Beyond the ballot: widening African reform

Capable, responsive governments are a prerequisite for development
Addis Ababa
From Africa Renewal: 
page 10
Local government election in Nigeria. Stronger local governments could more effectively involve people in decision-making and provide them with services. Photo: Panos/Jacob Silberberg

Not too long ago, public demands for accountable and transparent governments in many African countries were often made at the risk of persecution, imprisonment or death. While repressive governments are yet to be eliminated across the continent, significant change is taking place in a growing number of countries. Civil society is growing and applying pressure for better performance, the media are demanding transparency across all sectors of society and governments are realizing that the days of coercive politics are numbered.

In the past, demands centred on the need for multiparty elections. Now that many countries have moved in that direction, the emphasis is on consolidating democracy -- making sure elections are open and transparent and deepening reforms in institutions such as the judiciary, parliament and local government.

In Africa "there is increasing public demand for policies that foster democracy and development, for a budgetary planning process which is open and subject to public scrutiny, for measures that ensure a capable, proper and functioning civil service with an adequate level of remuneration," says Ms. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a veteran Liberian politician and former UN official.

In a growing number of countries, she notes, citizens are calling for independent judges, effective parliaments, measures that address corruption and the devolution of power from central to local governments. "It is expected that proposed laws will be subject to public dialogue and debate before enactment and that those representing the people will regularly consult and seek the people's views," she says. In a nutshell, Africans are demanding what is known among development practitioners as "good governance."

Narrowly defined, governance means the exercise of political power to manage the affairs of state. In a broader sense, it can refer to the various processes relating to leadership, such as policymaking, transparency, accountability, the protection of human rights and the relationship among the public, private and civil sectors in determining how power is exercised.

"Leading voices across Africa and the common citizens of our continent are behind the demand for better governance," UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) Executive Secretary K.Y. Amoako told the African Development Forum, a regular gathering of policymakers and government officials from the continent, in October. The conference was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, under the theme "Good Governance for a Progressing Africa."

An increasingly active citizenry is championing the call for responsive government, said Mr. Amoako. The previous isolation of African civil society, media, youth and business is decreasing. "And with all this comes a rise in pressure, from the ground up, for performance and accountability."

A new era

A few decades ago, the picture was very different. Struggles for national liberation in Africa during the 1960s and 1970s gave birth to a post-independence era in which countries sought national sovereignty. However, in many countries ruling elites imposed fairly closed systems of government and single-party rule. Military coups and dictatorships became the order of the day. This period was punctuated by famines, natural disasters and corruption in government. Barring a few exceptions, those problems shaped the public image of Africa abroad.

But the last decade has seen the spread of democratic elections, generating hope for lasting solutions to the continent's problems. "Societies have started opening up," says Mr. Bengt Säve-Söderbergh, of the Swedish foreign ministry. Many countries now place great importance on unleashing the energy of the whole society for development, he says. "Coming from a member country of the European Union, I am particularly pleased to see that good governance is now high on the agenda in Africa."

The number of countries holding competitive elections in Africa quadrupled between 1990 and 1995. By 1995, some 38 out of 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa had conducted elections, many of them for the first time. Two regional initiatives, the African Union (a new continental political organization) and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), underscore the importance African states are placing in good governance. All African countries have signed onto NEPAD, a development framework that stresses accountability as a prerequisite for economic progress. NEPAD states that "development is impossible in the absence of true democracy, respect for human rights, peace and good governance." Under a NEPAD/African Union programme, 24 African nations, representing about 75 per cent of the continent's population, have agreed to take part in a peer reviews of their governance performance (see article "States call each other to account").

But despite commitments to improving governance on the continent, the overall picture in many countries remains poor. Findings of a new ECA study on governance in Africa show that most countries perform badly in efforts to control corruption. Evasion and corruption in the tax system are rampant in many countries.

The study, Striving for Good Governance in Africa, assesses the performance of 28 countries across a series of indicators including democracy, respect for human rights, public-service delivery, corruption and media diversity. The report states that countries performed badly in the areas of efficiency of government services, decentralization and accountability in the civil service. Scores were also low for the effectiveness of institutions of all three arms of government: executive, legislature and judiciary. Across all 28 countries, respondents to the study gave the highest scores for indicators of political representation such as the credibility of elections and the freedom of political parties (see box, below).

'Pseudo-democracies'

The recent African Development Forum conveyed a key message: in order to find lasting solutions to Africa's problems, a capable African state must be developed. This means building a state with functioning and effective institutions, such as courts and parliaments -- one in which the different arms of government do not interfere with each other's work.

During the years of dictatorship and authoritarian rule, parliaments (where they existed) and judiciaries were severely undermined. But during the 1990s, a decade marked by the growth of multiparty political systems, parliaments began to assert themselves as separate from the executive arm of government.

The broader policy environment does not favour the development of state institutions. Economic liberalization policies have tended to trim the civil service and curtail the ability of the state to deliver services.

In Mauritius, South Africa, Namibia, Ghana, Benin, Botswana, Lesotho, Morocco, Senegal, Mozambique and the Gambia, citizens who took part in the ECA study considered their legislatures to be free from the control of the executive. In these countries, the parliament oversees public institutions to some extent, makes laws that protect citizens and exercises power over the national budget, notes the ECA report.

But the majority of legislatures in Africa still have a long way to go. Dialogue and debate in many parliaments are hindered by weak opposition parties. Often ruling parties are so entrenched that they use the state apparatus to hinder the opposition. Some employ a system of patronage, for instance, distributing state resources according to party allegiances. Some write election rules and procedures in their favour and deny opposition parties time or space in state media. In some cases legislation directs state funding only to major political parties, to the disadvantage of smaller ones.

So even without physical obstruction from governments, opposition parties cannot compete effectively, notes Mr. Larry Diamond, a political science professor at Stanford University in the US. He describes countries governed this way as "pseudo-democracies."

A report by the Southern African Development Community on governance and human development shows that in 1998, ruling parties in that region controlled large majorities in parliament. Elections in 1999 saw ruling parties in Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa further increase their parliamentary majorities, while in Zimbabwe parliament has been dominated by one party since 1990. The report warns that the trend in the region raises serious questions about the long-term sustainability of parliamentary democracy there.

Lack of training

Some African legislatures are compromised by poor education and training among parliamentarians. In Ethiopia, for example, less than a quarter of parliamentarians have education at the 12th grade or above, reports the ECA. While a number of parliamentary training programmes exist on the continent, they are few and often underfunded. Delegates to the African Development Forum stressed the need for more resources to enhance the training of legislators as a precondition for strengthening parliaments.

However, training should not only be targeted at policymakers, said Kenyan parliamentarian Peter Aringo. There is also a need to intensify civic education of the electorate to allow citizens to participate in the parliamentary process. Mr. Aringo said the strengthening of democratic institutions to promote more responsive decision-making by those in parliament is only the beginning. "An alert citizenry is what makes democratic institutions and processes work."

Often, African parliaments are modelled along the lines of those in former colonial countries. Many operate in a highly technical manner using English and French, languages not fully understood by the majority of the people. At the level of local government, some countries are beginning to use local languages to involve more people.

Opening up the legislative process to allow broader participation, such as by conducting public hearings and simplifying the parliamentary process, could make policymaking more inclusive. "The first step in the effort at achieving effective policymaking in Africa . . . is to begin by demystifying the policy process itself," writes Mr. Adebayo Olukoshi in a research paper for the Canada-based International Development Research Centre.

Seeking independent judges

Another area of governance in need of reform is the judiciary. Because court systems in many countries are underfunded and staffed by undertrained personnel, they are often overwhelmed by the demands made on them. In a number of countries it can take years for criminal cases to be heard, notes the ECA report. And as the old adage goes, justice delayed is justice denied. In Burkina Faso, there are only 300 judges serving a country of 12 million people -- one judge for every 40,000 people.

But perhaps the most pressing need is for an independent judiciary. On paper, the constitutions of most countries uphold the independence of the judiciary, but in reality courts are not free from interference by political leaders. There are exceptions. In Botswana, Egypt, Ghana, Namibia, South Africa and Uganda, the judiciary is considered to be largely independent from other branches of government, the ECA reports. But in most countries the role of the executive in the hiring and firing of judges remains pivotal.

"So long as judges are appointed, paid, promoted or removed from office by persons or institutions controlled directly or indirectly by the executive, the judiciary's independence may be more theoretical than real," says prominent Ghanaian Judge Akilano Akiwumi.

Judge Akiwumi, who serves on Botswana's Court of Appeal and currently heads a panel investing corruption among judges in Kenya's Court of Appeal, says that in many African Commonwealth countries the independence of judges is protected because they are not employed as ordinary civil servants but are paid out of independent funds. In Uganda, for example, a special fund pays the salaries of independent officials, including the auditor general, thus preventing parliament from deliberating on the remuneration of judges. To limit the influence of the executive in the appointment of judges, some countries, such as Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia, have judicial service commissions that recommend and hire judges.

However, the situation is different in many former French colonies, where judges, especially in the higher courts and constitutional tribunals, are directly appointed by governments. Usually the highest court in the land determines the legality of constitutional provisions. Under the system adopted in former British colonies, only judges sit on such courts or constitutional organs, unlike in former French colonies. "In certain francophone African countries constitutional control has been entrusted to a body which is completely and officially political," says Judge Akiwumi. For instance, the Constitutional Council in the Central African Republic is headed by the minister of justice, with one assistant appointed by the head of state and another by parliament. The term of the court corresponds with that of a parliamentary session. In some francophone countries, appointees to the constitutional courts are not required to be judges.

Strengthening local government

Another government institution whose reform could radically transform the governance environment is local government. In recent years, decentralization -- the devolution of power from central to local government -- has been increasingly viewed as an effective means of promoting development and democracy at the local level. Development planners believe that decentralization improves service delivery, as it enables local people to influence decisions that affect them. Decentralization of government also brings politicians and policymakers closer to clients and, at least in theory, enhances accountability.

However, the existence of local government does not necessarily translate into democracy. In some cases officials are appointed rather than elected. Many do not generate their own revenue, but depend on central governments, giving real power to those who fund them.

Lately, aid agencies in Africa have been increasingly emphasizing local participation in their programmes. Countries that stress broader participation tend to get more support. Also, the growth of civil society groups and non-governmental organizations in Africa is presenting a new counterweight to the powers of central governments. Some of them developed out of tiny self-help associations created by people in response to the failure of the state to provide basic services.

So far only a handful of African countries have begun to decentralize. One of the early innovators was Uganda. The history of decentralization in the East African nation dates back to early post-colonial governments, but the most far-reaching measures were undertaken after 1986, when the rebel National Resistance Movement, led by President Yoweri Museveni, came to power. The movement argued that decentralization would introduce popular democracy in a country that had been destroyed by a series of authoritarian regimes.

Uganda's system is based on a hierarchy of local councils and committees at village, parish, county and district levels. The localized political structures were legally affirmed through a 1993 statute that was eventually incorporated into the constitution in 1995. The objectives of decentralization were to bring political and administrative control to the point where services are actually delivered, to involve local populations in decision-making and problem-solving, to reduce the cost of service delivery and to raise efficiency and accountability at the local level, notes Mr. Moses Golola, a professor at Bugema University in Uganda. The local councils perform tasks that were previously performed by government ministries, such as political administration, minor judicial services and the supervision of local development programmes.

"Local councils are composed of elected local people, who often hold personal stakes in the welfare of the area," writes Mr. Golola in a recent publication of the United Nations University on reforming African institutions. These local representatives often defend the interests of their local area against the whims of central government, he notes. A certain number of seats on the councils are reserved for women and a gender committee pays special attention to women's needs.

Early evaluations of the programme point towards success in parts of southern Uganda, where it is reported that local government councils have improved efficiency, accountability and transparency. However, the greatest impediment to local governments in Uganda is the lack of their own financial resources. This limits the extent to which local leaders can deliver on their promises and often results in interference from central government. Also, in areas where local structures are dominated by corrupt politicians or elites with allegiances higher up the political chain, results have been less encouraging.

From rhetoric to action

In a growing number of African countries, the need to develop strong institutions of state is not contested. The challenge, however, is to transform political rhetoric into action. The need is particularly great when the broader policy environment does not favour the development of state institutions. Economic liberalization policies, adopted by most African countries since the 1980s, have tended to trim the civil service and curtail the ability of the state to deliver services. While there is now growing acknowledgement that past policies have eroded African state institutions, current liberalization programmes still emphasize lean governments.

The majority of African countries continue to implement structural reforms initiated more than two decades ago. "The economic reform measures imposed by international finance institutions do not take proper account of social and political backgrounds of countries," writes Mr. Seyoum Hameso, an Ethiopian economist. "Since such programmes visibly intend to reduce the role of the state, they make it in effect incapable of catering for social services."

Often there are no mechanisms to deal with ensuing problems such as growing poverty and inequality, violence and conflict, which in turn further destabilize the state. And because the state is forced to impose unpopular policy prescriptions by the international financial institutions, "the state and its institutions are rendered even more unpopular," writes Mr. Hameso.

The challenge goes beyond simply holding routine general elections, filling parliamentary chambers with legislators from all sides of the political spectrum or devolving power to rural areas. It requires finding lasting solutions to the funding problems afflicting governments across Africa and reawakening states that are devastated by health crises such as HIV/AIDS and that continue to lose professionals to nations that can afford to pay higher salaries. African states will need to produce an educated and active citizenry to operate these institutions and develop truly independent, viable economies that do not depend on the dictates of external lenders. "In Africa, the challenge is not just to prevent states from failing," says Mr. Amoako of the ECA, "but to encourage states to succeed."

Striving for good governance in Africa

In October, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) released its first major continent-wide study on governance in Africa, entitled Striving for Good Governance in Africa. It examines African institutions and human resources relating to effective government in 28 countries. The report assesses performance in areas such as political representation, corruption control, economic management, media freedom and diversity, and human rights.

Input was obtained from expert panels of about 100 people per country from all professional classes, as well as academia and civil society. The ECA also conducted public-opinion polls in about 2,000 households per country -- rural, urban, rich, poor, illiterate and educated. The perceptions were then scored on an overall index of 0 to 100.

Some of the key findings are that constitutional government is getting stronger and more democratic and that multiparty elections are becoming the only acceptable means of transferring power. However, the police and military in many African countries still violate the rights of citizens, electoral commissions need more independence, shortages of manpower limit the ability of governments to function effectively and costs and red tape greatly hinder business in Africa.

The report identifies 10 areas in need of urgent action, including strengthening parliaments, protecting the autonomy of the judiciary, improving the performance of the public sector, supporting the development of professional media, encouraging private investment and decentralizing the delivery of services. In turn, donors must live up to their commitments to provide greater support, the ECA recommends.

To attain more efficient governments, African countries need to recruit and retain skilled personnel and tap into information and communication technologies, especially in key institutions such as the legislature and public services. The most serious challenge facing African governments is HIV/AIDS, the ECA reports. Strong leadership is needed to deal with the impact of the epidemic and more resources must be dedicated to fighting AIDS.