Institutions are key to development in Africa
Perhaps, the best advice to Africans on governance was the one given by former United States President, Barack Obama at a speech in Accra, Ghana in 2009 where he stated that Africa does not need strongmen but strong institutions. He traced the violent history and poor economic performance of the continent to failure of institutions.
Sadly, his admonition didn’t cut any ice with Nigerians. They continued to believe in the possibility of a strongman coming to fix the country in one go. That was largely the motivation for electing Muhammadu Buhari as Nigeria’s president during the 2015 elections. Buhari’s appeal, aside from his famed integrity, has a lot to do with his tyrannical past as a no-nonsense military dictator who could be brutal, bypass laws, if necessary, in dealing with corrupt people and in pursuance of the common good. He was seen as the Nigerian messiah!
But as is often the case, reforms initiated even by the strongest of rulers run into the headwind of weak institutions and are sooner or later torpedoed by predatory public officials who thrive in the context of weak institutions. This explains the recursive nature of economic growth and progress in many sub-Saharan African countries.
Of course, the problem starts with leaders who often refuse to act within set boundaries of acceptable conduct. Take, for instance, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda who has been in power since 1986. He ruled the country forcefully until 1996 when elections were held. However, nearing the end of his two five-year presidential term, he got a compliant parliament to remove the term limits in the constitution in 2005.
Now, at 73, Museveni again got a pliant parliament to remove the last hurdle to his perpetuation in office – a presidential age limit of 75 – from the constitution, allowing him to run for a sixth term in 2021. For their troubles, each parliamentarian was paid $8000 (29 million Ugandan shillings) to, in the words of parliament spokesman Chris Obore, “help them to consult with their constituents.”
Expectedly, the growth and stability Museveni restored after long years of war and chaos is being reversed and the country is sliding into another dark era characterised by widespread corruption, human rights violation and inadequate public services. Haven refused to be bound by the constitution; he now finds it difficult to take action against senior officials implicated in corruption scandals. It does not matter that Uganda has one of the most comprehensive anti-corruption legislation in the world. Institutions just do not work in Uganda.
In like manner, Nigerian leaders have refused to operate within the confines of the constitution. Although Obasanjo’s move to amend the constitution to allow him run for a third term failed, it failed not because of the strength of Nigeria’s institutions but largely because of the diffused ethno-religious power blocs in Nigeria and their competition for, and rotation of power.
Equally, president Buhari has not allowed the nourishment and development of institutions of restraints and prefers to govern with little or no checks on his powers. Under him, illegal detentions, extrajudicial killings by security operatives, disrespect and disregard of the judiciary and court orders, disregard for contracts and the parliament are still rampant.
For instance, the Nigerian army, in December 2015, massacred over 347 members of the Shia sect – the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) – for allegedly blocking the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai. Till date, no one has been held accountable for the crime. Instead, the leader of the sect, Shiek ElZakzaky together with his wife and other members, has been detained illegally and the president continues to disobey various court orders to release them.
It is not surprising therefore that the president’s aides and close associates have run amok, disobeying and disrespecting institutions of governance in the country and even countermanding instructions of the president himself. Their body language is clear: They do not owe allegiance to anyone or institutions other than the president who appointed them, and since he is can no longer control them – either through ill health or incapacity – they simply do as they wish and the entire country lies at their mercy.
Mimicry of institutions leads to only one outcome – stagnation or retrogression. Nigeria’s and Africa’s hope of escaping the poverty curse lies in the building of a capable state or strong institutions of restraints that will bring predictability to the system.
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