Robert Bates
Markets and States in Tropical Africa

By making the attainment of particular benefits—whether a project for a community or a job or promotion for an individual—the substance of rural politics, the governments of Africa have augmented their control over their rural populations. Through the promise of benefits they can secure cooperation; through their conferral, they can reward compliance; and through their withdrawal, they can punish those who protest.

In interviewing a rich cocoa farmer in Ghana in 1978, asked him why he did not try to organize political support among his colleagues for a rise in product prices. He went to his strongbox and produced a packet of documents: licenses for his vehicles, import permits for spare parts, titles to his real property and improvements, and the articles of incorporation that exempted him from a major portion of his income taxes. 'If I tried to organize resistance to the government's policies on farm prices,' he said while exhibiting these documents, 'I would be called an enemy of the state and I would lose all these.' He was a cocoa farmer and we were discussing cocoa prices. The price of Ghanaian cocoa is indeed one of the most politically sensitive topics in African agrarian politics. But in systems where producers operate in markets which are increasingly controlled by public agencies, his point was generally valid.

Through coercion, governments in Africa block the efforts of those who would organize in attempts to achieve structural changes; only the advocacy of minor adjustments is allowed. Moreover, through the conferral of divisible benefits, they make it in the interests of individual rural dwellers to seek limited objectives. Political energies, rather than focusing on the collective standing of the peasantry, focus instead on the securing of particular improvements—subsidized inputs, the location and staffing of production schemes, the allocation of jobs, and the issuance of licenses and permits. Rather than appeals for collective changes, appeals instead focus on incremental benefits. The politics of the pork barrel supplant the politics of class action. Debates over the fundamental configuration of policies remain off the political agenda of the African countryside, and individual rural dwellers come, as a matter of personal self-interest, to abide by public policies that are harmful to agrarian interests as a whole.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.