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FROM IMPUNITY TO ACCOUNTABILITY Africa's Development in the 21st Century / Vol. 77, No. 4 (W 2010)

Befekadu Degefe and Berhanu Nega, Guest Editors
Arien Mack, Journal Editor

In this issue, experts examine the challenges of development that face African countries as they work to combat poverty, improve the protection of human rights, increase government accountability, strengthen electoral systems and manage foreign aid.

In addition to introducing the topic of the issue and providing brief summaries of all the included papers, this article also gives an overview of Sub-Saharan Africa’s (SSA) development over the last 50 years. It particularly focuses on the failures of nation building, state building and economic development that have plagued the region during these "lost decades." The authors ultimately call for African governments to not only become more accountable to their own people, but also to the international community, which many African nations rely on for support. In turn, the international community could use this leverage to influence the behavior of African governments.

This article explores the conditions of possibility for democracy through the analysis of power and authority. Political power, as distinct from coercion, is the key to democracy, as a set of institutions for managing conflict. These institutions presuppose authority, which constitutes a performative act that is validated relative to local perceptions of reasonableness. Democratic power constitutes a nonzero-sum institutionalization of conflict reproduced through the structuring of authority relative to certain principles that allow for repeat play, including equality, impartiality and separation of spheres. This presupposes a democratic subject who is restrained and accountable.

Aid agencies and European and American development professionals, with occasional exceptions, have a double standard on political and civil liberties in the world. While this group would never countenance major violations of liberties in their home countries, they appear largely indifferent to whether such liberties exist in developing countries. Some in this group would go further and welcome authoritarian regimes for development. This paper provides evidence for this double standard today, and traces the historical roots of the double standard. It argues that development prospects would be enhanced by embracing the same standards on liberties for both rich and poor nations.

The rise in world prices of natural resources, coupled with the resource discoveries induced by high prices, is transforming Africa’s opportunities. The economic future of Africa will be determined by whether this opportunity is seized or missed. The history of resource extraction in Africa is not encouraging. This paper reviews and develops the political economy of natural resources as a guide to how Africa might avoid a repetition of that history.

When discussing governance in Africa, one must be circumspect when applying the term "democracy." One reason for doing so is because the term is imprecise. However, while differing in the attributes they posit and the qualifications they impose, those who write of democracy join in emphasizing its essential property: that it is a form of government in which political power is employed to serve the interests of the public rather than of those who govern. And it is this attribute that I take as defining good governance. In this essay, I argue that democracy, in this sense, has been reborn in Africa. The evidence, I argue, strongly suggests that its renaissance has been accompanied by changes in public policies and political practices—ones that generate benefit for the people. But the evidence also suggests that political dangers remain: incumbent parties strive to suborn the electoral process and incumbent executives seek to prolong their terms in office. As elsewhere, to retain their political liberties, Africa’s citizens must "remain vigilant. “Paraphrasing John Adams at the Constitutional, Africa today may enjoy better governance, but "can [she] keep it."

At the core of democracy is the idea that governments must be systematically responsive to the desires and interests of citizens as expressed through the electoral process which is the principal mechanism of democratic accountability as it is through this process that politicians are called to account by a sovereign electorate with powers to sanction them. The effectiveness of the process depends on the viability of democratic institutions and the citizens’ engagement, political sophistication and access to information, which in turn impact on political contestability and transparency. Ensuring accountability is difficult enough if there is only one elected sovereign in a particular space. It becomes profoundly more complex when two sovereigns act upon the same space but are accountable to different constituencies and when the power of one of the two sovereigns is likely to impinge on the accountability of the other. In this paper I consider the problem of accountability in African democracies that are heavily dependent on aid from richer democracies. Concentrating on aid as a constraint on accountability in no way suggests it is the only culprit in this respect. There are many other factors that impinge on accountability at the national level. Indeed it is the interplay with and at times the connivance of local and external factors that have undermined accountability in Africa The internal factors include the lack of transparency of national governments and the "smoke and mirrors" political practices that come along with it; the undemocratic mores of the political class (an aspect of the authoritarian legacy that does not see accountability as a moral imperative but as an undesirable aspect of democracy); the contradictory political affiliations of voters reflecting conflicting ideological, ethnic or clientelistic loyalties that undermines the collective action required to ensure accountability; the institutional barriers to free and fair elections; the strange behavior of legislatures that have weakened themselves by ceding more powers to the executive etc. Each of these has been subject of analysis in the literature on democracy in Africa.

Mythology about Africa still persists. It served colonial interests to portray African natives as "savages" with no history and their indigenous institutions as "backward and primitive." Therefore, colonialism was "good" for them as it "civilized" them and freed them from their "terrible and despotic" traditional rulers. Of course, much of this mythology has been tossed into the trash bin. African natives not only had history but also viable traditional institutions which enabled them to survive through the centuries. Ghana, Mali, Songhai and Great Zimbabwe were empires they built that lasted for centuries. Nor were their rulers terrible and despotic. Chiefs and kings were held accountable at all times and removed from office for dereliction of duty—not after every four or so years. However, mythology about Africa still persists—this time among Africa’s own post-colonial leaders! Believing that African natives had no history, no viable institutions, and no knowledge of such concepts as "democracy," "accountability," and "rule of law," the postcolonial leadership imposed on their people alien systems and ideologies that have led to the ruination of Africa. The continent is littered with the putrid carcasses of these imported systems. Sankofa (“go back and get it”) is the only route to take for Africa’s salvation. The solutions needed to extricate Africa from its current economic malaise and political miasma are already embedded in its own traditional institutions and heritage. And the leadership should just "go back and get them."

In this article I set out the relationship between freedom of expression, including transparency, and accountability; offer an overview of the current state of these issues in Africa; and identify the implications for stronger accountability. I present the profound and real changes that took place in Africa, specifically in the areas of press freedom and free speech, particularly in the 1990s, but I also argue that there remain much unfinished business and many unfulfilled promises, including stalled legal reform, limited media pluralism, and a lack of political will to move from the rhetoric of transparency to its reality. It is in this context that a global human rights recession has struck. I show that the observed global human rights setback applies with equal force to Africa. The setback has not necessarily been greater in Africa than elsewhere, but neither has it been less visible or less marked. In fact, in an environment characterized by weak political institutions and a nascent, and thus fragile democratization process, it is probable that this setback will take longer to reverse.

Much of the recent scholarship on the problem of political accountability in Africa leans toward the proposition that it is largely a post-colonial phenomenon that was caused by the destruction of the democratic institutions that were inherited by Africa’s political elites. By replacing the democratic institutions they inherited from European colonial powers with quasi-democratic and downright despotic structures, it is argued that African elites became increasingly unaccountable and, in the process, destroyed their otherwise robust economies and impoverished the vast majority of their citizens. In reality, however, the problem of political accountability in Africa is far more complex than that in its origins, character and manifestations. This paper critically examines notions and models of political accountability to demonstrate that the sources of the problem of accountability in Africa are both domestic and external. I argue that, contrary to widespread perception that African states suffer from impunity and lack of accountability, African governments have demonstrated a remarkable degree of responsiveness or accountability in their external relations while remaining virtually unaccountable to their own citizens. Therefore, the solution to the problem of political accountability in Africa should include a combination of internal reforms as well as the concerted support of the international community to generate a robust and sustained demand for accountability of African governments to their citizens.

Of the many factors contributing to the relative under-development across sub-Saharan Africa over the past five decades, one cause that is currently gaining more attention from both scholars and development practitioners is the lack of a transparent and accountable national budget process in most African countries. Although most African constitutions provide for a number of mechanisms of accountability within the budget process that are tasked with monitoring and sanctioning the misuse of public funds by the executive, various legal, capacity and political constraints greatly hinder these mechanisms from playing an effective oversight role. This article examines the various challenges faced by four key mechanisms of accountability—parliamentary budget committees, supreme audit institutions, citizen budget monitoring and advocacy groups and elections—in holding leaders to account through the various stages of the budget process. However, despite these challenges, the article concludes by examining some recent progress and successes in the budget accountability arena.

This article examines the colonial and post-colonial state and development in Africa by exploring the following questions: what is the nature of the African state and when did impunity become the norm? Who is the colonial and post-colonial state accountable to and how does this impact the welfare of the majority of the people? How can the state be reconstituted in the interests of Africans? Development involves control over the economy and satisfaction of basic needs. Human beings rather than institutions are the core of development. Africa is not homogeneous; issues of class, gender, race and cultural differences inform this discussion. I argue that it is only when the colonial state is restructured based on the culture and history of the majority of the people as well as their needs that the culture of impunity, poverty and moral decay will end in African countries. Only then will development occur.

Where destructive ethnic mobilization has resulted in state failure, the suggestion has usually been for the country to adopt some form of constitutional federalism as a way to more effectively manage diversity and minimize further violent conflict. While Somalia is, today, a clear example of a failed state, its governance problems do not emanate from its inability to effectively manage its diverse ethnic populations. Instead, the origins of state failure in Somalia can be traced to violent mobilization by clans and sub-clans for control of the apparatus of governance. This paper puts forth several strategies that can be used to reconstruct and reconstitute the Somali State and provide the country with the types of institutions that will enhance peaceful coexistence and promote long-term and sustainable economic growth and development. Constitutional federalism, however, may not be well-suited for Somalia, especially given the expressed desire of many of the country’s factions for autonomy. A more fitting alternative is the functional overlapping competing jurisdictions (FOCJ) governance model, under which regional political units are defined by their physical boundaries but the delivery of public goods and services is provided jointly by various overlapping jurisdictions. Under the FOCJ, an individual can choose to belong to more than one political jurisdiction, for example, establishing his residence in one jurisdiction and purchasing water, electricity and other services from another.

The paper examines how Nigerians have articulated and implemented their national interest through the establishment and maintenance of a robust and viable state as a vector for national development. It argues that while external factors have impact on Nigeria’s capacity for transformational development, how Nigerians choose to live together to build a viable and stable political system is more important than external influences on the people and the state. While prescribing a strategy for transcending historically debilitating development problems, the paper argues that without serious discussion on the particularities of the different ethno-nationalities, Nigeria will remain as the nationalists saw it—a figment of British imagination: a failed central governance structure with a workable state. Starting with the nature of governance, the paper analyzes why Nigeria’s development policies have failed, and the extent lessons from past governance and development policies are helpful for meeting national challenges in the twenty-first century.

The link between broad based economic prosperity, political stability, and accountable governance is generally acknowledged as a reasonable proposition to explain the wealth and poverty of nations. Although there is continuing debate about what accountable governance actually implies and the degree to which government accountability is related to the democratic nature of the state, there is a broad consensus that political stability is an important precondition for durable development. Modern Ethiopian history is a story of economic decline, political instability, and authoritarian governance. The regime’s claim, which seems to be implicitly supported by Western donors, is that it is a "developmentalist state" that can deliver stable governance through its economic achievements rather than through democratic legitimacy. This paper looks at the government’s claims carefully and shows that the economic growth figures used to support the government’s claims are rather dubious. It also tries to show that even if the growth figures are true, the extent of poverty in the country is too high to generate durable political stability given the hostility the government created among key ethnic and social groups in the country. Furthermore, given the geo strategic location of the country in a very troubled region of the world, Ethiopia’s instability is going to have a much broader implication for regional stability. Accordingly, the paper argues for refocusing the debate on democratic accountability in Ethiopia as a necessary condition for durable stability and sustainable development in the country and the larger region.


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