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Mo Ibrahim finds that African governance is improving too slowly
2 October 2014

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has become more famous for the award – or, more usually, the non-award – of its US$5 million annual prize for African leadership than for its Ibrahim Index on African Governance (IIAG).

It used to announce both at the same time, but the leadership prize inevitably stole the limelight from the governance index, despite the latter being a thorough and painstaking research effort.

So this year the foundation decided to separate the two announcements. This week it announced the IIAG for 2014 and later this year, or early next year, it will announce the leadership prize.

It must be said – just in passing – that already it’s hard to imagine who might get the leadership prize, which is meant to go to an African head of state or government who governed well and left office within the constitutionally prescribed time limits over the last three years. It ought to be a no-brainer and past recipients have shown that the standard is not terribly high. Even so, it’s only been awarded half the years it’s been in existence. Obviously clinging to power is still very much the fashion on this continent.

Obviously clinging to power is still very much the fashion on this continent

It is easy to see why the leadership prize always stole the show. This year it would surely have done so again as the IIAG was, superficially at least, rather dull; looking a lot like last year’s except for an incremental improvement in governance across Africa last year.

The index divides governance into categories of human development, safety and rule of law, human rights and sustainable economic opportunity. Out of a total maximum score of 100, overall governance performance rose just 0,9 points over the last five years. This represented a deceleration of governance improvement, since overall governance had increased by +1,2 score points during the previous five years.

Even if one started from the benchmark year of 2000, African governance has barely shifted in 14 years, rising from just under 50 points to 51,5 points last year. African governance as a whole has improved in some ways and deteriorated in others, resulting in this slight net improvement.

And so the index found that some countries near the bottom of the rankings – specifically Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Niger and Zimbabwe – which had dragged the overall performance down in the past, then turned negative trajectories into positive ones, improving by more than five points.

‘Over the past five years they have become the biggest improvers on the continent,’ the foundation said. (Incidentally, one must bear in mind that Zimbabwe’s improvement covers the period of the government of national unity, which ended last year.)

Conversely the top performers failed to make their expected contribution to the continent’s overall performance, the foundation said. The top five countries were, in descending order, Mauritius, Cape Verde, Botswana, South Africa and Seychelles. These rankings have been largely unchanged for some time.

This appeared to be another way of saying the long commodity boom was drawing to a close

South Africa, as expected, was once again dragged down by low scores on personal safety because of high crime rates. But the foundation also found South Africa had declined – over the last five years compared to the five years before that – in the categories of participation and human rights and human development.

The index also makes it obvious that the other huge drags on the continent’s overall performance, though they are not singled out for special commentary, are the major oil producers. Angola ranks 44th out of the 52 countries measured this year (the two Sudans have been temporarily removed while the foundation tries to separate statistics for them). That’s three ranks down from where it stood for a few years. Its overall governance points are down three over the past five years.

Nigeria ranks 37th: more or less constant, with no change in its overall points over the past five years. Equatorial Guinea ranks 45th for the fourth year – down one point over the past five years. The performances of Nigeria – especially now that it is Africa’s largest economy – and Angola are particularly disappointing, as they have so much potential to lift the whole continent.

From the perspective of categories rather than countries, the foundation interprets this year’s index as illustrating a shift in the drivers of governance improvements, from economic to political. From 2005 to 2009, the overall improvement in governance had largely been driven by improvement in the categories of sustainable economic opportunity and human development. Over the last five years, the progress had instead mainly come from improvements in the categories of participation and human rights, the foundation said. This appeared to be another way of saying the long commodity boom, or super-cycle, was drawing to a close.

As Lord Cairns, a board member of the foundation, remarked: ‘Perhaps some of the low-hanging fruit of better economic management have been garnered. The challenge grows for the continent to become a fully competitive force in the global market at a time when commodity price trends are becoming less helpful to many countries on the continent.’

Ibrahim himself remarked when the index was announced this week that ‘the results of the 2014 IIAG challenge our perceptions about the state of African governance.’ He added, ‘Africa is progressing, but the story is complex and doesn’t fit the stereotypes. Even if the overall picture looks good, we must all remain vigilant and not get complacent.’

It was not perfectly clear what he meant by the index not reinforcing stereotypes. He might have meant that participation and human rights buoyed the overall index this year, even as the economic indicators declined. Yet the improvement in participation and human rights was not, on the face of it, very dramatic; showing an overall improvement of 2,4 points over the five-year period 2009 to 2013, compared to the previous five-year period.

But Ibrahim was certainly right to warn that the results gave no cause for complacency. He was also right when he said the correct stance on Africa is not the Afro-pessimism of the past nor the Afro-optimism of the current Africa Rising narrative, but Afro-realism.

His own index bears that out as objectively as one can. That incremental improvement in governance of just 0,9 points out of 100 in the past five years tells us, among many other things, that the perceptions about the continent have exaggerated the reality, in both directions.

But more pertinently perhaps, the index suggests that Africa still has a long way to go, and has to move much faster, if it is to overcome its chronic problems of poverty, underdevelopment and insecurity.

If the index is rightly interpreted to mean that improvements in democratic governance just evened out the tailing off of the commodity boom last year, that balance cannot be counted upon to remain positive forever. 

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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