Since its inception in 2006, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation has been tracking indicators of African governance, which the organization defines as the effective delivery of public goods and services to citizens. In addition to providing this rich source of data at the country level, the foundation also selects recipients for the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, a US$5 million award for retired African heads of state “who deliver security, health, education and economic development to their constituents, and who democratically transfer power to their successor.” Following the announcement of this year’s recipient (Pedro Pires, former president of Cape Verde) earlier this month, we sit down with Thomas Tieku, CIGI’s lead researcher at the Africa Initiative, to discuss the state of governance across the continent and whether the foundation is having a positive impact on how African governments rule.

CIGI: Since the Mo Ibrahim Foundation began tracking governance indicators in 2006, almost every African country’s governance ranking has steadily improved (with a few notable exceptions, such as Cote D’Ivoire, Zimbabwe and Somalia). Since the Index of African Governance claims to measure how effective governments are at delivering public goods for their citizens, is this an indication that, on the whole, public policy in Africa is getting better?

Thomas Tieku: Across the board there has been improvement on the African continent. Part of it has to do with the strengthening of public institutions, through a number of capacity-building measures that have made African bureaucracies relatively better. And once you have bureaucrats leading the policy-making process, the chances are that you’re going to get a better policy outcome. Africa is gradually moving away from developing policy based on a leader’s opinion, and towards a model based on expertise and research. Another part has to do with broader changes taking place within the African diaspora. A number of well-trained Africans are moving back home to occupy strategic positions, especially in the English-speaking African countries.

But there has also been a sea change across the continent towards governance. The attitude now is that it is not only the strongmen who can lead, but people with real knowledge. Instead of consent to govern based on fear, now it is consent to govern based on what you know.

It also has to do with the wave of democracy that took place in the 1990s, as a result of structural adjustment and aid conditionality – though these policies have sometimes created enormous social and economic problems for Africans. But some of the governance conditionalities have really helped improve the way public policy is developed and implemented.

CIGI: The 2011 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership was awarded to Cape Verde’s former president, Pedro Pires, after two years of not finding a suitable recipient. In view of the selection committee’s unwillingness to award the prize in the past, do you regard the award as a realistic incentive for African leaders to improve?

Tieku: I think the Ibrahim Prize has actually encouraged existing heads of state to behave relatively better. In the past, African leaders have been quite worried about their retirement package, and so a lot of them were not thinking about retiring, and surrounded themselves with other people not thinking about retiring. This led to constantly satisfying the constituency that would have them stay in power. Most appeasement went to those who controlled the use of force, thereby increasing the apparatus of the military. This creates bad governance at the institutional level.

But it’s not only the money that comes with the prize – it’s also about recognition. African heads of state don’t want to be seen as ordinary people when they retire, and this award helps them to continue to be seen as the “big guy” in their society after they relinquish power.

It’s also circular because now that more African heads of state know their governance institutions are being watched and measured, they are paying more attention to performance metrics and areas of potential improvement. None of the African leaders want to be the last in anything – they want to be seen as leading a country that’s well respected across the African continent.

CIGI: In this year’s index, only five of the top 10 countries are actually located in sub-Saharan Africa, and of those, four are in Southern Africa (Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Lesotho). Even though governance indicators are generally trending upwards across the continent, does the concentration of high rankings mean that we’re continuing to see uneven amounts of good governance in Africa?

Tieku: I think there’s a positive and negative spin to this. On the positive side, experts in African politics and institutions will be encouraged that there has been a positive improvement over time. On the other hand, if this is the first time you’ve encountered the results, they can be somewhat misleading because the numbers are not always seen in the proper context. But for those experts, there has certainly been a systematic improvement over the last decade, which also reflects the growth of the African economies.

As for the other top countries, the index has actually highlighted a number of nations that rarely get any credit. Mauritius, Seychelles – people don’t talk about them at all, and now their image has improved. Though part of the reason some of these countries have succeeded is because the societies are not as complex as others in mainland Africa. Take Botswana for example: it’s a relatively homogeneous society with a dominant ethnic group. Once you move away from that, you have a place like Nigeria, where democracy was superimposed on a strong indigenous governance arrangement. In most cases in Africa where democracy has not taken root, there are usually strong, decentralized indigenous institutions that democratic advocates never really paid attention to. These institutions are being forced to adapt to democracy now, but in some cases it has taken a very long time.

Now that more African heads of state know their governance institutions are being watched and measured, they are paying more attention to performance metrics and areas of potential improvement.
The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.