On the 20th of November, 2014, images emerged of federal legislators in Nigeria viciously attempting to scale a fence which was ironically supposed to protect the parliament from the less privileged citizens outside. I give a lot of credit to the least responsible but smart and fit few who actually succeeded in getting over the fence to the other sides. Less credit to those who, for obvious reasons not unconnected to the effects of their wealth on their mortal bodies, only thrived in shouting and shaking the locked gates to the federal legislature. The reasons for this rather disgraceful act and the justifications of it remain a subject of public debate. I do not consider joining that debate as worthwhile, so I won’t.
However, coming across those images recently, got me thinking about the concept of gatekeeping and the impact of gatekeepers on political leadership in various countries in Africa. In an academic context, gatekeeping refers to the process through which information is filtered through various channels before dissemination. Although the term was coined by Kurt Lewin in the field of psychology in 1947, the term has come to be associated with a lot of concepts in different fields – sociology, communications and political science, amongst others.
With regard to politics, gatekeepers are individuals and institutions that control access to positions of power and regulate the flow of information and political influence in a particular society. It would not be too so much of an exaggeration to say that gatekeepers are ubiquitous in countries in Africa, and everywhere else in the world. For instance, Seth Masket wrote of the effect of gatekeepers politics in America in a recent book. His study found that the backgrounds of people involved in local politics in California showed that lawyers and businesspeople who are usually strong potential candidates had no real advantage over anyone else due to the phenomenon of gatekeeping. Consequently, the people who appeared to have electoral advantages were those who worked for officeholders, are related to officeholders or have ties to political organisations and interest groups – the gatekeepers.
Recently, there has been growing interest on the impact of gatekeepers in politics in countries in Africa. Henning Melber’s book, Understanding Namibia: The Trials of Independence describes Namibia as a ‘Gatekeeper State’ – a term that is slowly beginning to catch on, whilst Alexander Beresford’s paper, Power, Patronage and Gatekeeper Politics in South Africa explores the operation of gatekeeping within the ruling party, ANC in South Africa. But what exactly is the impact of these gatekeepers, more popularly described as ‘patrons’ or ‘godfathers’.
Studies show that gatekeepers can actually use their position and power for positive purposes. For instance, gatekeeping can be used for the preservation of cultural values in society, as well as effecting positive cultural change. In an ideal situation, gatekeepers can also ensure the enthronement of responsible leadership in countries whilst simultaneously preventing corrupt and inept individuals from gaining entrance to political offices.
However, the role of gatekeepers in politics is probably best known for negatives rather than the seemingly idyllic positives just discussed. The political elite in most countries have constituted themselves into informal gatekeeping networks and with the use of formal institutions, perpetrated themselves in office – offices that are repeated abused through mismanagement and corruption. Amongst other things, the phenomenon of gatekeepers blame-worthy for the relatively small number of women in politics, the dearth of intellectual and charismatic leaders and the palpable lack of youthful leaders in countries. It is estimated that the average age of serving presidents and leaders in African countries is 61, compared to 59 in North and South America, and 55 in Europe. This does not howbeit tell the whole story when you consider how long most leaders in Africa have actually being in office.
Beyond this, perhaps the most significant by-product of gatekeepers is the stifling of innovation in leadership. With the ultimate aim of cleaving to power, gatekeepers are prone to being suspect of new ideas and change generally which may have the effect of loosening their hold on power either in the short or long-term. There is little wonder that the wave of innovation in technology and business and other sectors of society is being driven by the private sector with little or no input on the part of political leadership.
For development to thrive in countries in the continent, much attention needs to be given to the phenomenon of gatekeeping and how best to shut out the gatekeepers. The most obvious option is perhaps to break down the gates in totality. This will invariably require revolutionary stands and actions. Irrespective of the pros and cons of this response to gatekeeping, it has always been my belief that revolutions are self-fulfilling and would occur if and when they will. Forcing them to fruition is probably not advisable most times.
This leaves the dual option of avoiding the gates, thereby making them irrelevant whilst building new gates, new inroads to power. As the citizenry in different countries become more enlightened and economically independent, they will inevitably become more responsive to individual political manifestos and qualities and vote based on these, rather than voting based on political party affiliations alone. In time, the influence of gatekeepers which is often brought to bear through political parties will wane – in fact studies show that this is already the case in some countries.
Furthermore, valuable lessons can be learnt with regard to the creation of new inroads to power from the recently concluded elections in Greece, where the anti-austerity Syriza party won at the polls by campaigning basically through social media, blogs and other online resources. This method was adopted to bypass the impact of the gatekeepers in the country who had control over mainstream media and other conventional means of campaigning.
The entrenched nature of gatekeeping in politics in countries in Africa means that ‘keeping out the gatekeepers’ will not be achieved overnight. The imperative to produce knowledgeable and honest leaders that will drive development in countries in the continent however requires that the process commences in earnest.