Africa Must Rethink Governance

Published on 14th March 2016

Hon Raila Odinga
Africa is endowed with human and mineral resources. But Africa is also the poorest Continent on earth. Africa has huge tracts of arable land. But Africa remains a net importer of food. Africa spends about 45 billion US dollars on food imports annually.

We have lakes and permanent rivers, but our people suffer severe droughts and majority lack clean drinking water. This poorest continent is however home to some of the world’s wealthiest men and women, mostly leaders and former leaders and their associates who can buy any property at any price in any city at any time.

These paradoxes have to do with the way Africa has been governed. At independence, most African nations abandoned the democratic multi-party constitutions inherited from the colonialists and embraced the one party rule. This gave us presidents for life, military coups, counter coups and assassinations. It bred personalisation of State power and mega corruption amid proclamations by the leaders that Democracy was not African.

The attitude of the leaders of this era was captured in one statement attributed in 1991 to the then 84-year-old Felix Houphouet Boigny of Côte D’Ivoire. After 29 years rule, Boigny said; “There’s no number two, or three or four . . . in Côte D’Ivoire. . . . There’s only number one, that’s me and I don’t share my decisions.” In those words, he underlined the problem of governance Africa was going through.

Boigny ensured stability economic growth in his country. But the nation he left behind exploded after his death. I had the honour of mediating in that country’s conflict in 2011. Watching Côte D’Ivoire on the brink, I could not help but think of the words of William Shakespeare in Julius Caesar; “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is often interred with their bones.”

During this period, elections were luxuries in Africa. They were held merely to affirm the incumbent. By the end of the 1980s, out of some 150 heads of state that had governed Africa from the 1960s, only 6 had voluntarily relinquished power. Even those retired after 20 or more years in office.

It is in this period that South Korea whose Gross National Product was not very different from Kenya’s in early 1960’s, opened its lead over my country. Today, South Korea’s economy is more than forty times larger than Kenya’s. This period failed to create governments that are transparent and accountable.

Africa mark-timed here until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then emerged what we call the Second Liberation of Africa in the 1990s with the rallying call being accountability, transparency and good governance.

We can safely proclaim that Africa has changed. Elections have become competitive, markets have largely been liberalised, citizens are demanding a voice in the affairs of state and governments are more open than before. The democracy dividend has resulted in six of the world’s ten fastest-growing countries being in Africa. This is monumental leap considering that from 1974 through the mid-1990s, Africa’s growth was negative, reaching negative 1.5 per cent in 1990-94.

Secondary-school enrollment in sub-Saharan Africa grew by 48 per cent between 2000 and 2008. Life expectancy across Africa increased by about 10 per cent and child mortality rates have been falling in most countries. Over the past ten years, real income per person has increased by more than 30 per cent.

In the previous 20 years, it shrank by nearly 10 per cent. Over the next decade, Africa’s GDP is expected to rise by an average of 6 per cent a year. This is partly due to foreign direct investment, improved management of public resources and political stability. FDI rose from $15 billion in 2002 to $37 billion in 2006 and $46 billion in 2012. These are democracy dividends.

But lately, it is not clear that this momentum for change is being sustained. Africa is beginning to send mixed signals on democracy and governance. Our march to democracy is increasingly getting fragile and contestable. When bright spots emerge, they meet reversals on the same continent. Nigeria, the long troubled giant of the Continent seems to be putting its acts together. We are proud of progress in Ghana and Ivory Coast. We hope that these countries will sustain the gains and pull up the rest of the Continent.

But as Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana rise, some neighbours are embracing old troubles. In March 2012, Mali—a country previously regarded as a success story underwent a military coup. Although Mali is back from the brink, it is not yet the country that was once listed among those spearheading Africa’s renaissance.

In 2014, Blaise Compaoré was forced out after 27 years at the helm of Burkina Faso through a citizen’s protest dubbed Balai Citoyen (Citizen’s Broom). In September 2015, General Gilbert Diendéré declared himself president of Burkina Faso, throwing out the interim leadership that had taken over from Compaore. Within the week, the general himself was thrown out. Tunisia exploded in 2010 with ripple effects on other countries in the region including Algeria, Egypt and Libya. The region remains volatile and unpredictable. Kenya erupted in 2007. Uganda has just gone through an election that even observers are struggling to find the right words to describe.

A number of African countries are having difficulties in deepening democratic culture and upscaling their governance performance. The conflicting trend is eating into the institutional capacity of would be democratic structures like Parliament and the Judiciary. It is paralysing accountability bodies like the Office of the Auditor General, the Ombudsman and anti-corruption institutions. It is crippling media freedom and eroding accountability of the political leadership. It is also crippling provision public services including security.

Even worse, the reversals are aiding the return of big time corruption. Corruption in turn necessitates and aids the reversals. Corruption is swallowing our potential and financing our failure. Africa loses about $148 billion to corruption annually. This is equivalent to 25 per cent of the continent’s GDP. Corruption is responsible for the increase in the cost of goods in Africa by 20 per cent. Corrupt public officials receive between $20 and $40 billion in bribes annually. This is equivalent to 20 to 40 per cent of the official development assistance.

Nowhere is the reversal more visible than in the conduct of elections. Most of Africa has simply failed to better manage the quality of its elections. Upcoming elections are met with doubt, uncertainty and trepidation. The results are often mired by controversy and violence of some scale.

Unlike Europe or the US, Africa’s elections are increasingly different, mostly in worrying ways, from country to country and election to election in form, content and quality. One would have thought that after about a quarter century of conducting competitive elections, Africa’s electoral commissions would be able to deliver better organized, more transparent, verifiable and credible, free and fair polls. Our elections are getting more chaotic and more prone to manipulation. They are more likely to produce bitterly contested results that create divisions rather than unite the nation. Elections are failing to peacefully aggregate people’s preferences in the choice of political leadership. Incumbents are using them to confirm themselves to power or tear apart their nations.

Africa must urgently address the question of how to make elections promote social cohesion, create rather than undermine political legitimacy and ensure inclusivity rather than entrenching exclusion. Africa must invest in enhancing electoral governance if the march towards democratisation is to be sustained.

Tied to free and fair elections is the need to enforce and respect term limits. Across the continent, many leaders are revising their constitutions to remove term limits. These quests for extensions are often couched in a language that portrays a leader’s desire for more time in office as a response to popular demands. This can destabilise swathes of the continent with citizens demanding that leaders hand over power. It has already exploded in Burundi. Blaise Compaoré’s attempt to seek a third term in Burkina Faso was stopped by popular protests that forced him not just to back off, but to leave the country.

Africa may be relapsing to the early years when violent overthrow, natural death and even assassinations were the predominant ways in which power changed hands in Africa. We have been there before. We must not go there again. Presidents for life must become a thing of the past in Africa.

The problems around elections and term limits come with very unique difficulties. The lack of strong institutions is the reason Africa has strongmen. Strongmen are not keen to build strong institutions. Strongmen are going to build weak institutions in order to remain in power.

The good news however is that our citizens are an enlightened lot today. Africans are beginning to demand much more than the trappings of democracy. They are asking for greater separation of powers, checks and balances, independent media and judiciary, devolution of power, genuine federalism and clear election time lines. I believe that Africans will not agree to be taken back to their nasty past.

By Hon Raila A. Odinga
Former Prime Minister of Kenya and Cord Leader.

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