Today’s Summer Seminar topic was Africa, and more specifically, Sustaining the New Wave in African Governance, led by Dr. Jean-Jacques Ngor Sene, a Senegalese citizen and assistant professor of History at Chatham University.
He began by emphasizing the importance of understanding the historical precedents to Africa’s current situation. Long ago, much of Africa was organized into communal societies that functioned quite well, until the dynamics of the slave trade crystallized authoritarian reflexes. Later on during the imperial era, Western powers “carve the cake,” dividing up Africa to prevent a war amongst themselves. However, between 1957 and 1964, 40 African nations gained independence. Unfortunately, many of these new countries came under authoritarian rule, while meanwhile the US and the USSR were fighting their conflict through proxy wars, often in Africa. Once the Cold War ended, this enabled a wave of political change to sweep across Africa.
Today, however, the conditions from country to country remain disparate. This was Dr. Sene’s second point: that each country in Africa is different, with its own history and circumstances. While democracy has taken place in some countries, many are ruled by an authoritarian leader. One factor that the speaker said explained why authoritarianism is prevalent in Africa can be summed up in an African saying: “You can never point to a man and say he’s a former chief.”
Good governance could be defined by three characteristics: First, that there is popular support for the state; second, that the government is legitimate; and third, that democracy has been consolidated. The following criteria can serve as a measure of a country’s governance level: emergence of an active civil society, a free and independent press, a parliamentary system, an independent judiciary, experimentation with federalism (that is, decentralization of power) and citizen satisfaction. The students were introduced to the idea of Mo Ibrahim’s good governance index, which ranks countries on a scale of zero to 100.
African governments could be classified into three categories according to their level of governance. First, neo-democracies, where there is good governance. (Botswana, Mauritius, South Africa, etc.) Second are pseudo-democracies like Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and Tanzania, among others, where there have been democratic gains, but instability continues to be a problem. Finally, there are sub-democracies where advancement towards good governance has not been permanent. (Congo, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Rwanda, etc.)
Dr. Sene cautioned that US policymakers must be careful in promoting good governance because the US itself has not 100% come to a conclusion about many issues within its own borders, for instance the redistribution of wealth. It’s also important to consider the difference between political and economic goals, and if good governance can even be achieved in a country with many factors not in its favor, such as mass illiteracy and poverty.
Next, the students broke off into their discussion groups for the day’s scenario. Today they were asked to choose two African countries and come up with three to five specific policy recommendations that the US take in regard to those places. Dr. Sene reminded them of a few key ideas to keep in mind. Again, it is important to consider each country’s history, recognizing that each one is different. Second, small and concrete achievements are better than attempting to attack elusive big-picture issues. Finally, they must decide if they are optimistic, realistic or pessimistic about a given situation.
Each group presented their proposals, and a variety of countries were covered. At the end, Dr. Sene made some final remarks on the presentations. First of all, he was very impressed that the groups all recognized that each country is different and therefore requires different solutions. He also commented on a number of the policy options that came up in a number of the proposals. For one thing, he emphasized the importance of improving equality for women and building infrastructures, something that a few groups had included. He also raised caution about a number of the proposals. Many groups had talked about bringing in American doctors to Africa, but Dr. Sene suggested that one local nurse could be more efficient and have a greater impact than 25 US-trained doctors. Also, when talking about literacy it is important that literacy in local languages is emphasized. There is too much focus on teaching the languages of the colonial powers when students could be becoming literate in their own languages, he said. Another point he made was that the war on poverty should be fought before the war on crime, since the former is a central cause of the latter. He also addressed a number of other issues that had come up such as the role of NGOs, agriculture and xenophobia.
Overall, it was a very informative lecture about some of the difficulties facing African countries in achieving good governance, and the many factors which must be considered in making policy decisions regarding those countries.
By Rebecca Somple, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern