Is the APRM a poisoned chalice?

The new team that heads the African Peer Review Mechanism is planning to revive it, despite its complexity.

The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) is showing new signs of life. With the nomination earlier this year of well-known South African academic, Eddy Maloka, as new head of the APRM, things are looking up for the mechanism, which has been ‘dormant’ for the past four years. Maloka formerly headed the Africa Institute of South Africa and was an advisor to the South African minister of international relations and cooperation.

On 5 May, Maloka told parliamentarians at the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) in Midrand that he is embarking on a ‘revitalisation’ strategy for the mechanism. Maloka admitted that the APRM ‘must redeem itself,’ adding that ‘we are requesting your support for the APRM in your countries.’

The APRM is one of the world’s most comprehensive and ambitious continental mechanisms. It was drawn up by the founding fathers of the African Union (AU) in the early 2000s; those heady days when all manner of innovative structures were launched. Along with the APRM, this also included the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) – a blueprint for continental economic development.

At the time, anything seemed possible – even the idea that heads of state would acquiesce to a team of outside reviewers (albeit led by eminent African personalities), working in their countries, and then presenting a critical report in front of the entire assembly of AU leaders.

Maloka said he is embarking on a ‘revitalisation’ strategy for the APRM

In Grappling with Governance, Perspectives on the African Peer Review Mechanism, published by the South African Institute for International Affairs in 2010, well-known South African editor Brendan Boyle says there was real hope initially that the APRM ‘would get the nation talking’.

‘The idea of an African mechanism of peer review – largely the initiative of South African [former] president Thabo Mbeki – was for a continental introspection involving millions of people in a frank assessment of each participating country’s achievements and failings. The outcome was to be a compendium of best-practice policies that could be shared among governments to address the many challenges of underdevelopment,’ he writes.

Clearly, the idea was that instead of taking flak from the World Bank and Amnesty International, Africa could do its own assessments – with a better chance that proposed changes would be implemented.

In the end, this was not to be. So far, the APRM has floundered under a massive pile of documents and bureaucratic processes that very few people understand – least of all the media that was supposed to popularise it. So far, in its 13 years of existence, only 17 countries had completed an APRM assessment. In an article named Making the news: why the APRM didn't, Boyle says there was a commitment by some South African newspapers to follow the process, but a lack of transparency at the APRM made many journalists give up on the task.

Certainly one of the main problems with the APRM is the complexity of the process. As APRM panel member Joseph Tsang Mang Kin explained to the PAP who might not have studied the complicated APRM structure, it is based on the principle that every member country – currently 35 – set up its own self-assessment structure.

The APRM has floundered under a massive pile of documents and bureaucratic processes

A hefty questionnaire then has to be filled in by the country before the APRM comes and looks around for itself. It has several layers: self-assessment, assessment by a panel of experts and then back to the country to respond to the panel’s report. Only after that is it presented to heads of state, and then published six months later.

Tsang Mang Kin, the panel member who is also a Mauritian poet and writer, has high hopes for the APRM. He believes that the panel can be truly independent and give an honest and ethical assessment of African governance. ‘Our actions should be based on an ethical foundation,’ he told the parliamentarians.

Asked by the media how one can really critically assess a country like Chad (currently being reviewed), where elections are contested and democratic governance is under threat, he said best is to ‘follow your own conscience’. APRM panellists don’t just sit in boardrooms, they speak to ordinary citizens to get viewpoints from all sectors of society. ‘It is not like in the past when people were afraid to speak out. This is a new world’.

But can one seriously expect the APRM process to give a voice to civil society; and ensure that better governance is achieved through frank and honest assessments of what is wrong, and what needs to be fixed? In South Africa, with Mbeki at the helm, this didn’t happen. According to Boyle, the South African government dominated the APRM process and drove it underground.

Maloka now wants to revive the APRM. The first step is to get rid of the backlog of reports still to be tabled in front of the PAP, as per the rules of the APRM. At the most recent PAP session, a short summary of the reports of South Africa, Nigeria, Mauritius, Benin and Ethiopia were presented by Tsang Mang Kin and fellow panel member Brigitte Mabandla, a former South African minister. The reports are very old; the most recent being the 2011 assessment in Ethiopia.

Despite the commitment of a dedicated panel, the APRM might again sink in the sand

Parliamentarians were, however, given the opportunity to respond ­– and some did so briefly. The delegation from Ethiopia, for example, said that the overview presented at the PAP didn’t include reference to Ethiopia’s proud history as an African country that has never been colonised. In response to the report’s mention of the high level of corruption in Nigeria, that country’s delegate said that president Muhammadu Buhari has now introduced a new fight against corruption and that the culture of the ‘big man’ that acts with impunity is now something of the past.

The fact that these reports are now only going through the processes is a strong indictment against the APRM structures. No new assessments have been made in the last four years; and yet at every AU summit, heads of state of the APRM meet to discuss progress made. Has this been a case of all talk and no substance? Maloka says that since the beginning of the year, three new peer reviews have been undertaken and their reports are being finalised.

The bottom line of the APRM is that while it was an initiative launched by heads of state of the AU more than a decade ago, doing these assessments is extremely difficult. In the current climate, the emphasis has shifted in many countries from building strong continental institutions to fighting terrorism, or clinging to power.

Jakkie Cilliers, Head of African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies says, ‘Events have overtaken initiates such as the APRM and NEPAD – largely due to general African growth prospects, the diversity in prospects and a lack of political support in recent years by key countries’. The latest such initiative by AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Agenda 2063, is also likely to fall by the wayside when her term ends in July this year.

‘The essence of the APRM was to find a way in which to report on domestic issues that heads of state could not object to. It required real ownership and the commitment of (scarce) resources. While donors quickly adopted the APRM, African leaders did not,’ says Cilliers.

So, even with the best will in the world; and despite the commitment of a strong, dedicated panel, the APRM might again sink in the sand. It was from the beginning simply too comprehensive and too ambitious. For Professor Maloka and his team, this could be a poisoned chalice.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

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