Want to understand Belgium’s complicated politics and scandals? Let’s look at Africa

Recently, Brussels — and Belgian politics at large — have been shaken by a corruption scandal. Last month, news broke that then-Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur and a political ally had each collected about 112,000 euros since 2008 for meetings that never took place. The meetings were supposed to be for Samusocial, an agency caring for the homeless. In other words, they were diverting funds for the homeless into their own pockets. The mayor was forced to resign.

This was not the first such scandal. The French-speaking Socialist Party (PS) has been all-powerful for decades in French-speaking Belgium and Brussels. PS members have been repeatedly caught siphoning off public funds.

But there’s a larger problem in Belgian politics — and we can learn a lot about it by looking at Africa.

Belgium is a small country with a complicated political structure

Belgium has a complicated political structure: Its small population of only 11 million people is governed by six parliaments and governments. These are intended to distribute power among its regional and linguistic communities: mainly the Dutch- and French-speaking communities, but also the small German-speaking community.

Brussels is especially complex. It is the only place in Belgium where French- and Dutch-speaking communities live together, and is governed by a maze of political institutions. It has a parliament and government; 19 autonomous borough assemblies; six different police zones; and 33 public housing companies. Together, the Brussels region — with a population of just over 1 million — has 166 ministers, mayors and city councilors. That’s more than Berlin and Paris combined. The proliferating institutions and positions result from Belgium’s so-called “pacification model,” which seeks to build consensus among Belgium’s various cultural and political communities, but has led to a proliferation of institutions and positions.

But these confusingly overlapping structures pave the way for corruption — as we can better understand by looking at Africa.

Disorder can be a political tool for the “big men” who rule small fiefdoms

In the 1990s, political scientists Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz’s book, “Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument,” asserted that disorder is a political instrument. The book, which caused a major stir in African studies, argued that African political leaders used disorder to their benefit. These “big men” were able to bind their constituencies to them by accumulating and redistributing resources, patronage and contracts, development and the like.

The book was criticized for essentializing this situation without enough empirically grounded understanding. So where can we find a more empirical understanding of these dynamics? In Brussels.

Brussels’ complex network of overlapping institutions and resources ensnares everyday life in a bureaucratic tangle. For instance, many homeless people sleep near Brussels’ North Railway Station. The bench they choose to sleep on determines which of three boroughs and agencies are responsible for helping them.

This creates an almost textbook case of Chabal and Daloz’s politics of disorder. Brussels’ public services are delivered by about 200 agencies with around 1,400 employees. For outsiders, this maze is extremely opaque and difficult to navigate or monitor. But for insiders — the political parties in power — it means there’s a wide range of jobs to distribute. Brussels bureaucracy is thus an excellent opportunity for patronage and a source of self-enrichment.

For example, it emerged that Samusocial’s chairperson takes home a yearly salary of 204,000 euros, almost as much as the Belgian prime minister, and that family members of top PS officials were given jobs at Samusocial. And after the mayoral scandal, a variety of news outlets exposed a range of other such ethically challenged agencies.

In other words, in this politics of disorder, power gives access to a range of resources, which enables a variety of patronage networks to bloom. Mayors of the borough assemblies are popularly nicknamed “barons” because of the power they wield in their fiefdoms. That’s in no small part because of the patronage system. Because so many people profit from this wider patronage system, depending on these “big men” for access to housing, jobs or some other resource, the baron will be enthusiastically reelected. In other words, the “barons” are the Brussels version of African “big men.”

But such complexity makes problems much harder to tackle

What’s more, this fragmentation and complexity means that all political actors focus on their own territories, which are often very small, particularly for the baron’s 19 borough assemblies. That makes citywide, nationwide or even global problems much more difficult to tackle.

For instance, the terrorists who attacked Paris in November 2015 included men from the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, which has been linked to a number of European terrorist attacks. Brussels police were internationally criticized for failing to prevent these attacks — and the fact that Brussels is divided into six separate police zones is widely considered one of the major reasons for their inability to do so. But when the Flemish political parties in the Brussels parliament suggested merging the police forces into one, the French-speaking parties were unanimously opposed. The belligerent importance of ethnic identities — in Belgium as in parts of Africa — make any reform very difficult.

After Mayeur’s forced resignation, his party went into a severe crisis — and has taken various measures to limit the number of positions that a single politician can hold at once.

Does this mean the system has fundamentally changed? In their “politics of disorder,” Chabal and Daloz argue that regime change does not mean a change of system: The new “big man” simply continues to use his power to accumulate wealth and deliver to his constituents. The appointment of Philip Close as Brussels’ newly elected mayor illustrates the continuation of this old system: He holds a record number of positions in a range of public, private and para-public institutions, allowing him to make decisions that a judicial body recently judged as a conflict of interest. Further, he held a news conference honoring the work of the now-disgraced former mayor.

At the same time, the new mayor announced that he would cut 40 percent of the existing positions and 20 percent of the various institutions, all sources of patronage. Would it be possible to change the Big Man and the system on which it functions?

Kristof Titeca is a lecturer at the institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp, working on governance and conflict in Central Africa. He lives in Brussels. Follow him on twitter @KristofTiteca.

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