Nobody disputes the charge that Africa’s political leaders are often responsible for the continent’s troubles, says Sudanese-born business tycoon Mo Ibrahim. But he argues that Western governments and corporations could do much more to redress the unfair practices that hinder Africa’s economic development
Images of Africa have long been of a continent mired in conflict, poverty and squalor. Conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Sudan, or poor governance in countries like Zimbabwe, have dominated reporting of Africa. There’s no denying that there are many issues facing our continent, but this picture is nevertheless reductive; it picks the failings of some corrupt regimes, and civil wars or genocide elsewhere to create a toxic mix which pollutes all countries in Africa. This is like claiming that all Europeans are guilty of “ethnic cleaning” on the evidence of what happened in the former Yugoslavia. Yes, some African countries are failed states, but let us always remember that Africa is 53 countries and most of them are peaceful and agreeable places.
Some fantastic progress has been made across Africa. Last year, the annual Ibrahim Index of African governance produced by my own Mo Ibrahim Foundation showed that governance had improved in two-thirds of African countries. Another core initiative of the Foundation is the Ibrahim Prize for excellence in leadership in Africa. We award over $7m to former executive heads of state or government who have demonstrated their commitment to advancing their countries and improving the quality of life for their citizens, while at the same time avoiding corruption and stepping down when they should. We have now awarded the prize twice, first to Joaquim Chissano, former President of Mozambique, and then to Festus Mogae, former President of Botswana. If we look at these two along with men like Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela, we can see the calibre of leadership that Africa is capable of producing.
Joaquim Chissano led his country out of conflict and established multi-party politics and a growing economy. Festus Mogae consolidated the democracy that had been built by his predecessors in Botswana and rolled out one of Africa’s most successful HIV prevention, treatment and care programmes, as well as successfully managing the country’s diamond reserves for the benefit of Botswanans. And they have continued to contribute to public life on leaving office; President Chissano is working as the UN’s envoy to bring an end to conflict in northern Uganda and also to the political impasse in Madagascar. President Mogae has been appointed as a special envoy for climate change as well as presiding over the newly established Coalition for Dialogue on Africa. Both these men, and many that came before them, show that the new generation of African leadership is capable of solving Africa’s problems.
Sustainable solutions to these problems will only come from within. Our international partners can support us and provide much-needed resources and guidance, but only we Africans hold the keys to our future prosperity. So the question we should be asking ourselves is, how Africa can rescue itself. Only victims need others to rescue them, and Africa is not a continent of victims.
Good governance is the cornerstone of development. I learned in the private sector that companies need effective management to succeed. Equally, for nations to develop successfully, governments must provide public services to their citizens and ensure that they live safe from persecution, crime and discrimination. Governments must establish an enabling environment for the private sector to create jobs, and governments cannot consider the public purse to be a private bank account. Government is responsible for delivering services, but it is up to civil society to be vigilant and ensure that governments work towards these aims. A strong civil society that monitors and increasingly demands more from government is vital to improving governance on our continent. As with economics, it is demand that stimulates supply.
That is why the Mo Ibrahim Foundation that I created and chair produces the annual Ibrahim Index of African Governance to track governments’ performance across sub-Saharan Africa. We aim to provide civil society and citizens with a tool that allows them to monitor over time the progress of their government. We look at almost a hundred indicators that measure what governments are obliged to deliver to their citizens, and we define governance in a new way – as the services that should be provided to citizens. We do not measure inputs – including aid or natural resource revenues – or government promises and commitments; instead we have chosen to measure the impact of government activities on the lives of citizens.
We at the foundation are not alone. Across the continent many other organisations are working to strengthen and empower civil society, to monitor government activities and to hold their leaders to account. The electoral tragedies in Zimbabwe and Kenya last year illustrate how Africans are standing up and demanding that their votes be counted and their voices heard. Africans will no longer stand for the subversion of their democratic processes and African civil society has in many cases become vocal enough and powerful enough to demand change.
Alongside this focus on improving governance in Africa, we must also put pressure on our leaders to encourage regional integration. Many small and landlocked African countries will never become serious players in the global economy without increased co-operation within their own region. The current system of haphazard, overlapping regional integration is proving largely ineffective, and this severely hampers the ability of African countries to compete in international markets. Africa’s 967m people are divided into 53 countries, with all the replicated bureaucracy and currency exchange issues this entails. China, with 1.3bn people, is just one country; and even Europe with some 500m in the EU’s population often functions on the international stage as a single bloc. If the small and diverse nations of Africa do not come together they will never be able to integrate properly into the world economy, and so will not reap the benefits of our globalised world.
Economic integration needs to be backed up by an increase in intra-regional trade; less than 4% of our trade is between African countries, compared to over 70% in Europe and over 50% in Asia. The International Monetary Fund has credited Asian intra-regional trade as the main factor behind Asia’s export boom and its strong economic growth. There’s no reason why Africa, with its huge and often untapped markets, cannot follow the same path.
All these are issues that have to be tackled by Africans, but our international partners, particularly in Europe, also have an important role to play in our development. The debate over the failure of international aid to produce development and the current financial crisis mean that the arguments against development assistance are gaining weight. But the argument should not be about aid or no aid – no one can question aid’s many successes and the importance of aid as a safety net for those who would otherwise be left to suffer.
The argument should instead be focused on how to get the most effective results out of aid, both for the recipients and for a donor country’s tax-payers. To my mind, aid is best focused on infrastructure – the bridges, roads, internet cables and power stations that will help our economies to grow and allow us to trade more easily with each other. Accompanying this should be a focus on what I like to call the software of development – health and education. If aid satisfies basic governance conditionality and is directed at these vital areas, Africa will have a far greater chance of progressing.
There are other essential areas where our partners in Europe should follow their rhetoric with action and to live up to their commitments to alleviate poverty. For too long there has been international dismay at the state of governance in Africa; corruption and at times a complete lack of accountability among African governments are blamed for all of Africa’s ills. It’s often hard to rebut this argument, but no one can claim that Africans have a monopoly on governance failures. The current financial crisis offers a perfect example as it was poor governance in the banking sector that brought so many of the world’s great economies to the brink of collapse.
And while the international community is quick to pounce on African leaders for governance failures, it seems less enthusiastic about examining its own role in the flight of African assets. European and American companies pay bribes to government officials in return for mining concessions or other advantages, and it is in European and American bank accounts that resources looted from Africa are kept. And yet these countries were slow to enact legislation to make overseas bribery illegal, and now it exists there has been limited enforcement of the rules. Then there is the well-known but still unresolved problem of trade barriers.
If African products are forced to compete in markets that are skewed towards European and American producers, Africans are not being given a fair chance to develop. The fiercely debated issue of trade barriers speaks directly to the question of whether there is a genuine international commitment to Africa’s development. It’s an issue that is highlighted by events in my own country, Sudan, and its western state of Darfur. Poorly equipped and under-resourced African Union (AU) troops have been trying to protect civilians. While the AU is providing soldiers to police the conflict, the United Nations and the international community are tasked with providing the resources and equipment that are widely viewed as inadequate. It is just one more example of the way that limited resources are endemic to international peacekeeping operations, particularly in Africa, and always with disastrous results.
Africa does not need to be rescued and never will be. But we do need the international community to live up to its commitments and honour its promises, whether that be on corruption and stolen assets, on aid, trade or conflict resolution and peacekeeping.