OPINION: Good governance is the lynchpin for African progress

by Abdoulie Janneh | Mo Ibrahim Foundation
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 06:00 GMT

Residents stand in front of a graffiti by Mathare Roots's youth group advocating against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the Mathare Valley slum, in Nairobi, Kenya April 19, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the face of COVID-19 and climate threats, African cannot afford business as usual

Abdoulie Janneh is executive director of the the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, and a former United Nations Under-Secretary-General at the Economic Commission for Africa.

COVID-19 has joined the climate emergency at a time when Africa is facing what Mo Ibrahim calls “a crisis in leadership and governance.” 

This crisis seems all the worse when we define governance as the delivery of goods and services that citizens legitimately expect their governments to deliver. Citizen’s expectations relate to the promotion and support of human rights and participation, safety and rule of law, socio-economic opportunities and human development.

In view of the very mixed progress made so far in meeting these entirely reasonable expectations, the permanent question is how to apply Africa’s abundant wealth in natural and human resources  especially its women and youth  towards rapid recovery and sustainable development. 

Good governance is the obvious answer. It is the lynchpin for harnessing our assets, strengthening institutions, ensuring the rule of law and practicing leadership by example at all levels.

Africa does not lack visions and plans for socio-economic development. What has been missing is the consistent, high-quality leadership that improves and implements those plans. 

With the pandemic and climate emergencies demanding urgent action, Africa’s recovery demands systematic planning along with efficient and consistent execution. Greater domestic and external resource mobilisation and better coordinated and more coherent resource allocation will boost economic opportunities, create decent jobs and promote self-reliance.   

Africa cannot afford business as usual. The pandemic and climate change represent a convergence of huge external and internal pressures that require urgent and clear-sighted policy responses.

At global level, the emergencies are devastating entire economic sectors and supply chains and disrupting relationships among nations and regional groupings. 

Amidst the turbulence and uncertainties, there is some consensus that traditional economic models have to change, and that a green transition is inevitable. This is reflected in the European Union’s Green Deal targets for a carbon-neutral economy by 2050 which could harm African economies that depend on fossil fuels for export revenue and domestic energy. 

Internally, Africa already had its perennial challenges of improving resource governance, diversifying economic production and boosting workforce skills. We are now in dire need of ingenuity and innovation because of reduced external demand for our vital exports and the threat of new taxes and tariffs in response to climate issues at international level.

Africa must work hard and fast to combine its energy resources to progress towards green industrialisation and a low-carbon economy. Only high-quality governance will ensure that we become better able to use our fossil and renewable energy to power our economies, increase investment in human development and create decent jobs.

This investment is particularly vital. Beyond the substantial contributions of oil, gas and hydropower, Africa’s solar power potential runs to a world high of 10 trillion watts while about half the continent’s people currently have no access to any electricity.

Adding to this, Africa’s soil contains a significant proportion of the minerals needed for the low-carbon technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). In a few decades’ time, Africa will also have the world’s largest and most youthful labour force. This youth bulge promises either a demographic dividend or a time-bomb, depending on the quality of governance.

Africa’s leaders will have to eliminate the wholesale export of these vital natural resources, build the industries and services for local processing, transformation and distribution, and grow a young workforce with appropriate skills for the new, digitized world of work.  

However, there are worrying trends in key human development areas such as education and health where gains in access do not always come with better quality of content and service delivery. There is also a shortage of the reliable socio-economic data required for sound planning.

Mo Ibrahim has described data as “an essential foundation for effective policy making and resource mobilisation. Without data, we drive blind.”    

In this time of multifaceted crisis, Africa needs clear vision, strong principles and unflagging determination. We have Agenda 2063, the Sustainable Development Goals and many action plans and programmes. Effective implementation will occur only when best practices can be applied in all domains without fear or favour and within an environment of peace, security and the rule of law.

These optimal conditions all favour human development, which is the essential factor in socio-economic progress. Perhaps the single most important investment that African countries can make is in developing our people.

There should be an explicit focus on empowering women and youth through greater financial inclusion and more effective per capita spending on health and education. Particularly important is investing in widespread and upgraded technical and vocational education and training for the higher skilled workforce Africa already needs for the increasingly automated world of work.   

Challenged and vulnerable but also rich and strong, Africa must move forward with confidence. It must boost economic activity within and between countries and sub-regions while preparing to seize the vast opportunities in the African Continental Free Trade Area.

COVID-19 and the climate crisis are aggravating our weaknesses and threatening foreseeable and highly adverse consequences. Africa must align appropriate short-term measures with ambitious long-term vision. We must strengthen partnerships and prioritize sustainability and resilience, particularly in the immediate context of the European Union Green Deal.

Only better governance will fulfil the legitimate aspirations of Africa’s people for a better life. 

This is part of a series produced for the United Nations University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (UNU-INRA) and the German Economic Cooperation and Development ministry on green transformation post COVID-19. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the institutions involved in the project.