Africa And The Governance Question

An armed man stands on the streets of Somalia. Photo by Peter Greste

An armed man stands on the streets of Somalia. Photo by Peter Greste

If you want to try Africa without government, go to Somalia,” Paul Collier told me in a phone interview a year ago, in the build-up to the 2012 Kuramo Conference in Lagos. “Africa without government isn’t great.”

Collier, Economics Professor and Director for the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, was sharing his views on one of the thorniest governance debates in contemporary times: Big Government versus Small Government.

“Africa needs government more than most places precisely because so much of government revenue is going to be from natural resources. There’s a big role for government because the way the people benefit is from governments taxing companies and then spending the money wisely.”

Those natural resources, Collier pointed out, lie at the heart of one event whose impact on Africa has been more considerable than most: the surge in commodity prices around the middle of the first decade of the 21st Century. The surge significantly raised revenues for many African governments, and attracted substantial investments into the search for new pockets of natural resource.

For example, crude oil prices rose four-fold between 2002 and 2008; enabling Nigeria pay off much of its foreign debt, significantly raise foreign reserve levels and allocate money towards commencing the most ambitious electricity infrastructure programme in decades.

If the last decade has been one of rising commodity prices, the next will be marked by a rise in commodity quantities, Collier predicts. (It’s already starting to happen, with a slew of oil and gas finds everywhere from Ghana to Kenya to Mozambique).

Against a backdrop of generally uninspiring news, I wanted to know if there are any true sub-Saharan Africa success stories. Collier’s answers were interesting: Rwanda (which he says has done “remarkably well despite not having any natural resources; despite being landlocked”) and Ethiopia. (In light of the debates around the repressive tendencies of miracle-working Paul Kagame and the late Menes Zenawi, the question arises: Does Nigeria perhaps require a visionary benevolent dictator in that mould?)

Nigeria, Collier thinks, has improved; he said the decade from 2003 onwards “has been vastly better than the (preceding one)”. I agree with that; the series of President Olusegun Obasanjo-era reforms – from telecoms and pension reforms to banking consolidation to anti-corruption legislation to the attempts to impose some level of fiscal discipline – constituted what is arguably the most ambitious attempt at structural turnaround in the history of Nigeria, and to a large extent the foundation for the successes of the governments that have followed.

The most thought-provoking of Collier’s ideas was his assertion that “Africa has to do its own thinking. It can’t just take ideas off the shelf. It’s only by doing its own thinking that Africa will own its solutions.”

This question of African thinking is one that bothers me a lot. Where are the universities and magazines and events celebrating homegrown African ideas?

We’ve seen only too well what happens when well-meaning but hopelessly misguided finance institutions attempt to impose their modes of thinking on developing countries, without permitting any serious interrogation of these ideas and mechanisms. We’ve seen examples of sometimes comical, sometimes disastrous interventions by foreign NGOs who believe they understand what Africa needs.

I agree that it’s hard to promote a culture of rigorous thought / interrogation – the intellectual foundation that necessarily underpins human advancement – when most of the population is beset by hunger and poverty and the opium of religion. But it’s important to understand that there’s no going anywhere for Nigeria or Africa without that intellectual scaffolding.

“To an extent, Africa needs international action that is helpful to Africa, and Africa needs to be shaping that international action,” Collier said.

He gave the example of the annual gathering of Central Bank Governors in Jackson Hole, America, hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City (someone has described it as “the nearest thing on the central banking calendar to Davos.”) “I noticed there are no Africans invited at all,” Collier told me. “Africa is completely out of the loop.”

It’s a tragic scenario.

It’s hard to understand how the West manages to combine making so much noise about the potential of Africa with conspiring to keeping the continent stranded on the fringes of global economic conversation. In a world of Africa-Rising cover stories, Africa therefore continues to be what it’s always been: A potential source of benefits to everyone but Africans themselves.

I have a dream that one day African countries will have their own (homegrown) equivalents of Jackson Hole and Davos – and not merely spin-offs of Western franchises. I’m imagining the sort of Africa-led event that Western power-brokers will hustle to get into, for the simple reason that Africa is not the sort of place that anyone seeking relevance in the 21st century would want to ignore.

Where are the landmark, agenda-defining, paradigm-shifting African intellectuals and publishing houses and universities and think-tanks and research institutions of the 21st century? Of course – even in the worst of conditions there are people who continue to passionately produce great scholarship – but where are they within the context of global conversations; who owns and controls the platforms responsible for making them seen and heard?

When “Abenomics” makes the headlines, you get the sense (beyond the media’s obsession with portmanteau words and soundbites) that the world is acknowledging the emergence of a “For-Japan-by-Japan” economic plan worth paying attention to.

Where are the economic philosophies and models that show a determination to infuse the peculiar contexts of sub-Saharan Africa into economic thinking?

Where is the evidence that we’re not just following received wisdom – which has led us where we are today?

Conventional wisdom says Africa is ‘Market’ – a lucrative target for foreign manufacturers of everything from electronics to automobiles. Agency is ascribed to the African only in terms of the ability to deploy rising levels of disposable income to the business of consuming what he is unable to produce.

When are we going to start pushing that conversation away from Africa as market towards one of Africa as source of the marketable – and by marketable I’m not speaking of natural resources. There’s nothing to boast about in extracting minerals from the earth and shipping it to the rest of the world (South African imports from Nigeria have grown by 750 percent over the last decade – but most of that growth has been in crude oil imports. No points for that.)

And there’s nothing to be proud about in the dismal levels of intra-African trade. According to a 2013 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report: “Over the period from 2007 to 2011, the average share of intra-African exports in total merchandise exports in Africa was 11 per cent compared with 50 per cent in developing Asia, 21 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean and 70 per cent in Europe.”

On some levels, admittedly, things are changing. It’s heartwarming for example to hear regional powers Nigeria and Kenya discuss setting up a Binational Commission, following in the steps of the Nigeria-South Africa Commission, established in 1999.

Nigerian business entrepreneurs, Tony Elumelu and Aliko Dangote have promoted capitalism and investment throughout Africa.

Nigerian business entrepreneurs, Tony Elumelu and Aliko Dangote have promoted capitalism and investment throughout Africa.

Adventurers such as Aliko Dangote and Tony Elumelu are providing inspiration and impetus to the push for greater engagement across Africa. With Dangote’s plans to establish cement factories in more than a dozen African countries, and Elumelu’s pan-African ambitions, first through the UBA, and lately through his Heirs Holding and the Tony Elumelu Foundation (in power, commodities trading, and agriculture), we’re perhaps witnessing the emergence of a generation of Beyond-Oil Nigerian entrepreneurs who can also see clearly beyond the borders of Nigeria.

Maybe there are indeed things to be hopeful about. But it first and foremost boils down to leadership – a visionary political and business elite who rise above the elemental pull of cronyism, rent-seeking and destructive greed.

As Collier pointed out, Indonesia was at the height of its dysfunction no less corrupt than Nigeria. “The difference is that the money stayed behind in Indonesia. As the elite accumulated investment in the country then its interest in growth grew.”

Welcome to the concept of constructive greed. It’s not ideal, but it’s at least better than our own hopeless offshore-haven-centric brands of corruption.

I’ll end by returning to the opening arguments of the article. Africa needs bigger, bolder government even more than the rest of the world, because of the abundance of resource it holds.

That government needs to understand very well what it should be doing and not doing. As Collier sensibly points out, it should be taxing the players hard and spending the money wisely, and it should be staying out of “production” (think NITEL, think NNPC, think of the pre-reform NEPA/PHCN).

And it should be the duty of citizens to ensure that they keep up the pressure – constantly demanding accountability and transparency in the management of what is essentially their money. As Collier said, “There’s no inevitability about corruption in Africa. It is becoming much easier for citizens to acquire data and scrutinise governments. Nowhere in Africa is (theft of public funds) legal.”

The problem lies in the enforcement of the available laws. And this is where ordinary citizens like you and I come in – especially the middle-class – with a responsibility to hold governments at every level to account, every step of the way.


AFrica rising 2



By Tolu Ogunlesi | Published in Punch on Sept. 16 2013

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