There is good as well as bad news about the state of governance in Africa

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame is seen as having promoted economic growth at the expense of human rights. Ruben Sprich/Reuters

Declining safety and deterioration in the rule of law are holding back progress in governance in Africa. This is according to the latest Ibrahim Index of African Governance.

The index, started by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation a decade ago, provides an annual assessment of governance in African countries.

This year’s edition shows marginal progress on the continent across all areas. Categories that were measured include human development, political participation and human rights as well as safety and rule of law and sustainable economic governance.

Mauritius emerged as the best performer when the index was started 10 years ago and has retained its top spot. Somalia remained in last position.

South Africa and Ghana are still in the top ten well-governed states at sixth and seventh place. But they are also in the top ten states which have shown the most governance regression in the past decade. In South Africa’s case the biggest regression has been under safety and rule of law, while in Ghana declining sustainable economic opportunity was the culprit.

Civil conflict impact

Côte d’Ivoire showed the most improvement. But because it came off a low base it still only ranked 21st given its emergence from years of civil war.

The three countries with the largest deterioration in governance over the past decade are Libya, Madagascar and Eritrea. All have witnessed civil conflict and insurgencies in the past ten years.

As with any social science project, subjective opinion and perceptions are involved. Quantifying qualitative data to create ratings and rankings then becomes the most difficult and debatable aspect. The index addresses these difficulties through its composite nature, adjusting its methodology annually. This year’s edition uses 95 indicators from 34 independent data sources.

Good leaders equal good governance

Acknowledging that leaders play an important role in improving governance, the foundation also awards an annual governance prize. Eligible candidates are democratically elected African leaders. They should have served their terms in office within the limits of their countries’ constitutions and left office in the preceding three years.

The caveat here is that although the council meets to discuss candidates every year, the prize has only been awarded four out of nine times since its inception in 2007. No award was made this year. Previous heads of state to receive it were presidents Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique (2007), Festus Mogae of Botswana (2008), Pedro Pires of Cape Verde (2011) and Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia (2014).

South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela also received an honorary award when the prize was conceived. Laureates receive US$5 million a year for ten years and US$200,000 thereafter annually for the rest of their lives.

The idea behind the Ibrahim Prize was to incentivise leaders to abide by the principles of good governance. As the foundation itself puts it, it is for:

African leaders who have governed well, respected their constitution and left office with their country in better shape than at their arrival.

In other words, leaders who improved governance and who did not abuse their power during office or engage in corrupt activities, are provided with a generous retirement package.

The foundation defines governance as

…provision of the political, social and economic public goods and services that every citizen has the right to expect from his or her state, and that a state has the responsibility to deliver…

But, the foundation does not prioritise one form of public good over the other. This was exemplified by a statement from the prize selection committee chairman in 2013:

… economic development does not give us a reason to be a little complacent about participation and the human rights of people.

It is commendable that the foundation has high standards that it refuses to compromise, even when it means not giving the prize for two years in a row.

Development vs human rights

It is also important in the current African context where countries such as Ethiopia and Rwanda prioritise socioeconomic development at the expense of human rights and personal liberties. In both countries human development (comprising of welfare, education and wealth subcategories) improved but the sub-category of participation decreased.

Interestingly, both countries still achieved an overall improvement in participation and human rights, mostly through significant progress achieved under the gender category.

To improve, countries need to find a balance between political and economic matters. This is where leadership becomes particularly important. But this is currently lacking on the continent.

The Ibrahim Prize laureates achieved a great deal domestically. But they did not command a continental presence. It is also interesting that over the last nine years the prize has been won by leaders of some of Africa’s smaller democracies.

Looking to the future

African leaders unlikely to win the prize because of their penchant to cling to power include Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (in power since 1986), Paul Biya of Cameroon (since 1982) and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (1980).

The increasingly authoritarian Paul Kagame, in power since 2000 and potentially until 2034 following a recent constitutional amendment, is likely to join their ranks.

While overall governance progress on the continent over the past decade has shown a positive trend, capable and accountable leaders are needed to take Africa forward.

The Conversation

Yarik Turianskyi is the Programme Manager of Governance and APRM at the South African Institute of International Affairs. The Programme is currently funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.