Is Accountable Governance a Solution to African Problems?

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This blog post was written by Dan Kuwali.


It is no longer news that governance dysfunctions at national and international levels are the major culprits responsible for conflict, instability, and poor socio-economic development in Africa. Ethical shortfalls and accountability deficits in Africa’s governance system have long been a challenge for both the private and public sector performance.

Among the seven key aspirations listed in Africa Agenda 2063a: The Africa We Want, one theme stands out as the key to Africa’s political and economic transformation. That is “an Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law.” Even the former United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, Ghana’s Kofi Annan, advised that “[g]ood governance  is perhaps the single most important factor in eradicating poverty and promoting development.”

Thus, it is safe to assert that accountable governance is part of the solutions  to most of Africa’s problems. The theory is easy to understand. Eradicating poverty and improving human development in Africa must begin with creation of wealth for inclusive growth, a process that requires a robust entrepreneurial class. To achieve these goals, there must be peace and security. Unfortunately, weak and dysfunctional governance structures continue to prevent many African countries from creating and sustaining the necessary enabling environment for peaceful coexistence, entrepreneurship, and wealth creation.

What is the problem with governance on the continent?

For many, politics in Africa is a realm that attracts courageous crooks  and scares away cowardly saints. Unless ethical leadership and accountable governance become prerequisites for holding public office, African nations will continue to be at the mercy of elected officials who assume office to feed their greed and line their pockets. Africa is facing perennial challenges such as intra-state conflict, terrorism, and unconstitutional changes of government, among others. Governance issues are often at the heart of these perennial problems. Many African states are also facing difficult questions to uphold accountable governance and ethical leadership.

The degree of adherence to, and extent of compliance with, accountable governance and respect for  the rule of law in Africa differs from country to country. According to the 2021  World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, which ranked 139 countries, the highly  ranked country in Africa is Rwanda on position  42 whereas the lowest is the Democratic Republic of the Congo on position  137. In North Africa, Tunisia is ranked the highest while Egypt is the lowest at position 136. Most countries in Africa are in the top 48 percent category indicating progress towards commitment to accountable governance on the African continent despite retrogressive events reversing the trajectory of constitutionalism on the continent. The recent Ibrahim Index of African Governance show progress in constitutionalism in countries such as Malawi and Senegal. The recent rise in unconstitutional changes of government has overshadowed successful transfers of power in many progressive countries that uphold constitutionalism. For example, most countries in Southern Africa have upheld constitutionalism and respect of the rule of law save for Lesotho, where there has been political instability, and Eswatini, which is the only remaining absolute monarchy in the region. Likewise, East Africa hosts several stable democracies, especially Tanzania and Kenya, which has just held a peaceful election and, so far, envisaging a peaceful transfer of power. West Africa is home to largest democracies on the continent such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal.

While there cannot be a one-size-fits-all explanation for the proliferation of coups , the causal factors include illiteracy and poverty, especially for vulnerable and marginalised populations, insecurity, poor governance, including endemic corruption and economic mismanagement, infrastructural deficit, poor socio-economic systems and institutions, and frustrated youths.  Africa has seen a renewed quest for accountable governance expressed itself in the streets, popular culture, the Internet, and social media. These youth-led popular protests have demonstrated against social injustice, fraudulent elections, corruption, insecurity, demanding inclusion to participate in governance and a life of dignity as equal citizens. Socio-economic conditions have produced public outrage. Many countries today still face difficult governance questions such as how can governments counter terrorism and cybercrimes without infringing the right to privacy of individuals? How can security agencies strike a balance between confidentiality or secrecy and the citizens’ right of access to information? How can we ensure parliamentary oversight of defence and security organs in view of lack of technical capacity of parliamentarians in this specialized sector?

 Why accountable governance is key to Africa’s rise

Accountable governance is central to the achievement of all the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals  (SDGs). This is particularly clear in Goal 16, which requires States to “[p]romote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels. For example, in the context of the African Continental Free Trade Area  (ACFTA), Africa cannot have free trade that creates wealth without governance systems that ensure that all trade within and across the continent is fair.

Countries  cannot create jobs that make people self-reliant without governance mechanisms that protect workers from exploitation. States cannot achieve food security without holding cartels that pervert the marketplace accountable to protect farmers. Public office-bearers may ignore their constitutional obligations at their peril where accountability and the rule of law constitute the sharp and mighty sword against impunity. States cannot defeat institutional corruption without independent and impartial oversight mechanisms where public officers are held accountable. Therefore, accountable governance coupled with ethical leadership are the foundations to achieve the Africa We Want.

What is accountable governance?

Accountable governance entails respect for the rule of law where the exercise of authority is subject to accountability, just law, open government, and accessible and impartial justice.  is built on a foundation of rule of law particularly accountability and transparency; combating corruption, empowered civil societies including citizen participation in governance, an enabling legal and judicial framework, and an efficient private sector. Accountable governance promotes transparency, respect for the rule of law including equality under the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and promoting public trust.

Accountable Governance is an enabler for socio-economic development in Africa. From an economic perspective, accountable governance is what creates an enabling environment for economic efficiency through equitable rules that promote fair and well-functioning markets, curtail corruption, and ensure the fair delivery of public services. From a social standpoint, accountable governance is what prevents the marginalization of vulnerable social groups by the rich, the powerful, and the well-connected thereby promoting peace. From a development angle, accountable governance is what ensures the equitable distribution of infrastructural developments and provision of welfare programmes. The key challenge then is how to attain accountable governance accompanied by ethical leadership on the continent.

Now, what should African countries do?

The picture that is emerging from this discussion is that the key to achieve peace, security and development in Africa is accountable governance, which entails responsible leadership, participatory citizenship, free, fair, and just political representation. Accountable has the attendant attributes to improving socioeconomic well-being of the population in terms of quality education, affordable health care, job creation, financial security, food security, and an effective criminal justice system that fights corruption and impunity. In the spirit of African Solutions to African Problems, African states should resolve some of the ethical and governance issues stalling peace and clogging the wheels of growth and development on the continent. This discussion suggests four people-centred approaches to achieve accountable governance in Africa.

First, countries should entrench mechanisms that promote constitutionalism, accountability, democracy, and accountable governance. Accountable governance can only be guaranteed by strong public institutions that uphold the rule of law, operate within a human rights framework, and require public duty-bearers to be transparent and accountable. To perform its oversight role, the judiciary should be independent and impartial.

Secondly, a critical imperative to achieve accountable governance is empowerment of citizens. To this end, African countries should develop and implement education programmes that help citizens to not only understand and appreciate national constitutions but also recognise the law as a tool that they can use to organize their private lives and resolve their conflicts, at personal and societal levels. This need for legal and constitutional education is particularly urgent among marginalized groups such as youth and women. They too need to be empowered with the information, whether it be on such topics as security, rights, terrorism, intra-state conflicts, trade laws, unconstitutional changes of government, or laws that regulate our economy, our agriculture, our mining, our media, our elections, and our domestic relationships.

Third, ethical leadership is a precursor to accountable governance. Ethical leadership is characterized by a strong social contract between the society and the state, that is sufficiently inclusive to permit management of diversity and plurality of views. Ethical leadership is a potent force to propel the body politic to focus on ethical values that serve as a model for the rest of society. Thus, ethical leadership is critical to inculcate a culture of constitutionalism and the rule of law in Africa, where the law is the basis for political decision-making and administrative action.

Fourth, more states should subject themselves to the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) to achieve a critical mass of accountable governance on the continent. As a component of the New Partnership For Africa’s Development  (NEPAD), the APRM is a voluntary mechanism designed to promote structural conflict prevention through good governance. Given the nature of the peace and security on the continent, the APSA cannot work in isolation, it must consistently and coherently coordinate with human rights institutions and organs meant to promote peace, security, and socioeconomic well-being of individuals on the continent.

Accountable governance is key for an _Africa where there is political stability,  deepened democracy , equity, and justice, and economic prosperity. To achieve this, there must always be a strong social contract between society and the State. On their part, African leaders should redefine their politics to focus not on power but commit to accountability, respect for the rule of law and ethical values that make leadership a people-centred enterprise.

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