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Governance in Africa by Julius K. Nyerere

Books by Julius K. Nyerere include this on the Governance in Africa

Governance in Africa, says the Chairman of the South Commission, must be improved for the continent’s countries and people to build real freedom and real development. However, his definition of good governance is different from the one used by the rich countries in meting out aid to poor nations.

A few years ago, I attended a meeting of the Global Coalition for Africa (GCA) in Harare, Zimbabwe. It was chaired by the former President of Botswana, Masire, and attended by a substantial number of African Heads of State. From outside Africa, it was attended by the two Co-Chairmen of the GCA, Robert MacNamara from the United States and Ian Pronk from the Netherlands, and a large number of officials from the donor community.

At a certain point in the course of the discussion, the question of good governance in Africa came up. But it came up as a condition of giving aid to African countries. The manner of the discussion and the fact that this was an exchange between African Heads of State and officials from rich countries made me livid with anger.

Notion of the ‘Deserving Poor’

It reminded me of the social history of Great Britain before the advent of the welfare state. The extremes of individual or family poverty within that country were dealt with through the philanthropy of rich persons to whom such human misery was unbearable. But their charity was given only to those they regarded as the ‘deserving poor’. This, in practice, meant that it was given only to those people regarded by the philanthropist as having demonstrated an acceptance of the social and economic status quo – and for as long as they did so.

As the world’s powerful nations have not (as yet) accepted the principle of international welfare, they apply the same ‘deserving poor’ notion to the reality of poverty outside their own countries. ‘Aid’ and non-commercial credit are regarded not as springing from the principles of human rights or international solidarity, regardless of national borders, but as charity extended as a matter of altruism by richer governments to the less developed and very poor nations. However, the quantity of this ‘official’ charity being increasingly inadequate to meet the most obvious needs, one of the criteria for a nation being classified as among the world’s ‘deserving pooor’ came to be having ‘good governance’ as defined by the donor community.

And in practice that phrase meant and means those countries having multi-party systems of democracy, economies based on the principle of private ownership and of international free trade and a good record of human rights: again as defined by the industrialised market economy countries of the North. It was in this kind of context that we in Africa first heard about ‘good governance’; and this was the manner in which it was brought up at the Harare meeting to which I have referred.

It was this aid-related discussion of good governance, a matter between aid givers and aid seekers, and the arrogant and patronising manner in which it was raised by the aid givers, that discredited the whole subject in the eyes of many of us in Africa and other parts of the South. For used in this manner, good governance sounded like a tool for neo-colonialism. We have therefore tended to despise the concept even as, out of necessity, we try to qualify under it.

I am very far from being alone in rejecting neo-colonialism regardless of the methods adopted to bring it about or to enforce it or to define it! Yet we cannot avoid the fact that a lot of our problems in Africa arise from bad governance. I believe that we need to improve governance everywhere in Africa in order to enable our people to build real freedom and real development for themselves and their countries. And I allowed myself to be persuaded to be a ‘convenor’ of this Conference on Governance in Africa because I believe that it provides an opportunity for us to understand more about our past political and economic policy mistakes and see how we can improve the management of our affairs as we grope towards the 21st century.

Government vs Governance

Governments bear the final responsibility for the state of the nation – its internal and external peace, and the well-being of its people. It is the distinction between the words ‘governance’ and ‘government’ which draws attention to the reality that, despite its enforcement agencies, government (in the sense of the executive authority) is not the sole determinant of whether those responsibilities are fulfilled. For there are always other forces within a country which, in practice, can help or hinder the effectiveness of a government, and which it therefore ignores at its peril.

Government is an instrument of State. Today there is a call, emanating from the North, for the weakening of the State. In my view, Africa should ignore this call. Our States are so weak and anaemic already that it would almost amount to a crime to weaken them further. We have a duty to strengthen the African States in almost every aspect you can think of; one of the objectives of improving the governance of our countries is to strengthen the African State and thus enable it to serve the people of Africa better.

One result of weakening the State can be observed in Somalia. There are many potential Somalias in Africa if we heed the Northern call to weaken the State. In any case, dieting and other slimming exercises are appropriate for the opulent who over-eat, but very inappropriate for the emaciated and starving!

Incidentally, the world has changed indeed! The withering of the State used to be the ultimate objective of good Marxists. Today the weakening of the State is the immediate objective of free-marketeers!

In advocating a strong State, I am not advocating an overburdened State, nor a State with a bloated bureaucracy. To advocate for a strong State is to advocate for a State which, among other things, has power to act on behalf of the people in accordance with their wishes. And in a market economy, with its law of the jungle, we need a State that has the capacity to intervene on behalf of the weak.

No State is really strong unless its government has the full consent of at least the majority of its people; and it is difficult to envisage how that consent can be obtained outside democracy. So a call for a strong State is not a call for dictatorship either. Indeed all dictatorships are basically weak; because the means they apply in governance make them inherently unstable.

The key to a government’s effectiveness and its ability to lead the nation lies in a combination of three elements. First its closeness to its people, and its responsiveness to their needs and demands; in other words, democracy. Secondly, its ability to coordinate and bring into a democratic balance the many functional and often competing sectional institutions which groups of people have created to serve their particular interests. And thirdly, the efficiency of the institutions (official and unofficial) by means of which its decisions are made known and implemented throughout the country.

Ingredients for Democracy

It goes without saying that all of the institutions must be rooted in and appropriate to the society to which they are applied. The machinery through which a government stays close to the people and the people close to their government will differ according to the history, the demographic distribution, the traditional culture (or cultures), and the prevailing international political and economic environment in which it has to operate. For ‘democracy’ means much more than voting on the basis of adult suffrage every few years; it means (among other things) attitudes of toleration, and willingness to cooperate with others on terms of equality.

An essential ingredient in democracy is that it is based on the equality of all the people within a nation’s boundary, and that all the laws of the land apply to all adults without exception. The nation’s constitution must provide methods by which the people can, without recourse to violence, control the government which emerges in accordance with it and even specify the means for its own amendment. In shorthand, the constitution itself must be based on the principles of the rule of law.

It is inevitably the government which is responsible for upholding the role of law within the State. This, together with the making of laws, is one of the most important of its responsibilities to the people. But the government itself is subject to the constitution. All heads of state swear to honour and protect the constitution. this is as it should be; for the constitution is the supreme law of the land. We cannot respect ordinary laws of the State if we do not respect the constitution under which they were promulgated. A scrupulous respect for the constitution is the basis of the principle of the rule of law.

This is an area where we need to be very careful. Presidents, prime ministers, and sometimes all members of a government, seek to amend a constitution in their own favour even when they come to office through, and because of, the provisions of a constitution which they have sworn to honour.

Too often, for example, we have seen presidents seek to lengthen the number of terms they serve, despite the limit laid down in the constitution. This practice is wrong. It cheapens the constitution of the country concerned.

If and when experience shows that the restriction laid down in the constitution is too restrictive and needs to be changed (which in my view should be very very rare), the change should not lengthen the term of the current office-holder, who is bound in honour to observe the restriction under which he or she was elected in the first place. And in any case, and more importantly, the first president to be elected under a restricted term of office must never change the constitution to lengthen that term. If he or she does it, it is difficult to see how subsequent presidents can honour the new restriction.

Furthermore, if the provision of a limited term of office irks one president or prime minister, another provision of the constitution could irk another president or prime minister. We might then expect the constitution of the country to be changed after every general election. This is a point which in my view needs great emphasis. No Respect for the Consitution leads to No Basis for the Rule of Law.

About the nature of government machinery – vitally important as that is to the maintenance (or establishment) of peace, justice, and the people’s well-being – I need say little. A number of the previously circulated papers provide an excellent basis for serious consideration of this topic and its manifold implications for good governance. I would, however, like to emphasise one or two related points.

Costs of Democracy

All the institutions and processes of democracy and democratic administration cost a great deal of money to establish, to maintain, and to operate. That applies equally to official and spontaneous unofficial institutions – and to cooperation among them.

Further, to be effective all such structures rely heavily upon the existence of a politically conscious civil society, which is active, organised and alert. Such a civil society will have a good understanding about the existence and functions of the different institutions, and about both their powers and the constitutional limits to their power. Dictators generally prefer an ignorant and passive or malleable population. It is easier to manipulate such a population and parade the result as Peoples’ Participation.

Yet Africa is at present poverty-stricken. I am the first to admit that a country does not have to be rich in order to be democratic. But a minimum amount of resources is needed in order to meet some minimum requirements of good governance. In Africa today, even the high echelons of the civil service receive salaries inadequate to keep a family for a month, and the minimum wage is derisory; and all salaries (especially of teachers and health workers) are frequently delayed. Nor have the people in general been the beneficiaries at any time of a well-organised education system directed at enlarging public understanding of and active participation in modern democratic institutions and processes.

Poverty is an enemy of good governance, for persistent poverty is a destabiliser, especially if such poverty is shared in a grossly unequal manner, or is widely regarded as being unfairly distributed as the few who are relatively rich indulge in conspicuous consumption. Known or suspected corruption among the political leaders often makes the problem worse – and corruption throughout the society more difficult to overcome. Good wages or salaries will not stop bad people from being corrupt; but miserable wages and salaries are not conducive to rectitude. Political instability, real or imagined, can be a source, and is often used as an excuse, for bad governance.


But to say this is very different from saying that because Africa is poor, Africans do not deserve good governance. This continent is not distinguished for its good governance of the peoples of Africa. But without good governance, we cannot eradicate poverty; for no corrupt government is interested in the eradication of poverty; on the contrary, and as we have seen in many parts of Africa and elsewhere, widespread corruption in high places breed poverty.

Nor in saying this am I asking readers to accept the widespread belief that Africa has more corrupt, tyrannical, and power-hungry elites, than have other continents either now or historically. While avoiding the living and naming only a few of the dead, it is surely easy to see, in the past 75 years alone, our Mobutus, Iddi Amins, Bokassas, and military juntas, of Europe and elsewhere.

In all European countries where the term of office is not limited by the constitution, my fellow politicians there pride themselves on how long or how short they remain in power. The trouble is that our Amins and Bokassas and Mobutus are Africans; but the Francos, Hitlers and Mussolinis are Spanish, Germans or Italians; and Africa played no role in putting them in power.

Rather than conduct a post-mortem, we should try to help Africa and African countries to move forward from where we are now by addressing the central issue of building and strengthening the institutional framework of our continent and its countries. In doing so, to face the realities of Africa – all of them.

Those internal, where our theoretically sovereign nations find their freedom to act is obstructed by the depth of our poverty and technological backwardness. And those realities external to us and beyond our control, in relation to which we are like a collection of pygmies in a world where giants stalk, and from where modern and constantly changing technology floods outwards over the world like an irresistible tide.

The Ignored Truth

Most countries of Africa are now once again ‘coping’ with the worst of their economic problems, and some are making well-based progress towards better living conditions for their people. We hear little about such difficult triumphs over adversity in the context of such things as international recessions and violent changes in primary commodity prices.

Most of our countries are now living in a state of internal peace, and a peace which is deepening; we do not hear such peace unless it is broken. Despite the artificial and often unclear national borders of Africa, our States have very largely avoided violent conflict among themselves. Despite the histories of other continents, that accomplishment is ignored – even within Africa.

And although this important success has been achieved largely through the work of the Organisation of African Unity (which African States themselves established), the media and the international community generally refer to the OAU with derision – if at all. Our children’s expectation of life, and all that those statistics imply, has greatly improved – except where countries became the direct or indirect surrogates in Cold War conflicts, or were for other special reasons among the countries involved in prolonged civil strife.

Africa does now have a core of highly educated and internationally recognised experts in different fields. Given the number of technicallyand professionally educated Africans in our countries at independence, and the paucity of secondary or tertiary educational institutions at that time, the number of high-calibre experts in Africa is now much larger than could reasonably have been expected after this lapse of time. Perhaps we are misusing them, but they are there now. At independence, some of our countries had no trained people at all.

Finally, good or bad, the first generation of our leaders is fast being replaced by the second or even the third; most of these are better-educated, relatively free from the mental hang-overs of colonialism, and have had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes and the successes of their predecessors. With the help of work done at different fora, I am confident that African States, individually and in cooperation with one another, can step by step and in an ordered fashion, move towards Good Governance.

The OAU exists and assists in the maintenance or restoration of peace and cooperation within Africa, even if it too is severely weakened in action and capacity by its lack of resources. Some sub-regional organisations are making limited but useful contributions to stability, peace and economic progress in their respective areas.

The machinery of government and of unofficial institutions within African States can facilitate or hinder movement towards greater intra-African cooperation. And in addition, the all-African institutions, as well as those working on a sub-regional basis, may well be able to benefit by it – provided the actors bear in mind the prospective importance of the role these intra-African institutions can play in strengthening us all. – Third World Network Features