Peer Review ‘Inquest’ Criticises Process and SA

Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith
Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith

STRONG CRITICISM of the methods used by South Africa in implementing the African Union's Peer Review Mechanism processes as part of the ambitious Nepad (New Partnership for Africa's Democracy) initiative was voiced at a workshop which discussed the "lessons learned" during the APRM reviews of the first four countries.

The workshop, conducted by the South African Institute of International Affairs, one of the technical research organisations engaged by the SA government for the country’s APRM process, at Muldersdrift near Johannesburg in September.

It was attended by members of civil society, participants in the process and researchers from several African countries, the Netherlands and Canada. It was the first independent “inquest” into the APRM process.

The discussions dealt with the self-assessments conducted in Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa and participants were asked to give their views on the procedures adopted and other features of the process.

There was overwhelming rejection of the concept of government controlling the self-assessment process through the so-called national governing council (NGC), which each country undergoing APRM sets up to carry out the country’s self-assessment of the four theme areas. The four areas are democracy and good political governance, economic management and governance, socio-economic development and corporate governance. Instead, the participants favoured civil society taking charge and chairing the NGC.

This occurred in Ghana where the government played a low-profile role. SA’s Administration and Public Service Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi chaired South Africa’s national governing council.The participants also rejected by a large majority the practice where support staff for the operation was recruited from government service and their activities related to the country self-assessment carried out in government offices, as occurred in SA.The SA government appointed the members of its NGC but workshop participants said civil society representatives should be elected to this body.Topping the list of desirable attributes for members of the NGC were “demonstrated independence”, “non-partisanship” and “personal integrity”. “Patriotism”, “loyalty to the ruling party” and “gender/regional/ethnic balance” were given low ratings.There was also strong criticism of the content of the questionnaire which is handed to countries when they volunteer to undergo APRM.

The questionnaire was described as being too long, not user-friendly and requiring restructuring. There was overwhelming support (94%) for the inclusion of questions relating to a country’s promotion of freedom of the media and freedom of information issues to be included in the questionnaire. The current questionnaire has no specific questions related to a country being required to promote free media, ready access to information and freedom of expression and dissemination of information.The participants also called for a specific review of the laws, budgets and staffing of governments and an examination of corruption and crime. They voted strongly for mechanisms to be established to build trust in the process and cited as a prime requirement a neutral, well-respected chairperson of the NGC.

Priority was given to transparency in appointing NGC members and consultation especially with civil society on the processes to be adopted in a country’s self-assessment procedures. There were also requests for wide dissemination of information to the public about the APRM process. The involvement of non-government research bodies in the process was also rated important. The workshop made an assessment of the actual conduct of the APRM structures dealing with a country. A medium, or adequate, rating was accorded the APRM continental secretariat in most of its operations and a similar rating accorded the country support mission (composed of an eminent person at the head of a team from the secretariat), which reviews the country’s self-assessment and introduces its own findings.

Despite the extensive civil society criticism of the writing of the self assessment report by South African government writers — accused of “sanitising” the report — most participants gave it an adequate rating.

Interference with researchers came under the spotlight when a South African academic who did research in Rwanda complained of the attempts to influence his research and findings. The rating given to an overall assessment of the APRM process, taking into account such features as its competence, credibility, independence, consistency, inclusivity, transformation (in terms of changes to political discourse and climate) and transparency and publicity was revealing. The scores were 129 votes for “adequate” as against 123 for “very poor/poorly” and 76 for “well/excellently”. Altogether 37 people took part, with 12 from South Africa, 4 (Ghana), 3 each (Kenya and Lesotho), 2 each (Tanzania, Zambia and Rwanda) and 1 each (Mozambique, Malawi, Mauritius and Senegal). Some did not cite their origins. It was a bold enterprise to conduct an inquest on the APRM after four countries had gone through the process — though actual peer review by the heads of state has not yet occurred for any of the four.

SOUTHERN AFRICA REPORT has learned that several attempts were made, presumably from SA government departments, to try to prevent or, at least neutralise, the exercise. The intention was to gauge the effectiveness of the APRM process, to provide an independent record of structures, practices and experiences — which vary from country to country — with the dual purpose of assessing the credibility of the process and providing information on how to improve and optimise the process for other countries about to undergo assessment.Another important objective was to try to persuade the African Union and its APRM structures to take note of the criticisms, upgrade the questionnaire and improve the processes to raise the overall standard and credibility of peer review.

The request for a question relating to the promotion of media in a country to be included in the questionnaire is important because local and international media groups have for years criticised the APRM for failing to do so. Media organisations say a country that does not have a legal framework providing for a free and independent media cannot be said to be practising “good governance” and democracy and therefore should not receive a favourable assessment.When the questionnaire was initially formulated in 2002/3 questions covering the media issue were included. But these were summarily removed without explanation shortly before the contents of the questionnaire were made public which suggests that the founding fathers of APRM recognised the restrictions on the media in many African countries which would in consequence not attain a “good governance” rating.

Edited by Raymond Louw
6 October 2006, Southern Africa Report, Vol 24 No 40