Moving beyond Africa’s crisis of institutions

Photo © Philip Schuler / World Bank
An anti-corruption sign in Namibia. In many African countries, state institutions have been weakened and misused for personal wealth accumulation – but lessons for success also exist.

Since independence, most African states have struggled to develop effective institutions that are responsive to the governance and development needs of their respective societies.

This challenge is reflected not only in the prevalence of social and political strife in many African countries, but also in the poor socio-economic performance of the continent as a whole. The same could be said of the slow progress towards greater regional and continental integration, which, to a large extent is symptomatic of a weak institutional culture across the continent.

As systems of established rules and norms that structure social interactions, institutions are central to addressing the sort of collective action problems that are implied in efforts towards economic development and social progress. Institutions structure behaviour and promote social order and trust, which in turn facilitate co-operation for social and economic progress. The exceptionally diverse character of most African states makes the development of viable institutions all the more important. Institutions in this context become very critical for managing and harnessing this rich diversity in the interest of social progress.

Read the new paper this article is based on, Moving Beyond Africa’s Crisis of Institutions.

However, in many African countries the basic institutions that are supposed to structure and regulate socio-political and economic activities are generally weak or, in some instances, in a dysfunctional state. There is no gainsaying that the wave of political liberalisation that swept across the continent in the 1990s, and the corresponding demand for governance reforms, created conditions for the emergence of relatively functional institutions in a number of African countries.

As the continent ushered in the new millennium, there was equally a bold effort under the guidance of visionary African leaders such as the former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, to revitalise and strengthen the institutional framework for regional and continental co-operation.

However, while there are indeed pockets of institutional effectiveness across the continent, the quality and performance of most of Africa’s domestic, regional and continental institutions today leave much to be desired.

At the heart of this institutional weakness is the enduring tension between formal institutional frameworks on the one hand and pervasive informal rules and norms on the other hand. As a function of its weak capacity and legitimacy, the post-colonial African state resorted to internalising neo-patrimonialism as its dominant institutional logic. Neo-patrimonialism combines rational-legal authority and patrimonial rule to produce a system of governance that is characterised by patronage, clientelism and a significant blurring of the line between the public and private sectors. As the governance experiences in countries such as Zimbabwe and Cameroon reveal, neo-patrimonial policies have become the preferred political strategy used by the ruling elite to secure support for the state by entering into informal alliances with dominant social forces, albeit at the expense of formal state institutions, which are turned into resources to maintain extensive clientelistic networks.

The preoccupation of African leaders with holding onto a state structure that has limited capacity and legitimacy also largely accounts for the weakness of regional and continental institutions. Against this backdrop, the profession of new norms and values, and the design of new pan-African institutions such as the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), has had to contend with an enduring inter-state politics of elite solidarity, which strives on the logic of preserving and perfecting colonial-era designs in the interest of consolidating the power and privileges of the ruling elite.

Across Africa, the institutional pattern associated with neo-patrimonial politics has in varying degrees been reproduced and reinforced by the deteriorating state capacity in many African countries, which, among other things, works against the effective implementation and enforcement of official rules. What is more, in many African countries where the private sector remains largely underdeveloped and there are few economic opportunities outside of the public sector, state institutions have often been abused and misused for personal wealth accumulation. Such institutional subversion has found fertile ground in African societies with a dearth of ethical political leadership and a disillusioned citizenry that is largely disengaged from the political process.

The example of Botswana, an African country with a history of relatively strong institutions, holds significant lessons for successful processes of institutional building in the wider African context.

First, strengthening the institutions of governance in Africa requires strong incentive structures that bind the economic interests of different groups in a given polity to the institution-building project. This will not only raise the cost for any one group to attempt to destabilise the institutional set-up but also discourage predatory tendencies against the state and its institutions, thereby engendering a positive environment that is conducive for building state capacity.

Second, efforts towards greater institutional stability would benefit from measures designed to strengthen the legitimacy and accountability of the state by embedding it within the wider society.

Perhaps most importantly, the Botswana experience underscores the importance of committed and visionary leaders at all levels of society who can act as institutional entrepreneurs to champion the creation and implementation of good institutions.

Dr Fritz Nganje is a postdoctoral research fellow and fellow with the South African Research Chair in African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at the University of Johannesburg. This article was first published in the African Independent, and is based on his recent SAIIA Occasional Paper, Moving Beyond Africa’s Crisis of Institutions.

5 Nov 2015