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The African state and global governance

About the author
Alex de Waal is Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation, at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. This article draws upon his edited collection: Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism (Zed 2015).
The scale of Africa’s political and social crises, exacerbated by the HIV/Aids pandemic and reinforced by failures of governance, make it a global dependent. Reversing this condition is possible, but only through bold action, more resources and deeper thinking led by a new partnership of world leaders with the African continent.

There is a robust consensus on what Africa needs for its development: creating a ‘capable state’ that can tackle corruption and unleash the energies of its citizens, sound macro-economic policies, and an investment in human resources (through spending on health and education) as the foundation for making the first two work. A better international deal – both through trade and through an ‘enhanced partnership’ model of development assistance – is essential if Africa is to find the resources it needs.

The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) was energised by this vision. It is a corrective to both the experiment in extreme austerity measures demanded by the Bretton Woods Institutions in the 1980s and 1990s, and the exercises in state planning that preceded them. Rolling back the HIV/Aids pandemic, with its disastrous haemorrhage of human capital, has been belatedly recognised as an overriding developmental priority.

This new consensus is correct as far as it goes, but it needs to be augmented by attention to the need for African integration, which in turn demands a focus on the rent-seeking structures of African governance. And this in turn demands further reform of the international aid system.

Rent-seeking and economic development

Ironically, rent-seekers are profiting from the shift to neo-liberalism. It is a familiar sight (and not just in Africa) to witness leading politicians, former single party leaders and managers of state enterprises mutate into a new generation of capitalist nouveau riches. Do they represent an emergent dynamic capitalist class? Or are they a small group that is merely protecting its privileges? The answer is a bit of both. But national elites’ reaction to globalisation is also driven by the external orientation of Africa’s economies.

African countries export a much higher percentage of their national product than industrialised countries, and receive a much larger proportion of their national budgets in concessionary finance. In an important sense, African economies are more globalised than their OECD counterparts. It is the nature of that globalisation, not its extent, which is problematic. The same donor agencies that have promoted neo-liberalism, and the same transnational corporations that are driving economic globalisation, have also helped consolidate the control of a rent-seeking class in Africa. The result is that globalisation in the continent is taking on regressive characteristics.

Africa can only make sense as a single economic space. Regional economic integration is an absolute prerequisite for expanding markets, attracting investment, and increasing savings. Without it, economic development and the Millennium Development Goals for poverty reduction and increasing the quality of life will not be achieved.

Unfortunately, there are powerful interests that stand in the way of Africa’s integration. Many of these are familiar figures: politicians and bureaucrats who extract rent from their possession of sovereign privileges to tax and regulate. Some figures are less familiar: the international aid bureaucrats who certainly have no intention to impede the continent’s growth, but whose operations may, at times, do exactly that. Other figures are the executives of international oil corporations, who are avowed globalisers, but in practice the friends of regressive political economies. There are tangible benefits that accrue to statehood – and the smaller the state, the bigger the relative rewards.

The case of Djibouti

Take Djibouti, in north-east Africa. A tiny desert enclave colonised by the French a century ago in order to provide them a naval base on the Red Sea. Djibouti has about half a million people and virtually no domestic economy to speak of. It depends wholly on three things: a port and a railway link that serve the much larger economy of landlocked Ethiopia, a French military base (recently augmented by a US command centre, used for keeping watch on Yemen and monitoring al-Qaida’s attempts to infiltrate the Horn of Africa), and lastly the fact that tiny Djibouti, by virtue of its sovereign independence, has a seat at the United Nations, the African Union (AU) and the Arab League, and therefore also has representation at the World Bank, UN specialised agencies and bilateral donors.

A simple survey will show that across Africa, the smaller the country, the more aid it receives per capita. Partly, this is simply because most nations have a desk officer in every large aid bureaucracy and thus a champion in the system; in part too, it is because every now and then, the vote of that country may become important in some critical international forum. (The US suddenly became much more conciliatory towards Angola last summer, coinciding with Angola taking one of Africa’s seats on the UN Security Council.) Small countries are also more attractive as sites for military bases: their domestic problems are more manageable and their loyalty is more easily obtained than larger ones.

Five years ago, there was some discussion that Djibouti might merge with its neighbour Ethiopia, taking advantage of the latter’s federal constitution and the significant powers it awarded to states. The rents that Djibouti’s rulers can extract from the international system have put paid to that. Even though it ratified the Constitutive Act of the African Union last year, and thereby signalled its intent to cede significant sovereign powers to a pan-African entity, most likely President Omer Guelle signed in the confidence that the treaty, like so many, would remain a dead letter.

On the other side of the continent, tiny Gambia broke up its sensible confederation with its sole and much larger neighbour, Senegal, because its leading officials were profiting too little from the arrangement. Too many of their peers have precisely the same interests. They may lack military bases or railheads, but many small countries possess oil or other mineral resources which they would rather not share with their neighbours, and all are aid recipients as well as seat-holders at the United Nations.

Natural resources and the aid industry

‘Afro-Kuwaits’ are a prospect across the Gulf of Guinea. In recent years, there have been massive oil discoveries along the West African coast, turning previously insignificant countries such as Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Sao Tome & Principe into middle-ranking producers. In a decade or so, the US will import more oil from Africa than from the Middle East.

But recent history suggests that Africa’s mineral wealth is arguably more of a curse than a blessing. Of the mineral-rich nations, only Botswana has effectively used its windfall (in this case from diamonds) to support a democratic system of government and social service provision. Botswanan exceptionalism has generated a lot of interest from academics and policymakers but, so far, no replicas.

Oil companies prefer to negotiate deals with small countries rather than large ones: in a country with a million people, political stability can simply be bought, whereas there is a sad history of oil fuelling conflict in larger countries like Angola, Nigeria and Sudan. Oil wealth is a top-down resource: it’s easy to distribute as largesse, and the smaller the constituency, the more effective it can be. Mineral governance is emerging as a crucial issue for Africa’s political future.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region of the world where the United Nations can fulfil its mandate in all its breadth. Aid to refugees, assistance to children, food aid, peacekeeping, environmental protection, human rights advocacy, development planning – all can be pursued in Africa. The non-governmental organisation (NGO) sector, led by the cartel of familiar acronyms such as Care, Oxfam and Medecin sans Frontieres (MSF), is a major employer in some unfortunate countries such as Sierra Leone and Malawi. There is some concern that the essentially planned-economy method of their activities runs counter to the liberalisation preached by the much more powerful World Bank and IMF.

For example, aid agencies control substantial parts of the transport sector in Mozambique, but their contracts are not awarded through competitive bidding, but instead on opaque criteria developed by bureaucrats behind closed doors in Washington or Brussels. The domestic entrepreneurial class cannot compete.

There is another concern, currently placed in focus by some of the more progressive aid donors such as Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) along with the Canadians, Netherlands and Scandinavians, that the excessive bureaucratic demands of receiving aid, including multiple conditionalities and different reporting requirements, rules and schedules, can so tie up a government’s human resources that there is little time or energy left for actually getting on with the job.

Aid can be a shackle, and can be profoundly demoralising to the recipient who has to struggle with incomprehensible procedures, only to be left hanging on the apparently arbitrary decision of a far-away bureaucrat.

Mutual accountability

One of the most promising elements in Nepad is the donor commitment to ‘mutual accountability’: not only do the aid recipients have to have a clean record, but the donors too have to remedy their deplorable record of overburdening conditions, constantly changing priorities, and conflicting reporting requirements.

Ideally, the donors should pool their assistance and route it through a national budget, guaranteeing a flow of funds for a decade or more, to get the best results. Clare Short, Britain’s ex-minister for international development, pioneered this approach, establishing ‘enhanced partnerships’ with a select but growing number of favoured countries such as Ghana, Tanzania, and most recently Ethiopia.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) by contrast is so hamstrung by Congressional micro-management, and the European Union aid system is so close to total paralysis through its own procedural problems, that they may be incapable of the necessary reform.

An even more serious concern is the way in which the small size of the typical sub-Saharan African economy, combines with the structure of global governance through the Bretton Woods institutions, the UN system and the major OECD governments, to create only an illusion of development. The operations of the World Bank and other major donors have long been premised on the assumption that states are incapable of delivering development, and at the same time, that states themselves must implement the necessary measures to dismantle their own power.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the most consistent result of the development encounter has been for those in control of the state machinery to fulfil donor conditionalities sufficiently to sustain the flow of resources, which means enacting real but modest reforms, while managing the pace and nature of these changes so as to extend their authority and income in one way or another.

The quasi-liberal multilateralism of the global governance system has been consistently subverted to the ends of elite prosperity and state self-protection. Relatively small budgetary items, such as training for state officials at western universities, can have disproportionate spin-off benefits for their recipients, in the form of international connections and opportunities for employment in multilateral agencies.

With this flow of international rents, both financial and symbolic, it is understandable how so few cases of state collapse in Africa have actually been accompanied by the disappearance of an internationally-recognised state. The only case thus far is Somalia, hailed twelve years ago by Afro-pessimists as the augur of what was to come. But no others followed. Perhaps partly spurred by the Somali example, Africa’s ruling elites have been quick to recognise the reality that any power is better than none, and even a frankly criminal head of state such as Liberia’s Charles Taylor, can collect more rent than a country without any such symbol of sovereignty, however vacuous.

Conditions of a new African unity

In these circumstances, it is also unsurprising that when Africa’s leaders decide to set up supranational authorities, they use the familiar model of the rent-collecting state. Africa has no fewer than nineteen ‘regional economic communities’, known by the unintentionally apt acronym RECs. These range from associations of three countries (the Manu River Union of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone) to the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas, which covers a third of the continent, and which organised military interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone).

A few of these RECs, such as the East African Community (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, which have a customs union, a regional parliament and are moving towards a common currency) can be salvaged. Others should be allowed to sink. They rely almost wholly on the readiness of international donors (including the usually hard-headed US) to overlook their manifest shortcomings, and argue unconvincingly that they represent progress in the right direction.

The African Union, formally constituted at the July 2002 Durban summit, is the most ambitious attempt to create continental unity. This replaces the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), founded in 1963 in a great mood of optimism, but from the start dragged down by cold war rivalry.

The African Union is an organisation that genuinely reflects the aspirations of tens of millions of Africans for continental unity, but so far it is just an aspiration with a secretariat. The pan-African Movement is more than a century old. The independence generation of African leaders, inspired by Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, believed correctly that independence within the borders inherited from the colonial powers’ Berlin Conference would be meaningless.

The African Union promises to build an ambitious array of institutions including a pan-African parliament, but it is likely to be hampered not only by financial weakness, but by the hierarchical and rent-dependent model of statehood with which most African rulers are familiar. Building a self-financing network model of African continental governance is both necessary and exceptionally difficult.

Building governance capacity is rendered hugely more difficult by the catastrophic implications of the HIV/Aids pandemic. Across southern Africa, countries are struggling under the impact of HIV prevalence rates that range from 15% to 38%, and which show little sign of stabilising, let alone reducing. This pandemic is the greatest social catastrophe of our time. We are only just beginning to appreciate the implications of the halving of adult life expectancy and the massive loss of human capital implied by HIV/Aids. It fundamentally alters the nature of decision-making, with far-reaching structural impacts upon economic development and institutional functioning.

The current southern African food crisis is rendered more severe and more intractable by the concurrent HIV/Aids epidemic. The delivery of public services such as education is collapsing as staff die more rapidly than they can be replaced. Political stability is threatened by the erosion of armies and political parties. Under the onslaught of Aids, Africa is being forced to move towards simpler institutions, less reliant on skills and experience, just when the challenges of government and participation in the global political and economic order are becoming hugely more demanding.

Managing the secondary impacts of HIV/Aids is Africa’s biggest challenge, but one to which most policy-makers have so far given little thought. An urgent programme of research, policy engagement and advocacy is demanded to obtain a fuller assessment of the threats that HIV/Aids poses for the future of African governance, and how those threats can best be mitigated.

Integration is the challenge

Regional economic integration has historically always been driven by a powerful manufacturing sector seeking to expand its markets. This is the case for Europe, east Asia and North America, and is manifestly the case for economic globalisation. By contrast, regional integration and cooperation agreements among non-industrialised countries have had a much more mixed history.

Some are essentially mutual security pacts (e.g. the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the historic alliance of independent frontline African states against Apartheid South Africa). Others have avowed the aim of economic cooperation but their achievements have usually been modest (e.g. Mercosur in Latin America and Africa’s numerous RECs).

As the least developed continent, Africa faces the greatest challenges to integration. With the exception of South Africa, the continent is largely dependent on agrarian produce, minerals and aid. Creating the conditions for effective economic integration means that many African leaders must swallow bitter pills, and cede the tangible rents of sovereignty for the long-term promise of continental development. Many of the steps necessary to achieve this are domestic, including improving economic governance, opening markets to South African capital, and making the African Union work.

Africa’s regional integration demands leadership and new thinking. The AU’s member states have long been used to seeing their continental organisation as a forum to defend their sovereign interests, and a bureaucracy in which to place ‘their men’. The OAU took some encouraging steps in its last years, notably gradually raising the bar on what governments it would recognise. It refused recognition to putschists in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, and the AU now insists on only accepting rulers who come to power through constitutional means. Now it needs a dynamic chair.

South Africa hands over to Mozambique at the July 2003 Summit: fortunately both are democratic governments committed to making the AU work. But there is a serious fear that should an authoritarian or introverted leader be elected in 2004, today’s progress would come to a halt. Among the thorny issues they need to tackle are rationalising the RECs (dismantling those that no longer serve any function) and establishing a pan-African Parliament that can set continental standards for democracy. The AU also needs a team of vigorous commissioners, ready to focus on the key achievables for the organisation, namely establishing a workable peace and security architecture and ensuring the implementation of existing commitments to regional economic integration.

Other key steps are international: to make globalisation work in Africa’s favour. Among them we must include a reform of mineral governance, so that rents from oil, diamonds and other subterranean riches can promote political integration rather than fragmentation, and development rather than predation. Mineral companies should become more transparent. Meanwhile, the ‘enhanced partnership’ model of official development assistance is a major step in the right direction, reducing transaction costs and promoting mutual accountability. The next step is to canvass aid mechanisms that promote regional economic integration.

The current institutions for global governance have a peculiar and unique relationship to Africa: essentially they function to manage Africa’s crises in such a way that they do not get out of hand – though success in that quarter is now questionable in the era of HIV/Aids. But in doing so they have helped perpetuate the structural paralysis of Africa’s development.

The continent is a globalised dependent. This can be changed. On paper, the commitments are there from both Africa’s governments and the more sympathetic development partners, including the British government. Realising this transformation requires bold action, more resources, and deeper thinking about the implications of HIV/Aids. It demands a new partnership of world leaders with the African continent.

Alex de Waal’s article is part of a collection of essays published by the foreign Policy centre entitled ‘Unbinding Africa: Making globalisation work for good governance’ (£9.95). Please go to www.fpc.org.uk for further details.


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