Governance in Africa and Prospects for Development

“While poverty on its own may not be sufficient to wreck a democratic project, its persistence or even intensification certainly does contribute to the creation of conditions that could stultify the basis for democratic politics. Tackling poverty and related social injustices is, therefore, simultaneously an investment in democratic governance and in the prospects for its consolidation” Prof. Fantu Cheru on ‘Renewing and Restoring Democracy in Africa: A Herculean Task. 

Introduction: Africa’s Lost Decades

How are we to understand Africa? Africa as a theme keeps many intellectuals, scholars, policy wonks, politicians, publishers and editors, business leaders and others of all manner of color and hue awake for a long time.  Whether one is an African or non-African it is a tough engagement to take a geopolitical and panoramic view of Africa and get the best out of the morass that the continent is in regarding justice, peace and good governance and the prospects these have on its possible development and transformative agenda.

The two decades of 1980s and 1990s have been billed as Africa’s ‘lost development decades’. Several African countries either stagnated or experienced a reversal of the gains already attained in the 1960s and 1970s. Part of the explanation is in the World Bank and IMF’s sponsored structural adjustment programs that many African countries embarked on. The details that describe our mother land as a ‘continent in despair’ are horrifying yet much has also changed lately with a band of countries such as Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana, Mauritius, Mozambique, and Kenya that have reformed to improve governance and spur a “sustained significant real per capita economic growth” (Cheru 2002:3).

AU’s NEPAD and African Governance

More than ten years ago, the AU through NEPAD put in much effort in pushing forward the slow yet incremental economic growth in a handful of African countries, but this does not qualify to represent a solid start of an ‘African Renaissance’ agenda. To attain significant transformation of development in Africa, the substantive content and character of governance in practice is necessary as it unleashes new impetus to sustain peace and stability within communities and helps in building the efficiency of public administrators to enhance their abilities in addressing pressing challenges within the continent of poverty and underdevelopment, the rule of law, human rights abuses, marginalization of certain groups and a real threat to the extermination of others as we have experienced in Rwanda and now in The Central African Republic.

In the literature, “there is a difference between those who view governance as concerned with the rules for conducting public affairs verses those who see it as steering or controlling public affairs”. This is the substance viewpoint while on the character, “the difference is between governance as related to performance or process” (Hyden et al. 2004:12). Historically governance is employed with regard to: public administration, international relations, international development agencies and comparative politics. Because most Sub Sahara African states don’t have the capacity to deal effectively with public issues (as is the case in DR Congo, CAR, new kid on the block – South Sudan, the bleeding Somalia, the cracking Mozambique and Burundi, Mali and long standing Sudan’s Darfur crisis among others), it is loosely seen that public administration is relying on governance theory to manage representation and participation problems and legitimacy particularly of democratic institutions and political control of bureaucracy. This outlook ends up with very limited outcomes.

Governance as a Three-legged Stool

Like a three-legged stool, governance also has distinct arms: political governance that deals with the design of public policy; administrative governance that handles the implementation of policy and economic governance which involves the management of the domestic economy and its relationships with other economies (Maathai, 2009 and AERC, 2007). Theorizing on Public Choice is essential to better appreciate how political and economic markets operate by thoroughly examining the rules that regulate socio-political interactions in society. This institutional framework outlook of governance within which government not only develops but also implements public policies, while entrepreneurs engage in productive activities for wealth creation necessary to address poverty and social deprivation must form the hallmark and aspiration of African leadership.

Having celebrated 50 years of Africa in Union last year, many countries have a long way to go in translating the thematic issues of African Unity that have been attained the last five decades. The institutions of governance whether run by national government or intergovernmental, need to actively engage in the best standards and practices to deliver the African Hopes to its people.  Examining region and country specific trends and public interest growth indicators across the continent – one draws a completely different picture about the ‘Africa Raising’ narrative. There are countries that are fast improving like Tanzania and Rwanda while others are still disastrously weak in setting up properly broad based strong functional central governments. In the end, different political actors within the African polity (lawmakers, voters, civil servants, political coalitions, lobby groups, civil society groups, commercial entities, ethnic groups and other politicians) have useful roles and contributions to make in the design of rules used to effect governance.

Pressing Issues and Missing Fruits of Governance

The alternative understanding of governance is a locally focused governance system that pulls all necessary tools required to deal with equity in the distribution of the benefits of economic growth and address development needs. Of import in this category is the whole gamut of: property rights and allocation of natural resources, the protection of individual and group values plus the environment from degradation, creation of space and peace necessary for economic freedom, the flourishing of ethnic and religious traditions, challenging issues of nationality, identity and politics of belonging, liberty and minority rights, accountability and creation of inclusive and cohesive societies.

Issues of peace and governance and the experience of the two in Sub Sahara Africa show many layers. The most pressing points of governance for Africa include the regulation of socio-political interaction, critical decisions about the allocation of scarce economic resources (taxation, production, distribution of income); health care , clean water, access to welfare enhancing and life saving goods and services, affordable housing, educational facilities and most important inter alia, peaceful coexistence of various ethnic population  groups. To create this model of governance in Africa, it is essential to develop a polity which has active citizens who can work towards the establishment of effective states.

Measuring African Governance

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation spends a lot of time in measuring governance systems and performance of African leaders in their efforts to improve livelihoods and advance human development. The foundation works with AU’s NEPAD whose primary goal is to “aggressively fight poverty and deprivation in Africa, significantly improve living conditions for all population groups, enhance the region’s participation in global affairs, including the international economy, and promote peaceful coexistence” (NEPAD Document). To fulfill these objectives, African countries have to cooperate with NEPAD in attaining its five core principles: good governance; entrenchment of democracy, peace and security; sound economic policy making and implementation; productive and mutually beneficial partnerships and domestic ownership and leadership of development initiatives.

The assessment on the success and or failure of both NEPAD’s African Peer Review Mechanism and The Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s work in advancing good governance remains to be seen on the long term. The very notion of rewarding retired presidents for their exceptional performance while in office is not an incentive attractive enough to many long serving leaders to call it a day in high office. The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership inter alia:

  • Recognizes and celebrates African leaders who have developed their countries, lifted people out of poverty and paved the way for sustainable and equitable prosperity.
  • It ensures that Africa continues to benefit from the experience and expertise of exceptional leaders when they leave national office, by enabling them to continue in other public roles on the continent.
  • Highlights exceptional role models for the continent

Taking stock against the Selection Criteria for the award of The Mo Ibrahim Prize (former African Executive Head of State or Government, who left office in the last three years, democratically elected, served his/her constitutionally mandated term and demonstrated exceptional leadership), there is a tall order given that there were no recipients in 2013, 2012 and 2009. It has been won three times in 2007, 2008 and 2011. In 2010 it was awarded to the late African Giant – Nelson Mandela as honorary.

Challenges for African Governance

Popular mass participation of the African people in NEPAD’s work has been lacking terribly. Local acceptance of its ideals, goals and principles run a mock of being equated with the SAPs associated with the World Bank and IMF from which some African countries have never fully recovered. A continent-wide understanding and application of good governance is not easy given that governance is really about institutional frameworks that individual countries build. NEPAD cannot establish within each African country the kind of laws and institutions that can promote good governance. In fact, 20 years after this noble work started (transitioning Africa to democratic governance), very few countries have made solid progress beyond elections. Many Sub Sahara African countries are yet to deepen and institutionalize democracy which is the foundation of justice, good governance and the fountain of peace and development.

The extractive nature of African political and economic institutions have not created the right incentives to broaden the structural and fundamental governance institutions necessary in the realization of consolidated human development in Africa. The democratic deficit we continue to experience is partly due to the absence of justice, peace and good governance. As Fantu Cheru aptly posits:

“If sustained peace is the goal, conflict resolution in Africa must move beyond military response, and focus on addressing the root causes of conflict. At the most fundamental level, the absence of justice is frequently the principle reason for the absence of peace. Ethnic discrimination, denial of basic rights, extreme economic inequality and other manifestations of injustice are forms of ‘structural violence’ according to peace theorist Johan Galtung. Structural violence plants the seeds of physical violence and, in many cases, deadly conflict” (Cheru, 2002: 204).

Political violence is usually not an isolated issue, it stems from organic structural problems in the management of:

  1. Control of resources
  2. Determination of access to those controlled resources
  3. Beneficiaries from the utilization of the same resources

These three issues form the breeding ground for mind boggling socio-economic inequality perpetuated by extractive political and economic institutions. Until African leadership and society creates inclusive political and economic institutions, we will remain in the woods for a little longer.  The African continent remains to discombobulate itself in the age of global leapfrogging on many fronts.

Attaining the aspirations outlined above and overcoming the challenges, African Governance needs the engagement of many people with solid, collective and individual commitment to work towards peace building and good governance to make practical contributions within their communities on other areas that need better engagement, cross-cultural peace building and upholding the rule of law. Building inclusive political and economic institutions collectively works towards attaining equitable economic growth and development.




The crucial task of building a democratic society cannot be dissociated from the renewal of economic prosperity and social justice. Taking the EAC member states as an example, the core element of the contemporary challenge of building democracy is tied to the task of eradicating poverty and many related social injustices devoid of good governance. The intensification of religious fundamentalism, terrorist leaning groups, the persistence of poverty and social inequality create conditions that could quickly stultify the basis of democratic governance and politics.


African hopes and possible futures require close nurturing from all stakeholders in business, government leaders, politicians, scholars, intellectuals and other functional interest and lobby groups plus the Civil Society to both create and increase awareness of other structural transformation needs, challenges and gaps. Better training on such tools as early warning mechanism, peace building negotiations and areas such as human rights, rule of law and the interdependence of different essential state, regional and non-state organizations work in closely towards building a better developed, peaceful society governed by the rule of law where people peacefully co-exist.


Africa is not well cushioned from the vagaries of globalization which is hugely contradictory in nature and is depicted to be the greatest threat to human development by its critics (Stiglitz, 2006: 9 and Cheru, 2002). Though one thing is for sure, whatever the contradictory tendencies, globalization is an irreversible process and any vision of an ‘African Renaissance’ “must at the very least provide a coherent strategy on how to navigate this complex process successfully…African countries must be prepared to manage globalization to their own advantage through the adoption of key reforms at national and regional levels without heavy-handed intervention by the institutions of the world system” (Cheru, 2002: xiii).


The conversation on the African agenda has to continue at all levels ranging from high policy making organs, to lecture halls across the continent, to inter-governmental agencies, corridors of international organizations, media houses and academic conferences. The bottom line is: initiatives to broaden good governance and stabilize peace on the continent cannot be left in the hands of governments alone. Development needs are for the benefits of the African poor people whose vast majority continue to lead a regrettably isolated existence totally unaware of alternative paths to attain better development outcomes.



Cheru Fantu, (2002); African Renaissance: Roadmaps to the Challenge of Globalization, Zed Books: London.

Daron A, and Robinson J. A., (2012) Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, Crown Publishers: New York.

Hyden, G., J. Court and K. Mease, (2004), Making Sense of Governance: Empirical Evidence from Sixteen Developing Countries, Praeger: Westport, Connecticut.

Kofi Annan, (2012); Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, Penguin Books: London

Sen Amartya, (2006); Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny; Penguin Books: London.

Stiglitz Joseph, (2006); Making Globalization Work, Penguin Books: London

Maathai Wangari, (2009); The Challenge for Africa, Arrow Books: London

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