Poor governance a greater threat than terror

The most important driver of underdevelopment, violence and conflict in Africa today is weak and unconsolidated governance.

Violence, terror and organised crime are the prominent new agenda items at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa in Cape Town this week. Conflict and state fragility are now mainstream in talk about African development. They featured in Davos earlier this year; and economics – as WEF’s raison d’être – is merging with security and politics like never before.

Business used to consider human security only when it hit the bottom line. But corporates and investors are now encouraged to see themselves as part of society, and to think more intelligently and responsibly about how violence affects development, stability and prosperity. This is not about helping corporates to navigate Africa to make money – but how they can develop a safer and more prosperous world, and engage more constructively in Africa.

In the WEF 2015 global risk analysis, interstate conflict scored highly on likelihood and risk. Failure of national governance was the third on the risk scale, but not even in the top 10 for impact. The situation is different in Africa, where failure of governance is the biggest risk and the challenge is one of conflict and violence within countries, not between them.

Intra-state conflict-related deaths on the continent have been rising since 2010. They are caused mostly by non-state actors who, funded by transnational organised crime, are exploiting local grievances to undermine democracy and peace. Terror groups also capitalise on economic weakness, governance deficits and lack of effective services to recruit from marginalised populations.

We won’t silence extremists’ guns by rolling out bigger guns of our own

These push factors are accompanied by pull factors such as charismatic recruiters, appealing ideologies and sophisticated social media strategies. The drivers of this intra-state violence include young populations, high unemployment, lack of equal opportunities, urbanisation, poverty, inequality, too many guns and governments stuck between autocracy and democracy.

Some say that Africa is the new frontier in the global war on terror. The headline acts are Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, which between them killed 8 000 people in 2014. But that is a sideshow compared to the millions of deaths from poor governance and unequal development. Many African governments’ response to terror often makes matters worse. From Burundi to Djibouti, the rulers hype the war on terror as a convenient shield for their own illegitimate machinations.

Their robust language, heavy-handed bravado and inappropriate military and extra-judicial responses make terror worse, when what is really needed is a measured and holistic response based on rule of law, and an understanding of what causes extremism.

We must urgently learn the lessons of the disastrous global war on terror that followed the 9/11 attacks in the United States. We must not exaggerate the threat, or sacrifice human rights on the altar of counter-terrorism and state security. Vicious and populist short-term responses to terror risk reinforcing the conditions that created the threats in the first place, contributing further to conflict and bad governance, distorting development aid and fuelling corruption.

Unlawful responses to terror destroy trust in government, undermine the social contract, and radicalise young people. Reliance on military force gives terrorists an undeserved badge of honour as being somehow engaged in a justifiable war.

We can’t shoot our way out of this problem. We won’t silence extremists’ guns by rolling out bigger guns of our own. This approach might win international allies, and votes - in the short term. But it’s not right and it’s not working.

Bad governance doesn’t just undermine development; it also drives violence

Instead, those who commit acts of terror should be treated as criminals and brought to trial. Getting it right requires better regional and international cooperation and sharing of intelligence, and programmes to counter extremism based on an understanding of what causes terror. The most important driver of violence and conflict in Africa today is weak and unconsolidated governance.

Bad governance doesn’t just undermine development; it also drives violence. In Nigeria, for example, the government helped to create Boko Haram through its lack of an inclusive growth strategy.

The crisis of governance and African leaders’ poor management of their countries was to be addressed by the ambitious African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) launched in 2003 by African heads of state who had never before held each other to account. African lead­ers who signed up were to be evaluated by their peers on their po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, so­cial and cor­po­rate performance. Of the African Union’s 54 members, 35 signed up and 17 have to date been reviewed and given plans of action. Yet these plans are rarely implemented and the scheme is flagging.

Good governance requires political will, but the private sector has a vital role too, by adhering to good investment practices, not dodging tax and not paying bribes. Business must be an activist partner in Africa’s development, not a rent-seeking neutral that turns a blind eye to the excesses of host governments.

The second really big threat to Africa is highly organised transnational crime, which erodes institutions and state legitimacy by subverting the rule of law, fuelling corruption and buying influence that allows criminals to control the political marketplace. Transnational organised crime is at the intersection of law, politics, power and sovereignty. That makes it a determining factor in economic development. We’d be fools not to take it more seriously.

Good governance requires political will, but the private sector has a vital role too

Organised crime threatens Africa’s stability and growth potential with a particularly devastating impact in fragile states. Even in Africa’s two biggest economies, Nigeria and South Africa, we have seen how criminals infiltrate and undermine the entire criminal justice system. Closely linked to the success of crime and failure of governance is the loss generated by illicit financial flows out of Africa. An astounding US$529 billion left the continent illicitly in the 10 years to 2012. Sustainable growth is impossible under these conditions. Curbing illicit financial flows would significantly boost tax collections in developing countries.

One of WEF’s final sessions this week is on ‘silencing the gun’, part of a Solemn Declaration made by the African Union on its 50th anniversary in 2014, with a target to ‘end all wars in Africa by 2020’. It’s a noble ambition, but a distant and unrealistic dream considering the continent’s current political and development trajectory. Violence will be a feature of Africa’s future for many years.

The road to democracy is inherently violent: tensions and conflict can be expected to escalate as Africans aspire to and achieve greater freedom, accountability and democracy. But in the long term, improved development prospects and more equal economic growth will lead to greater stability and less fertile ground for terrorism and organised crime.

Laws need to be expanded to cover non-state actors, and terrorists need to be engaged politically and not just militarily. International cooperation is required to deny physical safe havens to terrorists, close fiscal and legal gaps, strengthen border controls and improve intelligence and criminal justice cooperation.

We should not be distracted by catchy political statements, or limit our efforts to extremism and terror. Violence in Africa is much more complex and multifaceted than this.

Anton du Plessis, Managing Director, Institute for Security Studies

This article was first published by Business Day on 4 June.

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