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African democracy coming of age

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African democracy coming of age

Strong institutions: judiciary, media and civil society helping to strengthen leadership
Kingsley Ighobor
From Africa Renewal: 
A protester outside the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo: AP Photo/Denis Farrell
Photo: AP Photo/Denis Farrell
A protester outside the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo: AP Photo/Denis Farrell
In this special coverage of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we profile SDG 16, whose aim is to promote peaceful and inclusive societies, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. We look at how African governments are handling corruption, electoral systems, the media, the judiciary and how they are engaging civil society.

Development experts sum up the solution to Africa’s socioeconomic and political problems in two words: good governance. If Africa’s 54 countries practice good governance, these experts say, their economies will grow, poverty will be eliminated and the continent’s 1.2 billion people will enjoy prosperity. 

Accountability, transparency, responsibility, equity and the rule of law are some of the characteristics of good governance, according to the UN. 

The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), an instrument established by the African Union (AU) to promote political stability, economic growth and integration on the continent, explains what good governance entails. It begins with national constitutions reflecting the ideals of democracy. 

Endless journey 

Another aspect of good governance, according to the APRM, is effective electoral bodies that conduct free and fair elections, follow the rule of law and are pledged to accountability, separation of powers (particularly judicial independence) and the rights of women, children and vulnerable groups, including displaced persons and refugees.

Elements of good governance as described by the APRM and the UN are largely aspirational, which makes it difficult to identify fully when a country achieves good governance. Countries are tested by a self-assessment questionnaire. “Good governance is an ideal which is difficult to achieve in its totality… Very few countries and societies have come close to achieving good governance in its totality,” says the UN.


is the percentage of parliamentary seats occupied by women in Rwanda as it leads the world in women’s parliamentary representation.

What that means is that most countries can only strive to practise good governance. The UN, the World Bank, the AU and other bodies encourage countries and citizens to begin a good governance journey, and many organizations, such as Transparency International (TI), the World Bank and Afrobarometer, periodically measure distances covered. 

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development launched by the UN in September 2015 also concentrates on good governance. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16, for instance, focuses on the promotion of just, peaceful and inclusive societies, while SDG 5 calls for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

Also, the AU’s Agenda 2063, a roadmap that emphasizes the importance to success of rekindling the passion for pan-Africanism—a sense of unity, self-reliance, integration and solidarity that was a highlight of Africa’s triumphs of the 20th century—consists of a set of seven aims, anchored on good governance, to transform the continent’s socioeconomic and political fortunes within 50 years. 

Agenda 2063 Aspiration 3 envisions an “Africa of good governance, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law,” while Aspiration 6 envisions “an Africa whose development is people-driven, relying on the potential of African people, especially its women and youth, and caring for children.”

Most governments tout their policies as geared towards good governance the policies are then evaluated by TI and other organizations to determine if actions match words.

Measuring performance

Transparency International’s 2015 index based on a corruption perception survey ranked Botswana as Africa’s best performer, at 28 out of 167 countries, followed by Cape Verde at 40. The poor performers were Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Angola, Libya and Guinea-Bissau.   

Conflict countries performed poorly, which suggests that conflicts affect good governance practices. However, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) differs with TI over the latter’s use of “perception” as an indicator of corruption. “No single indicator of corruption should be used,” says Carlos Lopes, the ECA’s executive secretary, in a foreword to the 2016 African Governance Report IV

Assessments of corruption in Africa should also include information on the activities of international players involved in asset repatriation and money laundering, Mr. Lopes says.

Another watchdog instrument is the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, an annual assessment of the quality of governance in Africa. It consists of more than 90 indicators built up into 14 subcategories, four categories and one overall measurement of governance performance.

Its 2015 report ranked Mauritius as Africa’s best performer, followed by Cape Verde, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Seychelles and Ghana, in that order. Somalia, again, ranked the lowest, below South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Sudan. 

Mauritius shows a connection between good governance and economic development. Globally, Mauritius is ranked 32 out of 189 countries in Doing Business 2016: Measuring Regulatory Quality and Efficiency, a flagship World Bank report. 

In 2013 Mauritius confirmed its reputation as an investment destination when it became the highest-ranked sub-Saharan African country on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, having overtaken South Africa. The country even has a Ministry of Financial Services, Good Governance and Institutional Reforms that fights fraud and corruption and promotes good governance. 

Tempering this positive picture is the charge leveled by the charity ActionAid that Mauritius is a tax haven for illicit financial flows. 

Rwanda promotes women

Some African countries have posted impressive data on citizens’ political participation, especially women’s. With 51 out of 80 parliamentary seats occupied by women (63.8%), Rwanda leads the world in women’s parliamentary representation, according to a 2015 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a global organization of parliaments. Senegal comes fifth on the global scale, with women occupying 64 out of 150 seats (42.7%). 

Democracy is the foundation of good governance, notes the AU, which, along with regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), denies membership to undemocratic countries. After a military coup in Mali in March 2012 and in Guinea-Bissau a month later, ECOWAS suspended both countries’ membership in the regional community.

Despite setbacks in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, a 2012 study by the African Development Bank (AfDB) showed a decline of up to one-third in coup attempts in Africa. In the study covering the periods 1970–1989 (99 coup attempts) and 1990–2010 (67 coup attempts), the AfDB attributed the decrease —which can be interpreted as an increase in democratic practices—to a vocal civil society (particularly the involvement of young people and the middle class), a changing international environment (as foreign countries have less interest in Africa’s domestic affairs), and pressure from regional groupings such as ECOWAS (which has the power to impose sanctions on military regimes).

The journey continues

Nevertheless, a lack of free and fair elections can heat up domestic politics, often leading to violence. “Flawed elections, when passed as free, fair and credible, leave citizens with little choice than to agitate for regime change,” writes Emma Birikorang, a senior research fellow at the Accra-based Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre, in an article titled “Coups d’état in Africa: A Thing of the Past?” The training centre conducts research and training in conflict prevention, management and peacekeeping. 

Rigged elections often entrench incumbents in countries where democracy is under attack. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s series of Democracy Index reports, published by The Economist, a UK-based publication, assesses countries on “electoral processes and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture.” It categorizes governments in four groups: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. 

Full democracies score high on good governance practices, particularly civil liberties and free and fair elections. Flawed democracies consist of relatively free and fair elections but are characterized by low political participation and
a weak political culture. Hybrid regimes may conduct elections but fall short on civil liberties, while authoritarian regimes have sit-tight leaders with no interest in elections. 

Mauritius was the only African country with full democracy, according to Democracy Index 2015. Countries listed as hybrid democracies included Benin, Botswana, Cape Verde, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda. The majority of African countries were categorized as authoritarian. 

In 2015, elections were held in Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia that were seen as relatively peaceful, free and fair. In Nigeria, there was a smooth handover of power when the opposition All People’s Congress defeated the ruling People’s Democratic Party, marking the first time an opposition party unseated a ruling party in the country’s history. But a controversial constitutional amendment in Burundi allowed President Pierre Nkurunziza to get a third term, plunging the country into crisis. 

In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front reported a 100% victory, capturing all the 546 parliamentary seats. Africa’s 2016 electoral calendar includes the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Niger, Somalia, Uganda and Zambia. Successful elections could boost good governance in these countries.

Overall, Africa’s good governance picture shows steady progress, despite hiccups. Data generally indicates that good governance is trending in the right direction. The AU, the ECA, regional economic groupings and many governments recognize that citizens are
yearning for good governance, and are responding with appropriate policies, as shown by the continental adoption of Agenda 2063. 

As well, vocal civil society organizations are holding authorities accountable. The judiciary, media, electoral bodies and other institutions are helping to strengthen good governance in many countries, even if under pressure to do better. 

One can say with a degree of certainty that Africa is on a slow but steady march forward.   

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