Making policies work

GREAT insights Magazine

Governance and citizenry in Africa

April 2015

Ibrahim, M. 2015. Governance and citizenry in Africa. GREAT insights Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 3. April/May 2015.

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Crafting new, contemporary tools of democracy which can no longer be summarised in elections only and the culture of winner takes all.

Democracy is on the march in Africa. Sadly it may not always have reached all presidential palaces, but it is alive in the cities and villages of the continent. Never before have Africa’s citizens been as engaged in politics nor demanded so loudly their right to have a say in the decisions that will shape the future of their families and country. So when I hear some wonder – as I did during interviews about the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in Leadership in Nairobi last month – that the continent suffers from a democratic deficit, it is a very partial picture of what’s happening.

Participation in the democratic process, in fact, appears to be one of the most improved areas measured by the Ibrahim Index of African Governance. But let us not get over satisfied. In current available data, democratic participation still remains mainly assessed by the ability to hold “free and fair executive elections.” This is not enough anymore. In this world of global, immediate information, of growing social networks, of square uprising and street occupations, together we must think about crafting new, contemporary tools of democracy which can no longer be summarised in elections only and the culture of winner takes all.

In Africa, we had our share of bad leaders but the perception that Africa is a continent of corrupt leaders is simply not true. In Mandela, Africa can claim one of the outstanding leaders of our time. He is not alone: Joaquim Chissano, Festus Mogae and Pedro Pires, former winners of the Ibrahim Prize, can each point to their support for democracy, concern for the people and a remarkable record of achievement in most difficult circumstances. The award of the Prize in March 2015 to out-going Namibian President, Hifikepunye Pohamba, celebrated a quiet and humble leader who wisely chose to deepen and widen democracy and development in a young country just coming out of transition and a fight for freedom. Of course, in Africa, as in other parts of the world, there are still some leaders who do not govern in the interests of their citizens, who rig elections or refuse to step down at the end of the constitutional term, who have blood on their hands or have diverted national wealth into their own bank accounts.

Africa is blessed with considerable resources but, in order to deliver its promises to its citizens, there is nothing more important than improving the quality of leadership and governance. Without good, effective governance, Africa’s present strong economic momentum will not be sustained, the rewards will be wasted and tensions will increase. The Ibrahim Index monitors governance in Africa’s individual states in a comprehensive and accurate way. It looks in detail into governance performance in 52 individual countries, allowing progress to be tracked and comparisons to be made over years and between nations.

The information that the Index provides is proving a powerful weapon for citizens to call for improvements. It allows them to compare what’s being delivered with what was promised. But it is also providing concerned governments with the information they need to monitor and improve their own performance, to put resources where they are needed, to see what’s working and what is not, and to encourage the implementation of forward-thinking policies. In this world of constant and global information, the more informative, robust tools available at the hands of citizens and governments alike, the faster we will see progress on governance, prosperity and quality of life.

Good governance in the public sector is an essential condition for sustained and equitable development, but we also need to see improved standards in the private sector as well. Political leaders don’t corrupt themselves; they have partners in crime in the private sector so we need to see more honesty and transparency in business. We need good corporate governance as much as we need good public governance.

We also need to close the gap between young people and their leaders. Africa’s greatest resource is the energy and talents of its younger generation. This young generation is becoming an overwhelming majority, the one that is going to vote or not. We must not let them get completely despaired by “democracy”. This is one of our greatest challenges ahead. All too often our young people find themselves devoid of economic prospects and a political voice. Political power lies in the hands of ageing leaders with little knowledge or understanding in the ambitions and concerns of younger generations. In many countries, if young people find themselves increasingly locked out of decision-making and debate, the danger is they will turn their backs on the political process. Frustration can easily turn to anger and violence.

We need to find ways of listening to our young people, our citizens’ majority, instead of always telling them what to do. It is their potential, after all, which will decide our continent’s future. Let’s not waste it.

mo ibrahim picture

Dr Mo Ibrahim is the founder and chairman of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.  Website: http://www.moibrahimfoundation.org/


Photo: Liberians vote in constitutional referendum, 2011 – UN Photo/Staton, flickr.com

This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 4, Issue 3 (April/May 2015).

African institutionsAfrican Governance InitiativesCivil societyDemocratic ownershipDemocratisationAfrica

External authors

Mo Ibrahim