Public Interest versus Self Interest in Western and African Politics

This article starts with a disclaimer that it is totally my opinion that has nothing to do with where I work/who I work for. It is not to hurt the sentiments of anyone. So, please don’t feel offended. The study of Comparative Politics established the fact that, what is common to all human societies is the impossibility to aloof interest from politics. A careful analysis of Prof. Harold Lasswell conceptualization of power (“Who Gets What, When, How”) as one of the keys thematic in comparative politics will convince you that Politics by itself, is driven by interest to either serve and ensure the common good of the society or for personal aggrandizement. By this, it suggests that interest by itself is never repulsive in politics. Against this background, this article meticulously examines public interest versus self-interest in Western and African Politics.


As the concept implies, public interest in politics connotes the common concerns that are critical to the well-being or welfare of the general public or citizens. It varies from country to country. It is what the people want actually not necessarily what politicians want or desire. It reflects the security, economic, social, political, cultural concerns of the citizens. It is priority or will of the citizens. For example, citizens’ desire for stemming the ties of corruption because of its implication for their welfare or well-being has become one of the old aged concerns in post-independent Africa.

A careful analysis of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke contribution to the social contract theory explains the root of public interest in politics. According to them, when the government fails to secure their natural rights (Locke) or satisfy the best interests of society (called the "general will" in Rousseau), citizens can withdraw their obligation to obey, or change the leadership through elections or other means including, when necessary, violence. The best interests of the society that explain the existence of government validate the root of public interest. In other words, the essence for entering into politics is to strive to meet the expectation or satisfy the will and concerns of the citizens or members of the political community.

Self-interest as implies in politics connotes personal aggrandizement as the reason for desiring political offices. It could be strategic to the quest for personal wealth, fame, power, service to humanity, etc. It can be repulsive and good in politics. For example, in order to judiciously distribute resources in the interest of humanity, politicians will never succeed without power. Remember, power in politics is critical to the resources of societies. If politicians gained fame as a result of servicing humanity, adherence to the will of the society, it becomes a political dividend though personal. If politicians used power against the will of the society, it becomes repulsive. Consequently, society withdraws their obligation to obey, or change the leadership through elections or other means including, when necessary, violence.

In Western politics, it is observed that public interest has always been the priority. It triumphs over self-interest of politicians. Ask yourself, why Africans from time in memorial prefer living, studying or migrating to the Western countries despite their inevitable challenges? It is because the interests of their states or countries remain the ultimate concerns for their political actors? Isn’t true that their level of development bear attestation of public interests prioritized by their political actors or politicians?
Take for classic example the disputed election results in Florida between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000. It worth arguing that the interest of the America was more important than Al Gore. As defeated candidate, Al Gore was the first to congratulate Bush. If this situation has happened in Africa, the interest of the defeated candidate would have plunged the country into crisis as evidenced by the many post-election violence.

In Western politics, it is no doubt that politicians don’t benefit personally. Of course, by virtue of their positions, they arguably enjoy fame, prestige, lucrative salaries and incentives. Take for example, from 2009- 2014, U.S Congress earned $174,000 per annum. (Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia online Source) However, it can be argued that their personal interest or benefits will never be detrimental to public interest or the very society they belong to. They will never leave their countries to visit Africa for medical reasons neither face brain dream situation in which their citizens will migrate to Africa for greener pasture.

Judging from post-independence politics evidenced by the dozen of arm conflicts that undermined development in Africa, it can be that public interests continue to be lips service by political actors. Unlike the West, the primary reason for entering politics and staying in office is typically strategic to money in African politics. Politicians rarely have it, and they all need it in. Take the case of contemporary politics in Liberia; some that were fortunate for political office never have money.

In contemporary African politics, the interest of politicians triumphs over the interest of their countries. For classic example, research revealed that most of the countries in Africa have the highest paid legislators but unwilling to address public health care concern evidenced by weak health facilities couple with constant strike actions by doctors’ demand for better salaries and incentives. Take the case of Kenya, it is widely known that Kenya has one of the highest paid legislators in Africa earning approximately $20,000 per month, can’t pay doctors. According to the World Health Organisation, Kenya has one doctor for every 5,000 people compared to 2.5 per 1,000 in the US and probably higher in Europe, Middle East and Far East. Take the case of Nigerian; According to data from the Economist 2015, Nigerian lawmakers at the time of the exchange rate would earn around $160,000 more than British MPs who make around $105,000 per annum. Moreover, in a country where millions live on less than two dollars daily and minimum wage is set at $90 a month, just like Kenya poor health care system, the average legislators’ pay is more than 50 times Nigeria‘s GDP per capita. Ironically, the President earns less than the lawmakers.

Take the case of Liberia; a country ravaged by fourteen years civil war that accounted for weak or poor health care system, very poor infrastructure development, Educational system engulfed by mess, etc. , each Representative receives over US$14,342.00 while each Senator gets US$15,424.33 monthly. This excludes other expenses done annually. Ironically, the least salary for a civil servants is about US 100.00 per month.

From the above examples, can you clearly rationalize that the interests of these politicians are far more important than public interests compare to politicians in the West? Will you agree that it is never bad for law makers to earn what could be rationalized as lucrative salaries? Of course, stratification in every society is inherent. In other words, it is not wrong to increase law makers’ salaries. Just like some of their counterparts in the Western countries, they are honorable people. However, in the midst of pressing public concerns as referenced in the case of Kenya, Nigeria and Liberia in this article, it is doubtful for Western politicians to place their personal interest above the public interest. This is why their societies in terms of development in the interest of the public are far better than what we have in Africa. Regardless of the sources of their resources (whether exploit Africa or not), they never lost sight of the interest of their citizens in the distribution of scare resources.

Unlike the Western politics, it can be argued that concessions and contract are driven by the self-interests of Politicians in Africa. Consequently, they are termed bogus. According to a dispatch from Washington, D.C., African Development Bank (AfDB) and the World Bank (WB) observation, natural resources contribute more than 20% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 22 resource-rich countries in Africa; however, they noted that fragility remains a major constraint on the extent to which the resources are contributing to equitable and sustainable development on the continent. Who else benefited from these concessions and contracts since it was not the public? The answer will definitely reflect on the law makers of these countries as required by their respective constitutions. Take the case of Liberia; according to the guardian online source, only two out of 68 contracts awarded by Liberian government since 2009 in sectors such as oil are compliant. According to the report published by the guardian, most of the logging permits covering one quarter of the Liberia were given out illegally.

In African politics, because the self-interests of politicians always triumphed over public interests, the continent will continue to grippe with the phenomenon of Brian Dream. The poor or lack of development crucial to the public interest caused by the self-interests of Politicians are the push factors for brain dream in Africa.

By Ambrues M. Nebo Sr.
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