Following the launch of the 2020 IIAG, the Foundation’s Now Generation Network (NGN) reflect on findings from the new Citizens’ Voices section of the Index which showcases African citizens perceptions of governance performance.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
Why are citizens’ voices important for ensuring good governance?
As highlighted by the World Bank, good governance can be defined as the manner in which power is exercised in the management of a country’s economic and social resources for development. Good governance presupposes an active role by the citizens in the governance process and that public institutions ought to conduct public affairs in accordance with the aspirations of the citizens. However, citizens’ voices will only be effective if the citizens are civically competent to engage their government.
Civically competent citizens tend to be attentive and this leads to more legitimate and effective governance. This is likely to enhance rule of law, accountability, political stability and government willingness to address corruption. In the case of Africa, this is particularly desired to bring about sustainable stability and increase the prospects for social, economic and political development.
African citizens consider elections to be less free and fair than they were a decade ago. What has led to this change?
The question of whether elections today are less free and fair than they were a decade ago is a matter of public perception. What is however undisputed is that the past decade or so has seen an increasing trend where access to economic opportunity and survival by individuals is extremely hinged on access to and use of political power. This can be traced to a combination of factors namely; the earlier economic restructuring of the 1980s to 1990s and the resultant economic failures, the weak (failed in some case) democratic governance agenda and the rise in corruption and impunity. The combination of these factors has raised the role of politics in influencing individuals’ economic survival and a rise in patronage.
The nature of governance in many African countries is such that those holding political power and those with economic opportunities (including state servants) on one hand, and those aspiring to access power on the other look at political offices as the ultimate. It is a matter of life and death. It hinges on their livelihood survival without which they have no option and so they must protect it at any cost. In effect, this attitude has increasingly rendered political elections a matter of life and death as politics is no longer looked at as an aspect of governance but rather a central means of livelihood and economic survival by the participants. Individual actors and participants are willing to reach any length to either access or preserve political positions, even if it means gross abuse and violation of rules. This is compounded by the rising impunity that is a derivative of entrenched patronage.
How can African governments actively listen to the concerns of their citizens?
This is a rather tricky question. The majority of African governments continue to have large democracy deficits, and many remain key perpetuators of bad governance. Ideally, citizens express their concerns through their representatives at local, regional and national levels (national, regional and local parliaments). It is ideal and important that governments take a proactive role in ensuring the independence and robustness of these institutions.
Secondly, African governments need to reflect and commit to free and fair processes through which leaders and representatives come into office. This includes ensuring competent and independent electoral bodies as well as related, security and law and order agencies.
Finally, but perhaps even most importantly; governments need to deliberately promote civic awareness for their citizens directly and otherwise. Directly, governments should build and protect institutions that guarantee freedom of expression and accountability. Indirectly, governments while protecting their countries’ sovereignty must allow free space for civil society to engage with the citizens in order to raise their civic capacities so as to be able to hold their governments accountable. This includes a free and proactive media that is accountable to the citizens.
What role can civil society play in advocating for citizens’ participation, rights and inclusion?
Civil society can support local civic awareness programs such as sensitisations through different platforms. They can also strengthen existing organisations including religious institutions to make them platforms for social justice and civic awareness. But most importantly, given their power and influence, civil society organisations should join hands and come up with a unified but strong platform to engage governments on matters of citizens’ participation in governance.