By the Belly Alone: Clientelistic Tensions in Southern Benin

Hedges, Nathan, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Bashkow, Ira, Anthropology, University of Virginia

This dissertation represents a tentative first step towards reframing the anthropology of corruption as an anthropology of political legitimacy. People in southern Benin identify corrupt politicians as a serious problem that renders government ineffective and impedes local development. But even as they accuse elected officials of corruption, they seek and expect to have their own votes reciprocated by redirected appropriations of government funds to such local infrastructural projects as medical clinics and schools. Political candidates launch their campaigns by distributing large sums of money to local community leaders, and they go on to perform their generosity at campaign rallies by ostentatiously distributing food, drink, and money to everyone in attendance, while promising to deliver new infrastructure projects to the locality. Clientelism thus plays a prominent role in the run up to elections; corruption seems to figure both as a central complaint and central value in southern Beninois politics.

This dissertation seeks to resolve this paradox by accounting for the ways in which people construct political legitimacy in southern Beninois culture. I argue that the ambiguity of corruption reflects an enduring tension between two major forms of clientelistic relationships: gift-clientelism and commodity-clientelism. The first is an unmediated, personal, and reciprocal relationship; the second is opportunistic, impersonal, and mediated by money. Through ethnography I observe that patron-client gift relationality constitutes a central ordering principle in local greeting, courting, marriage, childrearing, schooling, and ancestral worship. People understand clientelism in these intimate and relational spaces as a moral economy structured by a conceptual dialectic that I refer to as the belly and the head, according to which patrons follow their individual desires in accumulating wealth (belly) but subsequently redistribute much of it according to community obligation (head), thereby providing for the immediate material needs of clients in exchange for their future labor, loyalty, support, and praise. Following Gregory (1982), I conceptualize this moral economy as gift-clientelism, for it centers on reciprocally dependent actors exchanging inalienable things and thereby creating qualitative (personal) relationships between them. I argue that local people experience clientelism in politics as legitimate because it intuitively conforms to these gift-clientelistic practices. 

Once elected, however, politicians routinely ignore their constituents, keeping misappropriated funds for themselves as they navigate the elite circles of urban Porto Novo and Cotonou in pursuit of yet more acquisitive opportunities. According to local commentary, such elected officials "eat politics”: that is, they betray the obligations of gift-clientelism by consuming the material resources of the state with no thought for their community obligation to voters. The fact that such tendencies are widespread I trace to the local historical impact of merchant capitalism in the form of the Atlantic slave trade, specifically the commodification of political relationships, and the subsequent effect of the French colonial period, in particular the abandonment of community obligations on the part of political elites. In response to these events, political elites beginning with the eighteenth century rulers of Dahomey transformed the operative political logic of gift-clientelism into commodity-clientelism, which involves independent actors exchanging alienable things, thereby creating quantitative (price) relationships between those commitments, in this case buying votes with campaign disbursements. I thereby argue for a rethinking of Bayart’s (1993) classic notion of the “politics of the belly” as the result of local rulers restructuring gift-clientelist practices in the formal political sphere according to the protocols of an emergent global capitalism, and subsequently losing a sense of community obligation during the colonial period. Contemporary southern Beninois politicians are heir to these dual legacies.

This disjuncture in parallel clientelistic understandings creates an enduring tension in which ordinary southern Beninois experience corruption as a moral betrayal of gift-clientelism on the part of political elites. As collaborators explained, one should “eat the state” but “never eat the state alone”. By contrast, political elites see their election according to the logic of commodity-clientelism, in which no social obligation exists, but they nonetheless evoke an illusion of gift-clientelism in order to elicit votes. Electoral politics in southern Benin remains suspended in this tension.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Benin, Anthropology of Corruption, Political Legitimacy, Political Anthropology
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