Africans Already Got The Idea: “Africa Does Not Need Strong Men, it Needs Strong Institutions”

A reaction to President Obama’s speech in Ghana by guest blogger Leonard Wantchekon, NYU Professor of PoliticsOverall, I like the theme of the President Obama’s speech in Ghana. Africans must own their future by strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law in their countries, and by becoming less reliant on assistance. I also like the idea of a real partnership between Africa and other developed countries based on trade. It is very much in line with what most of us would think. He said:

America can also do more to promote trade and investment. Wealthy nations must open our doors to goods and services from Africa in a meaningful way.

As Africans reach for this promise, America will be more responsible in extending our hand. By cutting costs that go to Western consultants and administration, we want to put more resources in the hands of those who need it, while training people to do more for themselves.

What I find a bit questionable is this:

Africa is not the crude caricature of a continent at perpetual war. But if we are honest, for far too many Africans, conflict is a part of life, as constant as the sun … These conflicts are a millstone around Africa’s neck.

My sense is that in saying this he has helped to perpetuate, perhaps unwittingly, the very caricature that he questions. Conflict is NOT as constant as the sun in Africa. While this may have been the reality of the 1970s and the 1980s, it is certainly no longer the case. He forgot to add that many of these conflicts were proxy wars between the US and the former Soviet Union (such as that in Angola), or were manufactured by France (such as that in Congo Brazzaville).The average African country is at peace. Moreover, it is a democracy, albeit one with relatively weak state capacity, such as Liberia, and Mali. Zimbabwe is the exception, not the rule. And even in Zimbabwe, where there is 90% unemployment, incredible hardships and repression, most people want democracy, not another war.

Freedom, especially freedom of the press, has also drastically improved in the majority of African countries, to the point where Reporters Without Borders have ranked several African nations above developed countries such as Italy and Japan.

Of course, democracy is—as Obama put it—“more than holding elections – it’s also about what happens between them”: good governance, human rights, etc. But I see no path to good governance, human rights, and even conflict resolution in Africa unless elections are held regularly. In addition, elections are intrinsically valuable, beyond their potential effect on governance. I am sure Nelson Mandela would agree with that. In fact, various Afrobarometer surveys from 1999 to 2009 suggest that nearly 70% define democracy purely in terms of political rights, not in terms of governance. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no significant difference between rural and urban citizens, or between more educated and less educated citizens.

In terms of the strongman syndrome, things have changed for the better. All across Africa courts and unions have tried (most of the time successfully) to block and prevent constitutional changes that would allow the sitting president to run for an additional term (African presidents have therefore been less successful than the Mayor of New York City in this regard!). Afrobarometer surveys suggest that 75% of Africans reject military rule, 73% reject a one-party system, and 79% reject strongman rule.

I would like the President to acknowledge more clearly that Africans have already got the idea that “Africa doesn’t not need strong men, it needs strong institutions.”

Originally published at Aid Watch and reproduced here with the author’s permission.