition assigned primacy to material conditions in attempts to proffer explanations and solutions to social problems. Membership of the Port Harcourt School, as this tradition was once called, appealed to me for two reasons. First, as an indigent student who labored during the holidays but still had to skip some meals to survive when the school was in session, I could not agree more with my mentors that humankind's most fundamental needs were economic in nature. Second, keeping up with the Joneses was a very pragmatic thing to do as I came to realize in my undergraduate years that it stood you in good stead of convincing your assessors.
As commencement of graduate studies was contemporaneous with the third wave of democracy, one could not resist the urge to enlist into the exciting field of studies on democratization. The thesis for my M.Sc. in political theory demonstrated how economic hardships dialectically generated democratic transition but undermined democratic consolidation. Again this was the quintessential political economy argument that resonated in debates such as that on the nexus between democracy and economic development. Normatively, this was posed in the context of what the right to ballot meant to poor hungry souls. Political economy analysis of democratization also emerged in the debate of the implications of natural resource dependence for democratization with scholars postulating an inverse relationship between resource endowment (especially hydrocarbons) and democratic consolidation. Thus, from the accounts of both the (old) political economy and new political economy perspectives, these underpinning economic factors are insalubrious for democratic consolidation in most of the newly democratizing countries.
Political economy approaches are valuable because they provide insights to the difficulties of entrenching democracy in challenging economic terrains. They are however limited by the inherent inability to account for the differential performance of different countries, namely why some poor countries fare worse than some poorer countries, and why some resource-rich countries escape from the resource curse and enjoy democratic stability in the long run. This limitation suggests the need to also explore the significance of “superstructural” factors such as political institutions.
Elections may not be the A to Z of democracy, but electoral rules and agencies have easily become the bugbears of democratic reversals. Everywhere democratization has stalled or derailed, angry citizens, exasperated politicians, and powerless observers have put the blame on the doorstep of non-transparent and unfair electoral processes. The best predictor of democratic decay and flourish of authoritarianism is the degree to which election administrators are beholden to incumbents. Democracy seldom takes root in settings where the electoral commissioners are tied to the apron string of the incumbent leader of government. It is against this background that I developed a research interest in Africa's election commissions. My agenda is to develop some kind of composite index where quality of elections can be used to predict possibilities for democratic consolidation.
Little wonder therefore that I saw the invitation to co-lead the 2009 APSA Workshop on African Elections and Democracy in Ghana as manna from heaven. I came to the University of Ghana, Legon, with great expectations, hoping that the three-week interaction with scholars from North America and sub-Saharan Africa would enrich my epistemologically, empirically, and methodologically. I must confess I was not disappointed at the end.
To start with, Ghana was the best choice for hosting the workshop. It had just concluded its fifth post-military elections and the second election, which recorded regime alternation—a rarity in a region notorious for harboring long duree despots. This rarity was underscored by the fact that the ruling party conceded defeat in an election it lost with a very close margin. Clearly, this was not a perfect election—a point a hot-blooded Ghanaian colleague who was so concerned about the ordeal of subalterns to be impressed by Ghanaian electocracy pressed ad nauseam. However, it was exciting to observe Ghanaians relish in accomplishing a feat that had eluded their West African Big Brother, Nigeria. We were not only in the right place, we were there at the right time. We witnessed Ghanaians catapulted to the seventh heaven with President Obama's visit to Ghana instead of Nigeria, the major oil well of the U.S. in Africa, and Kenya, the country of the father of the U.S. president. The unhidden message of the “rock star” U.S. president as he gave Ghanaians from all walks of life a pat on the back is that in the emerging new world order, the ballot-ink is as thick as, if not thicker than oil and blood. Pundits who posit that the driving forces of international politics in the post cold war world are the clash of civilizations and anxieties over energy security also need to factor in amity among world democracies.
Back to the workshop, which doubled as field trip for me and I am sure many other participants. Whether the source of data was observation, official documents, key informant interviews, or focus group discussions, the single variable that emerged as most critical for explaining democratic consolidation in Ghana was the independence of the Ghanaian Electoral Commission (EC). Citizens from different political traditions, politicians from the winning and losing sides, liberal and radical scholars alike, as well as independent pollsters and election observers believed the EC was a trusted impartial administrator. Field reports indicated that Ghanaians politicians were not more saintly than their counterparts elsewhere. Politicians attempted to steal elections, or to put it more mildly, manipulate the electoral process. There were incidents of electoral malpractices but these malpractices were not sufficient to discredit the process and outcomes. This is because the EC was not and more importantly was not perceived by any of the major stakeholders as being in cahoots with any party or candidate to perpetrate electoral fraud. Undoubtedly, the EC had lived up to expectations. Inglorious history of fraudulent elections had motivated Ghanaians to insist on an independent EC. The public perception of independence derived partly from the fact that the EC made the electoral process transparent, participatory, and conciliatory. Thus, evidently apart from the independent variable of independence of the EC, other intervening variables to feature as indicators should include transparency, participation, and conciliation.
The workshop interactions in the auditorium of the Kwame Nkrumah Hall venue at the University of Ghana, Legon, underscored for me the saliency of the comparative approach to the study of politics. Although most of the participants, including North Americans who are accustomed to using data sets, presented case studies, the discussions that ensued compellingly elicited comparative analysis. The merit of this approach was that it dissolved the brick walls that emphasized exceptions to expose commonalities. Thus, beyond depictions of political enigmas who ride roughshod institutions and orchestrate democratic mimicry often buoyed by foreign support, oil wealth, and mass poverty, was the saliency of political institutions in structuring behavior of political actors. Even when dictators sack institutions the message they inadvertently send out is that institutions matter. The challenge of building democracy in Africa as elsewhere is that of building, consolidating, and fortifying institutions that would constrain antidemocratic forces and moderate undemocratic behavior. Our discipline of political science will contribute to this process by training the searchlight on both institutions that augur well and institutions that do not bode well for democratic consolidation.
By Daniel A. Smith, University of Florida
For three weeks this summer I became an Africanist again, momentarily shelving my research agenda on American politics and thinking solely about the politics of sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike the other two dozen scholars who participated in the 2009 APSA Workshop on African Elections and Democracy (including my co-leaders, Beatrix Allah-Mensah, Kevin Fridy, and Ukoha Ukiwo), my research focuses largely on sub-national politics, specifically direct democracy in the American states.
Although I'm an Americanist, this was neither my first, nor my longest, stay in Africa. In the early 1990s, I lived on and off for more than a year in the northernmost corner of the country with my wife, Brenda Chalfin, a cultural anthropologist. We led several summer study abroad programs to Ghana, collaborating with Ghanaian faculty to introduce our students to the culture, history, and politics of Ghana. During the 2000–01 academic year I served as a Senior Fulbright Scholar, splitting my time teaching American politics at the University of Ghana, Legon, and working on various projects as a research fellow at the Center for Democratic Development—Ghana (CDD—Ghana). At CDD—Ghana I was fortunate to be included on an ongoing study of the coverage of the state-owned and private media during Ghana's historic 2000 elections. As part of the University of Ghana's political science department, I was invited to participate in a national survey administered and wrote about the electoral politics of the often-neglected, but highly volatile, Upper East Region. I even found time to conduct a study of the (mal)apportionment of Ghana's (then) 200 parliamentary seats, which helped prompt the Electoral Commission to recommend expanding Parliament by an additional 30 seats.
My Fulbright year was also a humbling experience. In the classroom that year my students were ever-inquisitive about American politics. Their thirst became nearly insatiable with the spectacle, then utter debacle, of the 2000 U.S. presidential election and the protracted legal battle that ensued. My students peppered me with incisive questions about the intricacies of the Electoral College, federalism and electoral law, separation of powers, and due process. As the American political system teetered, Ghanaians from all walks of life simultaneously celebrated their own country's peaceful transition of governmental power from one political party to another in their own hotly contested presidential election. The ironies were delectable. Ghanaians, rightly so, unceremoniously teased me about the failure of the U.S. to uphold its own democratic ideals. I came home still an Americanist, but with a much greater knowledge and appreciation of African politics.
In many ways, my return to Ghana this past summer as the sole Americanist in the workshop funded by the Mellon Foundation turned out to be more intense than my Fulbright year. Though only three-weeks long, the workshop became an intimate setting, with our mix of African scholars and American-based Ph.D. students readily casting aside customary deference to academic rank and seniority. Unfettered conversations during our small breakout sessions were the norm, with participants eagerly criticizing a mountain of cutting-edge scholarship. Discussions ranged from the mundane operationalization of independent and dependent variables, to more scintillating debates about the causes and consequences of electoral fraud and ethnic violence, to a hushed acknowledgement of homosexuality in Africa and the resultant demonization of marginalized groups, and to the commitment to more ethnographic research on the secretive “nocturnal” (political and otherwise) activities that often pervade, and sometimes de-legitimate, democratic contests in Africa. During the plenary sessions, participants spoke freely about their own research projects and were equally receptive to constructive criticism from their colleagues.
During the workshop, my African colleagues were quick to question many assumptions that Americanists often take for granted. They asked why partisan identification is so privileged in the study of American politics and why it is frequently understood as an “unmoved mover” in Western democracies. Surely partisan identification is as mutable as ethnicity, some argued, and at best is a social construction calibrated along multiple dimensions and subject—much like ethnicity—to manipulation by elites. Others openly questioned conventional survey methodologies used by the scholarly community to ascertain levels of partisan identification, including the standard Afrobarometer question asking respondents, “Do you usually think of yourself as close to any particular political party?” The Ghanaian, Burkinabè, and Nigerian workshop participants readily offered examples of how citizens living in these neo-patrimonial regimes willingly shift their partisan allegiances for strategic reasons in order to reap the spoils of government control, perpetuating a “politics of the belly.” Others raised fundamental questions about both the reliability and validity of responses gleaned from cross-national surveys conducted in Africa. They pointed out the limitations of sampling by households in countries with extreme levels of homelessness, especially in urban environs with high numbers of “subalterns,” the difficulties in obtaining accurate responses when survey questions are pre-translated into a handful of national (but not enough local) languages, the constraints of cultural transivity (such as response acquiescence and satisficing by some respondents), the possibility of enumerator effects with face-to-face questionnaires, and even the conspiratorial suggestion that biased or non-responses might stem from respondents suspecting “Afrobaromespionage.”
Other participants were quite troubled with the underlying supposition of many Western scholars who blithely assume that elections beget more democracy, that practice makes perfect. When discussing the topic, the contingent of Nigerian scholars in attendance uniformly responded that the 1999 presidential elections were freer, fairer, and more transparent than the 2003 and 2007 elections, respectively, and that despite successive elections, the country has experienced a steep decline in democratic and accountable governance over the past decade. Not to be outdone by their neighbors to the West, the Cameroonian participants pointed to their own country's democratic slide, despite holding multiparty, transparent elections. For these political scientists, the “thin” definition of democracy (grounded in electoral rights and civil liberties) advanced by “democratization” scholars is not only teleological, but crumbles under the empirical weight of their own experiences. And who can doubt them? Their colleagues were quick to corroborate, pointing to Ghana's West Africa neighbors, including Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Niger, as examples of how the West's imprimatur of a “free, fair, and transparent” election can sanction oppression, as the ruling elite are given a green light (and often financial aid) to impose a more totalitarian and violent political environment.
By the same token, after reading ample studies on the peculiarities of the American political system, several participants became intrigued with the differential role that electoral institutions play, and how Uncle Sam has quite a bit to learn from the African experience. A fundamental concern for many of the African academics was the accountability and transparency of elected officials charged with administrating elections in the U.S. Troubled by the disjointed and partisan institutions regulating local, state, and federal elections in the U.S., they openly questioned how American elections could ever meet the international standard of being free, fair, and transparent. After all, Democratic and Republican state legislators typically gerrymander their own legislative districts and partisan secretaries of states register voters, update (and cleanse) the voter rolls, and tally the votes. Despite the quite exceptional case of Ghana, and its well-regarded Electoral Commission, many of the participants were unconvinced that institutions alone could produce different outcomes, as nonpartisan election officials are not beyond temptation or influence. Listening and learning from their direct experiences provided me with a reality check and raised new questions about sub-national American political institutions.
As an Americanist, then, the alternating contrasts and convergences in accepted wisdom that occurred during the workshop stirred me to rethink many of the analytic and methodological priors that inform my own study of American politics. In a sense, the daily formal sessions and informal interactions stimulated my “sociological imagination,” to borrow from C. Wright Mills. Since the workshop, I have begun to “re-arrange”—and even “dump out”—many of my preconceived, well-entrenched epistemological and ontological “files” that I have carried around with me since I began my career nearly two decades ago. In particular, being exposed to the thought processes and in-depth knowledge of the accomplished African scholars, whose thinking about democracy, elections, and political parties is informed by very different historical, political, and cultural experiences than my own, has raised for me new insights into the immediacy and import of the substantive questions I tend to ask. Political scientists—Americanists in particular—should regularly try to avail themselves not only to radically alternative theoretical and methodological perspectives and research agendas, but also to do so within contexts where inchoate ideas germinate freely, research agendas become crafted, and realities of empirical claims are palpable. In the words of Mills, such experiences help rearrange and mix up the contents of our many “heretofore disconnected folders,” allowing us to become more “receptive to unforeseen and unplanned linkages.”
November 5–7: Deterring Terrorism: Theory and Practice, Center for Security Studies, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, http://www.css.ethz.ch/index_EN
November 25–28: International Sudan Studies Conference, Pretoria, South Africa, http://www.sudanconference.org.za/index.php?mid=170354
December 2: The Consequences of Electoral Reform: Belgium in Comparative Perspective, Brussels, Belgium, http://www.partirep.eu
December 10–11: The New Asian Political Economy: The Global Financial Crisis and Beyond, Taiwan, Tainan, http://www.ncku.edu.tw/~polsci/NAPE2009/Untitled-1.html
March 29–April 1: Sixty Years of Political Studies: Achievements And Futures, Political Studies Association, Edinburgh, Scotland, http://www.psa.ac.uk/2010
May 7–10: Social Capital Foundation: Social Capital in Practice, Malta, http://www.socialcapital-foundation.org/conferences/2010/TSCF%20International%20Conference%202010.htm.