Monthly Archives: August 2014

Rethinking Africa’s “democratic” structures

By Rafiq Raji

The economists africa lawmakers

“In promoting elections the rich, liberal democracies have basically missed the point. We want to make the bottom billion look like us, but we forget how we got to where we now are. We did not do it in a single leap: dictatorship to liberal democracy. We have been unrealistic in expecting that these societies could in one step make a transition that historically has been made in several distinct steps” (Collier, 2010:49).

Paul Collier’s argument strikes a chord[1]. The term he coined to make his point was “demoCRAZY” (uppercase emphasis mine). DemoCRAZY, that is what Africa’s current “democratic” structures really engender. Poor countries cannot afford to have elections every four years. The opportunity costs are roads, hospitals and schools not built. Of course, that assumes they were going to be built in the first place. What, with all those perks of executive office? Lee Kwan Yew, the fabled father of modern-Singapore, writes in his autobiography how surprised other third-world heads of state were when they found out he flew commercial. But it made sense didn’t it? Try telling that to the presidents of some African countries. A president with no presidential jet? Now, that would be an anomaly in Africaland, wouldn’t it? I can imagine the reply of the African president to be as follows: “You want me to be the butt of jokes by other African heads of state?” In copying the American republican system, African countries did not take into consideration the wide wealth and experiential gaps between that country and the continent. Do African democraz(ies) really need bicameral legislatures? This is then replicated in some cases by as much as 30 times in tiny enclaves called states. The system is prohibitively expensive and its toll on the finances of African governments is tremendous. African countries are hemorrhaging from salaries, allowances and “security” budgets of its elected officials. The Economist did an insightful report in July 2013 that compared the basic salaries of lawmakers from countries around the world. Four of the top five countries were African: Nigeria (1st), Kenya (2nd), Ghana (3rd), and South Africa (5th). A Nigerian lawmaker earns at least 116 times the country’s 2013 GDP per capita. What about ministers? The Nigerian government appoints at least one minister from each of its 36 states. Since it appoints 2 ministers for each of its 19 ministries, it ends up having at least 38 ministers at any point in time. Each of these ministers has special advisors, special assistants, special assistant to the special assistant, etc. It is wasteful. Between 2005 and 2013, Nigeria’s federal government reports it spent one trillion naira (NGN1tn) on the national legislature. That is more than six billion dollars (USD6bn)!

What are the alternatives? The UK option probably comes close to what one could call a cost-efficient democratic system. There are no duplications. Elected members of parliament get appointed ministers and the party leader becomes Prime Minister. Parliamentary systems have a chequered history in Africa, however, because verbal conflicts tend to mutate into violent altercations, albeit that is not uniquely African. Otherwise, it is perhaps the most ideal “democratic” system for Africa in one’s view. Other alternatives are not without issues as well. China elects its leaders every ten years. The process is rigorous, meritocratic, and cost-efficient. China is not a democracy. If it were, it probably would have broken up into a few countries by now. Democracy buffs might be quick to point out human rights abuses and corruption in China. However, if you were hungry and out in the cold, worrying about “human rights” would be the least of your concerns. Of course, as a country becomes richer and its citizens’ aspirations rise, a desire for the “better” things in life take centre stage. A richer China grapples with that now. In Africa, the Ethiopian system probably comes close to replicating the Chinese model and may be what is ideal within the African context. Yes, it has many flaws. And human rights organizations have accused its authorities of China-type abuses. However, it is the only African “democrazy” that borrows a leaf from all three aforementioned models: the US Republican system, UK parliamentary system and China’s autocratic system. It is still evolving, however, with its first real test on the horizon in early 2015 as Prime Minister Desalegn tries to break way from the larger-than-life image of his predecessor. In any case, third world to second- or first-world successes like Singapore and Malaysia were not really democracies in the English or American sense; at least not during the tenures of the domineering leaders that made them the successes they are today. Why Africa really thinks it can achieve their successes without their pains is a mystery. But then African countries have largely not had the good fortune of benevolent dictatorships.

The argument made here is not for autocracies, benevolent or otherwise. However, it is obvious that Africa’s current democrazies need some tuning before they can become democracies. Some African countries have tried revising their constitutions for exactly some of the reasons earlier mentioned. Since timing of such proposals usually coincided with the sunset periods of incumbent presidents, they were rightly construed as tenure-elongation schemes. That said, these heads of state knew their systems were not efficient and suited for even the good-intentioned leader to succeed. Six to seven-year single tenures have been proposed in the current and previous constitutional conferences in Nigeria. I think it should be a ten-year single tenure. And the remainder of the process should be concentrated on ensuring only the best emerge as leaders. And maybe we don’t really need to have that many government ministries. When the current South African government wanted to demonstrate it was taking service delivery in the communications industry seriously, it created a new ministry. Extra bureaucracy, extra costs! There has to be a way to reduce the number of ministers in the cabinets of African countries. The number of national documents every adult citizen needs to have could also be reduced. Is it not possible to have a single document serve as a voter card, national identity card and national passport? It is an option worth exploring. And the number of political parties? Two? Three? I think any number above three is a waste. Bottomline, “democracy” does not have to be another factor impeding Africa’s development.

[1] Paul Collier. Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2009

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What is the status of the EU-Africa EPA?

By Rafiq Raji

eu africa

On 23 June 2014, I attended an event in London hosted by the Financial Times and the Nigerian Customs Service themed “Business in Nigeria: Trade facilitation for Africa’s business hub”. In preparing for my attendance, I looked up Nigeria’s recent trade statistics and doing business indicators. It could be better. Nigeria ranked nine places lower to 147th in the World Bank’s 2014 Doing Business ranking, below the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) average ranking of 142nd. The top three SSA countries were South Africa (41st), Botswana (56th), and Ghana (67th). In terms of ease of getting electricity, ease of registering property, ease of paying taxes, and ease of trading across borders, Nigeria ranks lowest in Africa and in some cases was amongst the bottom five. On the positive side, Nigeria ranked highest in SSA at 13th place on ease of getting credit, higher than South Africa. When the audience was finally allowed to ask questions, I put these facts before the Nigerian officials and wondered if they could explain what happened. As far as they were concerned, the World Bank got it wrong. At least that is what I interpreted their responses to be. Doing business in Nigeria remains profitable in spite of these inefficiencies, however. Investors look at Nigerian success stories in the cement and noodles manufacturing industries and think to themselves: where the heck were our heads all this time? But of course, fans of Nigeria wish it would fix the myriad of problems it has. Trading through the country’s ports can be unnerving and an energy shortfall increase production costs for businesses by as much as 40-50% according to some estimates. The Nigerian authorities’ are certainly committed towards increasing the country’s electricity production capacity. Progress remains slow, however.

However, the question I was really looking to ask at the earlier mentioned event is the title of this article. When asked by another participant, the Nigerian trade and industry minister gave an answer that was truly music to my ears. According to him, Nigeria will not sign an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) that potentially harms its industrial development. That was in June 2014. A month later, heads of state of member countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) endorsed a negotiated EPA that is the words of the communiqué issued, “has taken due account of the technical concerns raised”. The Cotonou Agreement – the EPA in question – is actually a marked improvement from the Lome and Yaounde Conventions. Exports to the EU from African, Carribean and Pacific Countries (ACP) actually declined during the period of the four Lome Conventions which subsisted between 1975 and 2000. However, the Cotonou Agreement had some provisions that were potentially harmful to local industries on the continent. A major issue was import liberalization, as early as 2015, for some African countries. For obvious reasons, some countries raised objections. The argument for some level of protectionism in the early stages of a country’s industrial development is a strong one. The US and EU continue to protect select markets. As ECOWAS has endorsed the Cotonou Agreement and plans to sign it, I wonder if the West African regional bloc was able to secure concessions from the EU in regard of the technical concerns it earlier raised.

Photo credit: Deutsche Welle

New media and prospects for African Writing

By Rafiq Raji

There is no African publishing house amongst the World’s 56 largest book publishers. In the Publishers Weekly 2014 world ranking, the top 5 book publishers are Pearson (UK), Reed Elsevier (UK/NL/US), Thomson-Reuters (US), Wolters Kluwer (NL), and Random House (Germany); all with combined 2013 revenue of c. USD31bn (41% the total revenue for the top 56 of USD75bn). We need more published African writers. The World would be greatly served if it had more published African writers. If you take a trip around mainstream bookshops in the developed world, you’d be hard-pressed to find an array of African literary works. There is still a relatively small share of mind of African literature amongst readers around the world. African writing must, however, first gain resonance with its indigenous readership before potentially having global appeal. That is as yet not the case. Low literacy and wealth levels in Africa are constraints. African governments are also not particularly known to be fond of the arts; at least not the type that doesn’t glorify them. Incidentally, genuine African writing is likely to be critical of the continent’s ruling class and thus its writers are often at crossroads with their compatriot big men and women. With the exception of South Africa, most African cultural institutions are either dilapidated or in poor shape. As a result, proximity to the Western literary intelligentsia remains crucial for the African writer who aspires to global acclaim.

World publishing

Fundamentally, a writer seeks an audience and any individual can build such an audience via social media. Thus, new media provide an opportunity to democratize publishing and offer good prospects for African writing. Mobile cellular telephone subscription in African countries is growing (68.1 per 100 inhabitants) but varies widely between countries.[1] Africa still has the World’s lowest penetration on Facebook at 4.7%.[2] And many in Africa and around the World still love the feel of a printed book. A reliable power supply source is also needed to keep mobile devices’ batteries charged. That said, more books would increasingly be read via new media with the hardware of choice being mobile devices. As the barrier to entry into new media publishing is low, competition for readers would be very high. Thus, new media is not likely to change the value chain of the publishing industry. What would likely change instead are as follows. Current publishing giants would either buy up new media platforms, create their own or simply be taken off their game by social media companies. The new power brokers in the publishing world would likely thus be social media giants like Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. A real challenge though would be how to create a sustainable business model that rewards both writers and owners of these platforms.

[1] 2013 Ibrahim Forum Facts & Figures

[2] 2012 Ibrahim Forum Facts & Figures