The urgency for Africa to fight back against economic slowdown triggered by the pandemic has never been greater, but many of our leaders are yet to present a clear plan of action. What is clear, however, is that any recovery in Africa will be a short-lived illusion unless governance is included as a fundamental building-block in any economic revival strategy.
Africa faces the gravest challenge of a lifetime. The world economic order has been upturned, and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz recently told the UN General Assembly that he finds the prospect of a quick global recovery from the pandemic to be “a fantasy”. Indeed, Africa’s growth has turned negative for the first time in nearly 50 years. An additional 40 million Africans have been pushed into extreme poverty. The continent will need an estimated $1.2 trillion over the next three years to recover from the pandemic.
Good governance – consisting of transparency, accountability, anti-corruption, citizen participation, and an enabling legal judicial framework – was described by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as “perhaps the single most important factor in eradicating poverty and promoting development”. There is a reason why investors and businessmen regard Mo Ibrahim’s Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) as a key reference point when looking at whether or not to invest in our continent.
Though reforms take time, the results would be immediate. Better governance and less corruption would create more revenue for the government, more efficient use of this revenue, increased private investment and job opportunities, and more money to spend and invest in services vital to long-term development, such as health and education.
Of course, good governance is not the sole driver of growth. Some countries perceived as having weak governance have experienced episodes of strong growth driven by other factors, including natural resource wealth. In other cases, countries with good governance have not necessarily enjoyed strong growth.
But good governance does eradicate factors which stymie economic growth. Analysts from the IMF have described these undermining factors as acting like sand in an economic engine.
Unfortunately, governance in Africa – where it is most needed – is consistently poor. In recognition of this unfortunate situation, the African Union (AU) envisioned in the Agenda 2063 “an Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law”.
This vision is appreciated across the continent, but is especially strong for my country – Liberia – due to our deep links to the AU. Liberia played a pivotal role in the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – the forerunner of the AU. Liberia’s President Tubman hosted a conference in Sanniquellie in 1959 with Ghana’s President Nkrumah and Guinea’s President Touré, the main purpose of which was to strategize the continental integration of Africa.
It is a tragic irony that Liberia is so deeply connected to the AU’s value of good governance, yet its leaders have consistently failed to deliver it to Liberians. The current president, former football player George Weah, has allowed poor governance to thrive and escalate under his watch. Despite Weah’s promise of a clean-up when assuming office in 2018, he has only exhibited compromise. Distrust lingers over Weah’s assets. Corruption scandals are a constant feature of our media cycles. Millions worth of dollars intended to go to fixing the economy have gone missing since he assumed office. Inflation has soared and growth has shrunk. The cost of living has had a devastating effect on many in a country where 64% of the population live below the poverty line.
As a result, Liberia ranked 175th out of 190 economies in the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business Report and the Center for Transparency and Accountability (CENTAL) recently found that nine out of ten people in Liberia think corruption remains high. Our national budget also stands around a mere $500 million, but I know it could be raised to $1 billion under the right policies.
The people of Liberia – a country full of talent and natural resources – had had enough of wasted opportunities, even before the pandemic. In June 2019, more than 5,000 people protested in the capital Monrovia against Weah’s failure to tackle corruption, economic mismanagement and widespread injustice. The unrest – known as the #BringBackOurMoney movement – was one of the biggest social movements in living memory. Today, even poorer governance has become an existential threat to the future of Liberia.
Similar overflows of dissatisfaction are visible across Africa. In South Africa, poor governance is one of the factors which triggered violent unrest in July. Some have described this as democratic South Africa’s “darkest hour”.
There are, however, examples of effective leadership bringing about real improvements to governance.
Bold pursuits of corrupt officials are happening but should be publicized to send a powerful signal to potential offenders and help define a roadmap for neighbouring countries. Zambia’s recently elected President Hakainde Hichilema has drawn international attention for his “zero tolerance” policy on corruption, exhibiting the principles of his successful business career. True to his word, Hichilema has refreshed the management of the anti-corruption authorities, leading to the arrest of 14 suspected corrupt officials on 21 October alone.
Meanwhile, technology offers a real opportunity to improve corporate governance. Sierra Leone, for instance, has employed technology to limit the misuse of government resources. Anti-corruption authorities work closely with departments for technology and innovation. Sierra Leone’s technological solutions to governance issues include internet platforms where citizens can report bribery, and the use of anomaly detection to detect corrupt financial practices.
The work has begun, but we have a long way to go. With the harsh realities of economic crisis staring Africa in the face, the continent needs to heed these lessons quickly. Africa needs new leaders with innovative approaches to improving governance, before it is too late.