Crisis of Governance in Africa


Some people see in Africa’s political and economic failings proof that Africans are incapable of ruling themselves. Such people may also believe that the colonial powers opted out of the continent prematurely and that some more years of tutelage might have made a difference. In this liberal age such views are rarely spoken openly by either the enemies or friends of Africa. But it would be naive to think that Africa’s experience has not raised questions about the quality of the character and mind of the African. The doubt certainly occupies the thoughts of many Africans as they watch their prostrated countries treated as basket cases. Self-doubt has grown with each decade of apparent failure.

Ordinary Africans, bewildered and disappointed by the outcome of self-rule, find little around them to instil the confidence that as a people they can manage their own recovery. In some respects Africans are now more vulnerable to theories of black inferiority than they were during colonialism. Under colonialism they could dream that with liberation would come the opportunity to prove their worth. The future was uncompromised by the failures of the present. After more than three decades of misgovernment, many Africans have lost faith. In 1990 a state governor in Imo state in southeastern Nigeria explained to a public meeting in the capital Owerri that his cash-strapped government was unable to solve the severe erosion problem devastating the region. After he had spoken an old man in the audience stood up and said “Since you and other black leaders have tried your best but have not been able to improve the lives of us ordinary people, why don’t we ask the whites to come back. When the white man ruled us things were not this bad. Please ask them to come and save us.” The statement, spoken with sincerity, met momentary silence in the audience followed by some laughter and applause.

In a way, the whites have been returning. Some would say, they never left. Over the past two decades western governments, aid agencies and multilateral finance institutions have sent experts to African countries to help them develop. The help increasingly involved attempts to direct the political and economic development of the recipient nations.

Calls for recolonisation

The experts and their prescriptions have failed to shift Africa. The next stage, it seems, is for the West to directly take over the management of troubled African nations. Last year writer Norman Stone in ‘The Observer’ newspaper proposed a programme of enlightened re-imperialism’ to sort Africa out. Conditions in Africa today, he said, were similar to the bloody mess that prevailed before European colonisation in the nineteenth century. “There is a strong case for another version of the nineteenth-century liberal international order to be re-imposed….Empires do not have to be formal or tyrannical…. There are times when they do good, and the post-independence history of Africa indicates that this is one of them.”

Why not simply privatise whole African countries?, asked Robert Wheelen of the Institute of Economic Affairs. In the journal of the institute in September 1996 Wheelen argued that multi-national companies should be invited to bid for the right to run African nations under leases of up to 21 years. They would undertake to provide specific services and bring about efficiency and discipline in return for pre-set tax revenue.

The tragedy of Africa’s situation is that as absurd as these proposals by latter day imperialists sound, there are many Africans who would support some degree of direct governance by external agents to straighten out their countries. For instance, some Liberians called for their war-battered nation to become a trust territory of the United Nations. International football star George Weah, apparently exasperated by the anarchy and hopeless condition of his homeland, told the New York Times in May 1996: “The United Nations should come in and take over Liberia, not temporarily, but for life. To make Liberians believe in democracy, to make us believe in human rights.” For his outspokenness, two of Weah’s female cousins were raped and his house burnt down by gunmen from one of the warring factions that had for six years turned Liberia into a killing field in a senseless war.

Weah’s comment was naive but understandable. Blaming Africa’s woes on bad leaders has become the mantra of many people concerned about the continent’s future. A change in government, preferably through democratic means, is viewed as the main pre-requisite for making a fresh start and attracting economic investment. Analysts focus their minds on how inept African leaders can be got rid of. George Ayittey, a Ghanaian professor at the American University in Washington, DC, suggested that African dictators be paid to relinquish power. Citing the example of Somalia where a war-induced famine in 1992 led to an international mercy mission, Ayittey told a reporter during the OAU summit in July 1996 “The humanitarian mission cost more than $3 billion. If we had just taken $50 million and bought out the regime, imagine the savings in terms of life and infrastructure.” In a similar vain, the Financial Times Africa expert Michael Holman, had suggested in his paper that a demobilisation fund be set up to ease the army out of power in Nigeria and “provide golden handshakes to officers who want to leave.”

The tendency is to view Africa’s woes in terms of the excesses of individual dictators and their cronies. The image that comes to mind is of kleptomaniacs and megalomaniacs like Mobutu Sese Seko and Jean-Bedel Bokassa. It is easy to draw from this the conclusion that the simple solution to Africa’s governance problems is to change its leaders.

The belief that a nation can be redeemed by removing a set of crooked leaders inspired the killing of Nigeria’s first post-independence civilian rulers by idealistic army majors. But the coup only succeeded in shifting power to another set of ineffectual leaders. Since independence in 1960 the leadership of Nigeria has changed nine times. This is more changes of government than occurred in most European democracies during the period. Despite the changes of governments, the Nigerian state remained corrupt and ineffective. Throughout Africa, changes in helmsmen have not lessened corruption or quickened the pace of economic development.

Ignorance and lack of capacity not the main causes
Some people put the persistence of mismanagement down to a lack of capacity for good governance. One result of this view is the explosion of capacity building programmes initiated by donor and multilateral agencies. The aim of the schemes is to help African countries put in place structures and reforms that will strengthen the rule of law, support democracy and promote greater accountability and transparency. Underlying many of these programmes is the notion that poor governance is due largely to incompetence, ignorance and inadequate infrastructure. In effect, the aim is to do now what many feel should have been done by the colonisers before they relinquished power. That is, teach Africans how to govern themselves.

Certainly African nations suffer from poor administrative, inadequate judicial infrastructure and insufficient numbers of expertise. But these short-comings cannot explain the abuse and misuse of state power in the continent. For instance, Nigeria has a large number of highly-trained professionals, including accountants and constitutional lawyers. Laid down budgetary procedures, include provisions for checks and balances, are adequate. But the fact remains that Nigerian rulers have ignored the provisions of the constitution and laid down administrative procedures are irrelevant to the actual workings of government.

Abuse and misuse of power and authority by Nigerian rulers have not been largely due any national lack of capacity for good governance. Nigerian leaders have not been ineffective and tyrannical because they are incompetent or ignorant. Neither has the lack of administrative or intellectual expertise to formulate and properly execute growth enhancing policies been the major problem. Quite simply, Nigerian leaders have acted in their own selfish interests in total disregard to existing rules and laid-down procedures.

The popular image of African rulers as bungling buffoons is not helpful. It obscures reality. Anyone who has observed the way in which the military has dominated politics in Nigeria would see that the generals are no fools. They and their advisers have shown themselves to be quite adept in the art of retaining political power. Since the early 1990s they have toyed with the civilian political class. General Sani Abacha has since seizing power in 1993, with remarkable political skill undermined the opposition – sowed confusion in their ranks and made them loss credibility in the eyes of the public. Judged by Machievellian standards, Nigeria’s ruling generals and their advisers have shown great political sophistication. It would be a mistake to approach Abacha and his cronies as a bunch of idiots, ignorant of the art of politics.

Similarly, we should not see reactionary economic policies and practices of African governments as stemming mainly from lack of knowledge of economic theory and management. Many of the economic policies and actions that have entrenched African countries in economic under-development were deliberately carried out to serve the interest of those in power. African ruling elites have benefited enormously from the economic misfortune of their nations. Not surprising, they prefer to maintain the status quo as chaotic and depressive as it may seem for the majority of Africans and liberal observers from abroad. There is reason in the anarchy.

Scramble for wealth and power
Rather than view African rulers as buffoons, we should see them and their actions from the perspective of the interests they serve. The failure of democracy and economic development in Africa are due to a large part to the scramble for wealth by predator elites who have dominated African politics since independence. They see the state as a source of personal wealth accumulation. There is high premium on the control of the state, which is the biggest and most easily accessible source of wealth accumulation. The people in power and those who seek power use all means to attain their goal. This includes fostering ethnic sectarianism and political repression. Competition for control of the state, whether between the military and civilian classes or between civilian political parties, is invariably ferocious and generates instability. Many of the apparently senseless civil conflicts in Africa, including in Liberia and Somalia, are due to the battle for the spoils of power.

Franz Fanon in his book ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ published in 1961 eloquently described the character of the class that inherited power from the colonialists. It is “a sort of little greedy caste, avid and voracious, with the mind of a huckster, only too glad to accept the dividends that the former colonial powers hands out. This get-rich-quick middle class shows itself incapable of great ideas or of inventiveness. It remembers what it has read in European textbooks and imperceptibly it becomes not even the replica of Europe, but its caricature.” This class, said Fanon prophetically, is not capable of building industries “it is completely canalised into activities of the intermediary type. Its innermost vocation seems to be to keep in the running and to be part of the racket. The psychology of the national bourgeoisie is that of a businessman, not that of a captain of industry.” The description remains accurate for today’s elite who have grown through civilian politics, military governments, business and the civil service.

As long as African political rulers and administrators are drawn from this class of predators, no amount of preaching the virtues of good governance or tuition on public administration will fundamentally alter the quality of governance. This is not to say that constitutional reforms and increasing civil society infrastructure are not important. They are. But they are not the key to solving the problem of bad governance.

Good governance is the effective exercise of power and authority by government in a manner that serves to improve the quality of life of the populous. This includes using state power to create a society in which the full development of individuals and of their capacity to control their lives is possible. A ruling class that sees the state solely as a means of expropriating the nation’s limited resources is simply incapable of good governance. More specifically, such a class will by its character and mission abuse power.

An underlying cause of many of the manifestations of bad governance, including political repression, corruption and ethnic sectarianism, is the endeavour by the ruling classes to be and remain part of the global elite despite their nation’s poverty. The competition for national resources leads to conflict and repression. It is difficult to see how there can be good governance when the orientation of the elite is to stay in the running and be part of the fifth of the world’s population that forms the international consumer class.

Bad governance is not a mainly problem of ignorance or lack of infrastructural capacity or even of individual dictators. States in Africa are incapacitated as instruments of development because ruling classes, including people in and outside government, are motivated by objectives that have little to do with the common good.

Africa’s tragedy is not that its nations are poor That is a condition that is a product of history. The tragedy is that it lacks ruling classes that are committed to overcoming the state of poverty. Real politics here has little to do with social and economic reconstruction. The observation of the assassinated South African writer Ruth First in her book The Barrel of a Gun published in 1970 remains valid today. “There has been eloquent, inexhaustible talk in Africa about politics, side by side with the gaping poverty of political thought. Down there on the ground in Africa, you can smother in the small talk of politics. Mostly it is about politicking, rarely about policies. Politicians are men who compete with each other for power, not men who use power to confront their country’s problems.”

As long as politics is dominated by predator elites it is difficult to see how meaningful democracy or economic development can be sustained.. The challenge facing those who want better governance is how to make those in power accountable and ultimately rescue the state from them to transform it an agency for positive change.



( Courtesy Africa Business Information Services & Africa Economic Analysis ……. Source …….. New Africa Business News)

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