What Drives African Voters?

Research could help with promoting democracy.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

The United States government spends millions in foreign aid to promote democracy in Africa, a continent pivotal to American interests, yet “we have no idea what drives how Africans vote,’’ said Clark Gibson, professor of political science and director of the international studies program at the University of California at San Diego.  “We don’t know why they vote the way they do.’’

Gibson is conducting a series of studies in African nations to try to understand African voting behavior,  in particular whether the widespread notion that Africans always vote ethnically, that is, they favor candidates of their own ethnicity, is an accurate one.  In studies in at least two countries thus far, he has found the perception to be dead wrong.

While most observers of African elections have long believed that the process was a mere ethnic headcount—that all citizens vote for their own ethnic group regardless of the incumbent’s performance and without reference to issues—there has been scant hard evidence to support this view.

“There is this image of an uninformed illiterate African voter who doesn’t know what he is doing,’’ Gibson said.  “Where is the science behind that?’’

Solid scientific data are necessary because, if the assumption were true, “then no amount of information or democracy promotion is ever going to do anything, and we have been wasting our money,’’ he said.  “Do we care about democracy in Africa? If we don’t, let’s stop the funding. If we do, then we better know what we are doing.’’ 

The information could have important implications for the direction of American foreign policy, especially with programs that support and promote African pro-democracy organizations, independent media, judicial training, and free and fair elections, including the enactment of democratic electoral laws, the logistics of holding elections, and the monitoring and observation of election practices. 

“Our team’s research should help inform our country’s foreign policy,’’ Gibson said.  “If we understand how Africans vote in different countries, we will better understand how their democracies are proceeding.  It matters a great deal to our foreign policy and will help us strategize what to do.  This is not an esoteric exercise: after all, this is the continent that received the U.S African Command (AFRICOM), and is a place many fear might harbor current and future terrorists. ’’

Using exit polls during national elections, Gibson already has completed studies in Kenya and Ghana, and is planning an additional project in Uganda. The Ugandan study is funded by a $233,825 award from the National Science Foundation as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  Gibson is the first social scientist to use extensive, nationally representative exit polls in Africa.

“We have a foreign policy that costs millions of dollars and affects our strategic standing in Africa, where we have worries about both terrorism and natural resources,’’ he said.  “We have vested interests that are economic and political.  Collecting and analyzing data in a rigorous way will allow us to be more efficient and effective in designing our foreign policy.’’     

Uganda, a country in central Africa, has, until recently, been a success story since the 1979 fall of military dictator Idi Amin. The economy has grown steadily, and the recent discovery of extensive oil deposits could bode well for the country’s future.  Nevertheless, despite being a strong and important ally of the United States, the government of President Yoweri Museveni, in office since 1986, is perceived as corrupt and intolerant of opposition groups. 

Given the stakes, especially potential oil revenue, the upcoming February 18 election could be critical to future United States foreign policy in the region, Gibson said.  He and his team will be there to find out whether, how, and why Ugandan citizens voted. 

“Understanding the motivations of its voters opens the way to a deeper understanding of African politics, and helps inform scholarly opinion and tell us what challenges, if any, remain with respect to democracy promotion,’’ Gibson said.