The economics of political transitions in autocracies

In a black and white photo, Mobutu stands in front of a microphone wearing a printed shirt, dark-rimmed glasses and his trademark leopard skin pillbox hat

A young Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Zaïre for 32 years.  Photo via Le Congolais

Yomi Kazeem recently published an interesting piece at Quartz Africa about typical outcomes for African autocrats after they leave office.  The four outcomes he mentioned, in rough order of how desirable a now ex-dictator might find them, were trying to reclaim their political power; fleeing the country with a good portion of the national treasury; staying at home without any political authority; or being prosecuted for crimes during their rule. Nowhere do we see the median outcome of US or European heads of state: earning a comfortable living in their own country by giving paid speeches and writing a few books.

This made me reflect a bit on the economics of political transitions.  In many poor countries, there’s relatively little economic activity that isn’t directly tied to the state.  Governments are often the largest formal employers and tightly control the banking sector.  To succeed in business, you need access to a number of things which are rationed by the state and given to political allies, such as export permits, land, and loans.  Losing political favor can mean losing your job or your entire business.

This is a huge disincentive for people with political power to give it up!  Even if they don’t believe they’ll be persecuted by their political enemies or referred to the International Criminal Court, it’s still difficult to earn a good or even a middle-class living without access to state resources in poor countries.  One must only think here of the vast gap between the wealth of Mobutu and the Kabilas in the DRC and the dire poverty of virtually everyone else.  When I worked in Kinshasa, a colleague with that rarest of jobs — full-time employment at an international bank — told me that even he only ate two small meals a day because he was singlehandedly supporting his entire extended family on his salary.  The possibility of earning a good living without access to state resources is an underdiscussed aspect of the way in which economic growth supports democratic governance.

It also suggests some nuance for the observation that corruption levels tend to be lower in wealthier countries.  In poor countries, many people presumably select in to political careers because they offer higher economic returns than working in the private sector.  In rich countries, the opposite is true, and people who are primarily motivated by economic returns select careers in finance rather than in politics.  Of course venal politicians do still exist in rich countries and selfless politicians in poor countries, but the overall share of people who entered politics for ideological reasons rather than personal gain seems to be much higher in wealthier places.

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