The question is, “Are we on our way? If so, when do we intend to arrive? When will we know that we have reached our destination?"
Development in Africa will mean significant improvement of our economies, propelling more African countries into the middle-income arena and qualifying them to join the league of the ‘Asian Tigers’, - eg, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.
It is tempting to say: “Just let us build and improve our infrastructure, raise the literacy rate to 90% and attain the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). After all, we are blessed with so many natural resources, and we keep discovering more."
But, we have had these resources for years and not much has changed. Some individuals have become very wealthy, but we have increased poverty, poor sanitation, inadequate health provision, a declining education system, and many other woes affecting the majority of our population.
One could argue that these were the result of military and civilian autocratic, dictatorial regimes. We are now a democracy with Western-style voting, so we expect the rule of law to prevail and allow us to tackle the mounting concerns. We are seeing evidence of political stability. We could join the Asian Tigers in no time...
Western democracies have evolved over centuries and they still face challenges. Most have been addressed by building strong governance institutions which effectively contribute to deepening democracy and economic development in most Western countries. Africa’s starting point has been the drafting and acceptance of constitutions, and implementing voting systems to select the leaders who must move us forward.
The leaders of the parties who win the elections become the leaders of their countries. The major challenges that have yet to be addressed successfully are the process of choosing party representatives, followed by the methods of campaigning.
Because of the high rate of illiteracy and lack of sophistication amongst the majority of voters, little attention is paid to the capacity of candidates to address national issues or demonstrate a vision of how they intend to govern. Voting is largely based on parties’ ability to influence citizens through gifts or money (vote buying), ethnic/tribal affiliations, expensive and impressive billboards and well-motivated ‘foot-soldiers’ who are promised future jobs and monetary rewards.
Political parties and their candidates, therefore, need a lot of money to win elections in most African countries. In Africa, a candidate should expect to pay for the vote, and not receive monetary assistance from the voter.
The challenge then becomes funding. This is when individual business people begin to finance election campaigns in the hope that their candidate wins so they can recover the money.
The process of repaying investors after winning the elections invariably results in corruption. Deals and contracts benefiting the ‘investor’ must be executed to raise the needed funds. Public servants with inadequate salaries then join the elected politicians, and the national coffers ultimately suffer. The institutions created by the Constitution to assist with governance become impotent, as officials become powerless to execute their mandate.
This ultimately ends in poor governance and the dream of improved infrastructure, sanitation and so on steadily fades away as the periods originally allocated for completion are ever lengthened.
A school of thought suggests the current discoveries of natural resources in Africa could be described as its last chance, since they could be exhausted within a decade or two. The rush for these resources from China and others could mean a bleak future for Africa.
This is the time for Africa to redesign its democracy to ensure good governance and show the next generation that Africa’s time has come. The time is now.