Shining Stars in Africa, with caveats

by Sep 8, 2020

As we come to the close of the second decade in the twenty first century I would like to highlight the three stars that embody the hopes and challenges of the continent.  They represent in my very subjective interpretation, the way forward for the continent because the countries and leaders have achieved milestones that the rest of Africa could learn from.  While Covid-19 is the major crisis we all face, for decades Africa has struggled with major socio-economic challenges which have left the continent at the bottom of league tables in most indicators on poverty, health and food insecurity.  The major driving force for this situation has been poor governance which has made it difficult for the continent to make use of abundant natural resources and opportunities in economic development and trade and aid flows. The countries in my list are Ghana, Nigeria and Rwanda.  They have been chosen because of significant positive developments in governance, specifically relating to voters choice in elections, corruption and the efficacy and efficiency of the government.

Ghana which led the way in terms of gaining independence has also led in terms of democracy, having changed governments peacefully multiple times in the last three decades.  In fair and reasonably well managed elections, voters have punished/rewarded parties on the basis of their record in government and/or their positions relating to major issues. Ghana’s move to the democratic model is an interesting one, with a brutal break initiated by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlins who took over in a military coup three decades ago but then peacefully accepted the will of voters when they rejected his party. Since then voters have held the sway, the media and judiciary have been reasonably independent by African and world standards.  The democratic model is still work in progress with voting patterns often reflecting ethnic loyalties and significant levels of fake news because journalists have been “bought” and corruption.  In 2015 Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer cited Ghana as the second worst performer in Africa in a survey of people’s views on corruption, with 76% saying that corruption had increased.  Voters no doubt considered that flaw with the government among other reasons when they decided to remove the party in government at the time of the Transparency report as noted in a review of a presentation by the president at the time.

When it comes to probably the most crucial indicator, economic growth, democracy has definitely been an improvement since Rawlins stepped in three decades ago when the country was at its nadir.  The current government took note and made the economy its major focus, with the country recording the fastest growth in Africa and indeed the world at 8.3% in 2018 and 8.8% in 2019.  The 2019 rate was double that of emerging economies and significantly higher than world growth.  While the IMF attributes much of that to new crude oil production and gold and cocoa, it highlighted a stable democracy and initiatives to formalize the economy.  The government is obviously aware that it has to perform for its ultimate boss, the Ghanaian voter, taking into account the fact that its predecessor was kicked out of government partly because of the country’s lacklustre economic performance, corruption and scandals.  It should be noted that the democratic model can have a negative effect on the economy with regards to two developments.  Firstly, the current government has a bloated administration with an unduly large number of ministers.  The government has a policy of setting up factories in all administrative regions.  These policies which are geared towards building support in all regions and ethnic groups are a move away from purely economic efficiency criteria.

The other shining star is Buhari’s Nigeria.  Few leaders have displayed his integrity and vision which combined with the enormity of the task he faces place Buhari’s Nigeria in this category, a point made when I argued for a second term for this remarkable leader.    In both his first go at the job, as a general in a military government and a couple of decades later as a civilian, Buhari has not personally been tainted by corruption, the raison d’etre of many African leaders.  Combined with this integrity and his fight against corruption is his drive to improve Nigeria’s agricultural and industrial capacity. As a military leader he tried to introduce discipline in Nigerian society and import substitution policies and as a civilian leader he has embarked on his vision of making use of Nigeria’s abundant natural resources to grow the country’s agricultural and industrial capacity and rebuild its crumbling infrastructure.

As a civilian leader he has tried to make use of the legal, economic and political levers and policies to implement his core political and economic visions.  The opposition has been fearsome.  A very significant proportion of the political elite and judiciary has stymied his reform program. Legislative bodies, even in his own party, more used to dividing the spoils of a corrupt system than actual governance in the form of debating and implementing policies to further the interest of the country, are flummoxed, irritated and have fought back – as Buhari contemplates policies on development issues legislators bicker over their allowances.  The judiciary, many if not most of whom have been used to remedying justice on the basis of the highest (bribery) payer have suddenly realised that they must actually dispense real justice.  Ghost (non-existent) government bureaucrats are being flushed out.  In Buhari’s Nigeria, charity starts at home so in his party he has instigated measures where candidates are forced to actually fight in primaries for selection rather than assume that once elected the position is for life except for the perfunctory show primary, when they shower voters with the crumbs of their ill-gotten gains.  The creation of an Efficiency unit, the introduction of the Treasury Single Account System (TSA) which significantly reduced the number of accounts maintained by government departments used to defraud the government and, efforts to retrieve stolen funds are his signature policies in the fight against corruption.  These measures are taking place within a background of stiff opposition from corrupt politicians, stymied by legal challenges, aided by an often corrupt judiciary.  Buhari ‘s fight is not just in Nigeria as many politicians have moved themselves and stolen funds abroad and use the legal framework of reputable judiciaries in countries like the UK to fight to hold on to their ill-gotten wealth.

The Buhari project is attempting to get the government to actually deliver its mandate. Government contractors actually have to put in and defend bids for infrastructure projects and once bids are awarded they have to actually do the work.  Changes in the allocation of foreign currencies have made it difficult for spurious subsidised foreign currencies to minimise corrupt manipulation of foreign exchange and encourage domestic manufacturers and agricultural producers who had been placed at a relative disadvantage through subsidisation of imports. 

The Buhari project, while in the right direction must at the end of the day yield tangible results in the form of key indicators, namely, the level of corruption, national security, the economic growth rate, industrial and agricultural production, power generation, new and rehabilitated infrastructure and ultimately, the perception of the public that the country is moving in the right direction.  It should be noted that any assessment must take into account a number of factors, namely, the enormity of challenges Buhari faced, the strong opposition by the political elite, the precipitous fall in the world price of oil and now Covid-19.  In an analysis I made prior to the last election, I concluded that while he was on the right path it was still work in progress.  Nigerian voters endorsed that position and gave him a pass when they re-elected him for a second term.

Buhari’s Nigeria has had some reasonably valid criticism.  The pace of his reform has been slow because unlike Buhari the military leader, he has used the legal levers which has been criticised by some supporter who would prefer more draconian, possibly extra judicial methods.  He has been criticised for ethnic bias, namely, of packing his government with northerners and not taking a hard line with Fulani herders in conflicts with southern farmers – Buhari is a Fulani from the north.  His supporters have noted that while he as most leaders, has made use of trusted contacts that often come from the same background, his team is quite diverse from all over the country.  The conflict between the herders and farmers is quite complex and really should be resolved by local and state governments. 

Rwanda,  rising from the ashes of the devastating genocide a quarter of a century ago, a country with limited natural is another shining star, with impressive gains in its economy, infrastructure and a myriad of social indicators as documented in my report which posed the question of whether the country should be a model for project Africa..  The country has been on the march since that devastation with an effective and efficient governance structure that has been validated with record economic growth driven by record private domestic and foreign capital investment and aid flows, a government that sets the agenda and effectively and efficiently manages the development programme to the benefit of its people, uplifting millions out of poverty, implementing a comprehensive social and healthcare programme and diversifying its economy.  It also has a very impressive record on gender equality with women playing a significant role in the democratic process – the country has the highest proportion of women in its legislative assembly in the world.

 It should be noted that as with the other two countries there are caveats.  While there have been impressive positive gains in the democratic system, notably, attempts to diffuse ethnic tensions there are still significant issues.   The Rwanda project is very much the work of its leader, Paul Kagame, who has used his vision, vigour and management skills to achieve this spectacular result, obviously aided by similarly competent officials.  While there have been elections, doubts have been raised about their fairness and Kagame and his political party have been in power for the last quarter of a century.  Issues have been raised about the (freedom of the) media and there have been reports of suppression of dissent and opposition parties in Rwanda and abroad.  At the end of the day Kagame cannot live for ever and what happens after him.  It should also be noted that despite the fact that the Kagame regime has not embarked on divisive rhetoric, actions or revenge that the ethnic issue has been completely obliterated.  Indeed the perpetrators of that abominable (genocide) act and their supporters were not guided by rational principles.  These issues must be addressed and if allowed to fester risk damaging the entire fabric of the remarkable achievements as has happened in other countries, notably The Ivory Coast where a superb economy crumbled in a civil war because of underlying tensions.

A recurring theme, in all three countries and the continent is the issue of ethnic rivalry and strife which has hobbled the democratic process, the effectiveness and efficiency of the state and fuelled corruption.  All the stars have made efforts at curbing this problem because its solution is a prerequisite to making significant progress in these three themes.  States should strive to develop the infrastructure in all regions to ensure a level playing field and then investors would be motivated by factors such as the natural resource, size of market and other relevant factors.  Obviously all efforts must be made to diversify governance so that all ethnic groups and regions are fully represented without necessarily having a bloated government.  In the case of Nigeria Anthony Akinola, a reputable political analyst has vigorously promoted the rotational presidency concept, namely, that the country’s leadership should be rotated between regions.  The focus of his proposal is that the northern and southern regions alternate the presidency.   While this may apply in that country because of the distinct differences between those regions in terms of ethnicity and religion, the policy has not been put on the country’s statutes (although it has been applied by the country’s major parties on an informal basis) and it could be quite difficult to implement in many other African countries for a host of reasons.  However for all of them efforts must be made to ensure that governments are as inclusive as possible.

This note has tried to focus on the shining stars in a continent bedevilled with leaders and political structures that have and continue to betray their citizens, preventing countries from realising their potentials and making use of the ample resources, including its people.  The focus is on the democratic process, giving voters their right to decide whether a leader/party has delivered; the integrity of leader, in particularly his/her role in the perpetuation or fight against corruption; the vision and management capability of leaders to set and manage socio-economic goals and programmes.  The ideal will be a situation where voters have the full right to decide who rules, where corruption is the exception rather than the norm and the government actually functions and delivers its mandates effectively and efficiently. I have noted the caveats with each of the countries selected which suggests the significant challenges facing those countries despite the impressive records that caused them to be included in the list.

Other African countries have fared quite well in terms of critical indicators, attaining high levels of economic growth rates, low levels of corruption, advances in the democratic process in terms of free elections, media and judiciary, impressive developments of their infrastructure and setting and managing the development agenda.  The reason for choosing this list is the degree at which my list of countries scored on the criteria.  No other country in Africa has had the level of changes in governments for the duration that Ghana has. Buhari has ruled Nigeria twice and not once has he been personally accused of a corrupt practice by even his most vociferous opponents and he has embarked on the herculean task of rooting out corruption in a country with a worldwide reputation for corruption which has regularly topped the list for corruption.  Rwanda has risen from the ashes of the worst genocide in Africa this century (probably third after Hitler and the Kamer Rouge) to attain star performance on a host of key indicators, a government that actually works for its people.

How can Africa benefit from this note?  I suggest that academics and policy makers assign these countries as case studies to evaluate how they attained the status as well as the challenges noted.  This is in many ways a much better approach than traditional text books or the work of expensive consultants that are foisted on Africa by foreign aid donors. I must stress that the caveats or shortfalls/challenges are equally if not more important than the achievements because they drive the narrative and enormity of the task ahead.  It has been noted that democracy does not feed the masses and indeed some of the most spectacular achievements in terms of delivering what really matters, economic development and food, income and health security have been achieved by countries where the democratic ideal has not taking root.  Similarly, some of the least corrupt and most efficient and effective governments have not necessarily adopted the full democratic model.   This in no way precludes the ideal noted and elements of all three themes are definitely a plus.

J Boima Rogers is Principal Consultant at Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO),