Sunday March 16 2014

Rational Choice Theory and its application to African challenges

By Harold Acemah

Rational Choice Theory is an economic principle which assumes that individuals always make prudent and logical decisions which provide them with the greatest benefit or satisfaction and which are in their highest self-interest. Most mainstream economic assumptions and theories are based on rational choice theory.

As a framework for understanding and often for formally modeling social and economic behaviour, Rational Choice Theory is increasingly used as a tool of analysis in political science, sociology and philosophy. In political science it has been used to study elections, behaviour of representatives in legislatures, coalitions, interest groups and bureaucracy. It seeks to understand and explain the most cost-effective means to achieving a specific goal without necessarily reflecting on the value of that goal.

Using Rational Choice Theory, one wonders whether President Salvatore Kiir of South Sudan made a rational choice and decision to claim and declare in December 2013 that his political opponents in the SPLM staged an attempted coup, which most countries do not believe, when his specific goal was to save his position as head of state, which position had been seriously threatened by former South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar.

Did the NRM regime make a rational choice to rush troops to South Sudan, without parliamentary approval, to support one faction in a purely internal political conflict instead of playing the noble role of an honest broker for the people of South Sudan?

Many scholars have argued that the presidents of South Sudan and Uganda made instinctive rather than rational choices using their highly developed instincts of survival; such instincts are not guided by ideology, democratic principles and ethical values. Uganda’s partners in IGAD, together with USA, have demanded the immediate withdrawal of UPDF troops from South Sudan because they do not serve the goal of securing a lasting political solution to the internal conflict which is devastating that country, much as UPDF’s intervention has in the short term saved President Kiir from an ouster.

In this respect, a South Sudanese national, Garang Atem Ayiik, offered this rather interesting observation in a letter published by The EastAfrican newspaper of March 1-7, 2014, in which he argued that: “The key problem facing South Sudan is access to education or gaps existing in the system. Majority of South Sudanese are pastoralists whose lives from time immemorial entirely depended on hunting, animal husbandry and subsistence farming. All these forms of economic activities require some form of aggression – a true survival of the fittest. Tribal raids (which are a criminal activity) were, therefore, part of life.”

Against this background, a rational choice which could provide a long term solution to South Sudan’s political quagmire is not military intervention and the use of force which the country has had more than enough of, but education, peaceful negotiations and more education to eradicate ignorance and poverty which are the root cause of Africa’s numerous economic, social and political problems. The future of South Sudan and Africa will depend on a new breed of well-educated and detribalised citizens who are detached from the pastoralist culture, mindset and tradition of violence and survival of the fittest.

African leaders such as Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia, Gen Bashir of Sudan, Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe are examples of leaders who do not employ rational choice theory in decision-making. They are not motivated by commitment to values such as democracy, human rights and national interest, but are driven by greed and regime survival by all means necessary!

They have privatised most national assets, looted national treasuries, condoned corruption, told blatant lies, tortured, arrested and even killed their fellow citizens in order to survive another day, another month and another year!
On March 9, 2014, President Yahya Jammeh unilaterally announced that English would no longer be the national language of the country, as has been the case since independence in 1965. He has not yet announced the language which will replace English, but all indications are that it will be his tribal language; nobody in his right mind will be surprised by such irrational choice.

A couple of weeks ago, the Government of Zimbabwe squandered $1 million to celebrate the 90th birthday of President Mugabe, a man who has clearly overstayed his welcome; a man who has destroyed the economy of this once prosperous and promising country; a man who rules Zimbabwe like a personal fiefdom and a man who is determined to die as president of a country which has been reduced to a police state. If one needed a classic example of a country which has tossed the rational choice theory into the dustbin of history, it is Zimbabwe.

Africa will rise and shine again when Africa’s political elite, especially African leaders start to make all national decisions on the basis of rational choice so that public policies benefit the majority and do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Aluta continua!

Mr Acemah is a political scientist, consultant and a retired career diplomat.