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Is Central Africa a victim of bad governance?

Written by Tanguy Berthemet. This article originally was published in French by Le Figaro on Monday, 11 February. You can access the original article here.


While other parts of the continent are experiencing economic, political or social success, this region is accumulating poor indicators and appears to be collapsing.

It would seem that Central Africa is the ‘sick man’ of the continent. Sub-regions such as West Africa are making significant progress with regard to democracy, while economic performance in certain states in East Africa is engendering a degree of optimism, yet the heart of the continent seems incapable of squaring up to the challenge. This somewhat undefined area – which can incorporate up to nine states if we include South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Angola – suffers from many ills, which, according to experts, are linked to poor governance. Most of these countries, however, have subsoils that are rich – sometimes very rich – in raw materials and that offer significant agricultural potential. The 2017 African Economic Conference (AEC) concluded that poor governance is an impediment to the development of economic activities in Africa and costs the continent dearly. The costs of these failings can outweigh growth in various areas. “Central Africa is not doing well, and things are getting worse,” stresses Nathalie Delapalme, Executive Director of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Is Central Africa really lagging behind?

There is little doubt on this point. The region experienced the lowest growth on the continent in 2017, at just 0.9%, after an already very difficult year in 2016 (0.1%). While 2018 has been better, rates are still lower than across the rest of the continent (3.6%t). This weakness is largely due to economies that are still heavily dependent on the raw materials abundant in many countries in the region. The fall in prices and demand has had a devastating impact. While these figures hide a degree of disparity (the collapse of Equatorial Guinea and the relative stability of the Central African Republic), performance in all states is well below what was hoped for and needed, especially to compensate for a strong demographic dynamic.According to their overall ranking on the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG), which considers a range of development indicators, all Central African countries, with the exception of São Tomé & Príncipe, are performing below average. More worryingly, several large countries, including the DRC and Cameroon, are considered to have been in a state of 'increasing deterioration' over the 2008–2017 period. In terms of respect for human rights, as ranked by several NGOs, Central Africa has also fallen behind in relation to its neighbours. The United Nations Human Development Index, an indicator that takes into account a broad range of markers such as health, education and dignity, also shows that this part of the world is lagging behind – the Central African Republic is ranked last globally (188th), while the DRC is 176th.


Is corruption the primary cause of poverty?

Poor governance is closely tied to corruption, and not without reason. Central Africa is not short of deplorable anecdotes. In 2017, the French trial regarding 'ill-gotten gains' highlighted the extravagance of Teodorin Obiang, son of the President of Equatorial Guinea, who owned a private hotel in Paris valued at an estimated €107 million and a dozen luxury cars. In the DRC, Global Witness states that at least $750 million has been diverted from government coffers. Furthermore, a recent Reuters investigation revealed that the cost of a local passport in the DRC was the most expensive in the world ($185), in part due to the fact that $60 of this is siphoned off to a company based in the United Arab Emirates managed by a relative of the former President Kabila. “Poor governance generates financial losses due to corruption, but not corruption alone. Deals were made that were bad deals, without being directly due to corruption, but rather to very bad decisions,” says Gérard Gérold, a research associate with the Foundation for Strategic Research. In his view, the textbook case is the agreement between Chad and Glencore. The 2014 loan from the Anglo-Swiss company, which has since been painfully renegotiated, drew the country to the brink of bankruptcy and led to an outbreak of social unrest following the halving of civil servants’ salaries. As noted by a Congolese businessman, “a lack of competence is sometimes as bad as dishonesty”.


Are weak justice systems responsible for these failings?

The lack of an independent justice system and the limited resources allocated to it are central to the difficulties faced in this area. Justice is the poor relation of African states. International assistance programs exist in many areas, from security to health or education, with varying degrees of effectiveness, but rarely in the field of justice. And the countries of Central Africa continue to accumulate poor indicators. According to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, the judicial system there is one of the weakest in the world. Out of a best possible score of 100, Chad scored 11 for the independence of the judiciary, Cameroon 12.5 for the transparency of the judicial process and the Central African Republic 13 for access to the judicial system. “Judicial reform is a sensitive issue because the laws are generally well-written,” stresses Chloé Buire, a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and an expert on Angola. “The issue is their application.” These failings have immense economic consequences. “A somewhat reliable justice system is fundamental, both for large investors and for small and even very small businesses. Without judicial means, they cannot secure their assets, which are at the mercy of the powerful and the corrupt. In these circumstances, any economic take-off is impossible,” insists the representative of a French company based in Bangui. The weakness of the judiciary poses a danger to all institutions.


Is emerging democracy doomed?

There is a real danger that the tentative democratic advances will amount to nothing. In recent years the news in this regard has been no better than in others. The 2018 presidential elections in Cameroon and the DRC were highly contested and allowed the outgoing governments to retain power in these countries. In 2016, the ballots in Chad and the Congo also turned into a farce, with opponents put under pressure or even imprisoned, as in Brazzaville. The region already has several of the most 'enduring' heads of state on the continent and the planet. In Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang has been in power since 1979, while Paul Biya has governed in Cameroon since 1982, and in 2009 in Gabon, Ali Bongo succeeded his father, Omar Bongo, who had taken the country’s reins in 1967. “One of the reasons is precisely that corruption and the absence of the rule of law allows such abuses, meaning these abuses are the effect rather than the cause. Credible elections are the outcome of states with good governance and not the starting point,” says Nathalie Delapalme.


Are there historical reasons for this?

This is undoubtedly the simplest explanation. “While almost all of Africa was colonised, Central Africa experienced a degree of colonisation even more brutal and more directly exploitative than elsewhere because it is a rich area,” highlights Gilles Yabi, Director of the Senegalese think tank WATHI. The history of the future DRC is, in and of itself, an example of this. From 1885 to 1908, the country was called the Independent State of the Congo, but it was no more than the personal property of the King of Belgium, Léopold II – a completely unique situation. During this time, Léopold II turned this 'garden into a vast labour camp that produced immense wealth. In the Congo and the Central African Republic, France had largely delegated its power to private companies that abused forced labour to mine their concessions. In figures, between 1850 and 1920, the population of the Central African Republic decreased by one third. This purely predatory vision led these countries to be underdeveloped and ill-equipped by the time they achieved independence. For example, the DRC had only a few hundred graduates in 1960. Their mining resources also shaped the post-colonial years. “Western States could just about tolerate hostile leaders in some countries, but not in those that controlled materials that were considered strategic,” Gilles Yabi explains. These interferences and this historical background continue to influence economic behaviour. “Years of exploitation have resulted in an economic system that, today, still reflects that which prevailed in the colonial era,” says Gérard Gérold.