Why African farming communities are fed up with African politics
Partisan politics has made it difficult for African countries to unlock value from natural resources such as land, water and favorable climate. Otherwise farming communities would be living fulfilling lives than urban dwellers. In spite of resources being spent sending children to school, African politics does not provide space for educated young people to bring their different kinds of expertise and passion honed in formal schools to local development. Where agriculture is a major economic driver, most young people are locked in primary production instead of colonizing the entire value chain including logistics, value addition, domestic markets and stimulating export markets.
As if that is not enough, the voting system which African countries have borrowed from the West as part of democracy has several limitations. For instance, there is a tendency to attach the same value to every vote yet voters in different contexts vote for different things and reasons. Voters in cities may vote about refuse collection while those in in rural areas may be voting for better road networks and markets for their commodities. When votes are votes are disassociated from economies, they become valueless. Each economic zone, district or province should be allowed to select its own leaders using its own criteria based on local context in terms of knowledge and existing natural resources as well as tradition.
Dismantling physical, mental and social boundaries
The way African politics reinforces the colonizing effect of social, mental and physical boundaries needs to be examined as part of localizing knowledge. For instance, African communities continue to be subjected to several boundaries such as political boundaries (constituencies), local authority boundaries, boundaries set by religious organizations (parishes), police boundaries, NGO boundaries, traditional leadership boundaries, educational system boundaries and many other boundaries. Some of the boundaries have deep colonial roots. While decolonizing physical boundaries may be a challenge, at least reconstructing social, economic and cultural boundaries should be very easy as demonstrated by how marriages continue to be boundary spanning practices.
Unfortunately, partisan politics always tries to supersede these critical parts of the social fabrics by labelling some people as opposition which is not very productive language. Words like opposition bring a totally different way of thinking and looking at issues. It appears the notion of opposition implies opposing everything as if whatever is done by the other part should just be opposed even if it is good for society and collective resilience. In a divided community, it is impossible to surface intelligence on what people like farmers vote for during election. It is one thing to vote for a party and quite another to vote for a particular issue. The two should not be conflated. Some votes are linked to frustration.
In many African countries, the meaning of voting remains unexplained in terms of why people voted the way they did. Failure to deliver on previous promises is often the main motivation for voting but that is different from voting for future-oriented ideas presented by those campaigning. Voting informed by historical performance may not be productive because there is no assurance that the one being voted into office can provide solutions that the one being voted out could not. Instead of voting based on trial and error, it would be better if African politics provided adequate platforms for aspiring politicians to share their visions before being voted into office and explain what they have done using their own personal resources. Giving aspiring politicians space to share their ideas and visions should become the benchmark against which their future performance should be assessed.
When boundaries are defined by the way people vote, there is a danger of creating two different economies like rural and urban economies yet in reality there is deep co-existence. Instead of arranging people according to political parties, frameworks should be built from the local level by clustering citizens into different themes according to their sets of expertise. For instance, those on the economic front can champion their dialogues through local business people. Social scientists can work with local social advocates while environmental advocates focus on environment and climate change issues with local champions. Traditionalists can focus on preserving culture and tradition.
The value of post-election evaluation and social reconstruction
Although most African countries do not do it, post – election evaluation can inform development based on people’s expectations. Post-election reconstruction of communities through dialogue as well as building development plans is critical in directing energy and resources towards home-grown solutions around agriculture and food systems. Those who win should build community dialogues to reflect on outcomes and ask questions like what did you expect from me when you voted me into office? What would you expect from me as a leader? This will ensure the future is not based on historical frustrations. Dialogue will also clarify issues among ordinary people who are illiterate about political processes.
Many African countries do not have frameworks for packaging what needs to go to policy. Ideally, communities should conduct dialogue sessions and brainstorm on what they need done with the facilitation of policy makers who can take those ideas to parliament or just guide communities on how they can utilize their own resources. It should be about empowering communities. What are the models and processes of empowering communities using policy makers? Also needed is role definition and positioning of political leaders against other local leaders like chiefs, councillors, District Agricultural Extension officers and others.
More importantly, politicians should not just focus on economic issues like infrastructure development but building total community resilience through bringing in socio-cultural aspects. Resilience is not just about providing water and electricity. Understanding these issues should be a key part of criteria for identifying potential leaders. To what extent do policy makers embrace and understand all community aspects – social, economic, traditional and culture? How is a member of parliament going to promote culture if s/he is a member of a particular Christian denomination?
Importance of pitching politics at the right levels
The way African politics is presented to local communities tends to be way too high for ordinary people to understand. Local farmers want to know how an aspiring member of parliament will enable the establishment or revamping of feeder roads so that they can take their commodities to the market. Additional issues include how the member of parliament will assist in preserving indigenous food? How the member of parliament will facilitate fairtrade when farming communities go to the market. The message should not be about complicated international trade issues and constructing highways or launching multinationals.
When political leaders do not plan with communities, they will not understand community-level daily needs. Communities that already have their own employment in the form of agriculture, fishery and other local economic drivers are often not asking political leaders to create employment for them but want support in removing barriers that prevent them from safe-guarding their resources. Under such circumstances, political leaders can just assist by consolidating community challenges towards solutions through developing holistic frameworks which benefit entire communities. Like politicians, NGOs often write proposals without fully engaging communities. Communities may prefer a new project to be for the whole community not just a few beneficiaries but lack the voice to articulate these preferences. How can the local member of parliament position himself/herself to assist in expressing and guiding these felt needs at the core of the social fabric in ways that recognize that so-called beneficiaries are part of a large social ecosystem?
Where some development organizations are promoting agroecology, how can the local member of parliament, given his/her understanding of the harmful effects of industrial practices, advance agroecology in his/her constituency? How can the member of parliament influence government procurement processes to benefit communities? Many government institutions like hospitals and universities constitute a huge market for farmers in many constituencies. Instead of talking about far-fetched national projects like a new national airport or highway, it is key to contextualize politics as a way of bringing communities into development. Sometimes it is not just about policy making but empowering communities to develop themselves using their own resources.
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