Image: Flickr, waf1on1

Last week, the government unveiled some of its plans for its self-assessment required by the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM).

The plan contains a commendable blizzard of public communications and consultation – everything from SMS messages to adverts on ATM receipts for 90 provincial conferences – but it risks setting a dangerous precedent that less commendable governments will be able to use to sub-vert the great potential value of APRM.

To participate, it is vital that South African civil society comprehends the complexity of APRM, how it has unfolded in other countries and the special nature of South Africa’s status on the continent.

Without question, APRM is the most innovative and important idea to grow out of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad). It is an undertaking by African countries to thoroughly review their existing political, economic, corporate and socio-economic governance systems and to implement solutions to the identified shortcomings.

But whether it succeeds will depend on how effectively it is led and managed, how committed governments are to engaging in meaningful self-reflection and the nature and extent of civil society involvement in writing a national self-assessment, which is the first step of each review.

The APRM urges participating countries not merely to involve civil society in public meetings but also to turn the management of that self-assessment over to a respected, independent civil society-led panel.

At first glance, the South African plan would appear to comply, but a closer examination raises concerns that other governments could severely abuse the same formula. Because South Africa is seen as a chief proponent of good governance and APRM, its process will be interpreted as the gold standard. It will make it easier for countries such as Angola, Cameroon and Gabon, all APRM countries where corruption and patrimonialism form a dangerously undemocratic stew, to claim that they are merely following South Africa’s guidance.

At a press conference, the Minister of Public Services, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, was asked several times what processes would be followed to put civil society members on the Governing Council, what proportion of the council would be civil society, and what powers they would really have to control the drafting of the national APRM report. But she declined to give details.

While the minister has a good track record as a reformer, she does not seem to have anticipated the size of the task. The present plan is grossly inadequate. There is not remotely enough time to conduct a proper analysis and take on board what thousands of citizens have to say.

Consider that it frequently takes South Africa months or years to gather input and analyse problems in a single government white paper. APRM requires the country to make a thoughtful assessment of all its systems of governance. Yet the government intends to complete this vast amount of analysis in less than two months. The other countries to have undertaken APRM have taken more than a year to do so.

When Rwanda planned a similar government-dominated council, the APRM Secretariat advised it to create a 10-member council with only two to three seats for government. Kenya allowed civil society to elect members to its council, while Ghana created a seven-member body of civil society that was allowed to manage the entire APRM process without government interference. Indeed, Ghana commissioned four independent think tanks to prepare reports on each of the four areas of governance examined by the APRM. These were then subjected to additional public comment and debate.

Like any special investigative commission, the choice of who sits on the body is always contentious but absolutely vital to the perceived credibility of the final conclusions. It is thus crucial to allow ample time for the public to absorb the details of the process and choose members who are seen to be credible, well-informed and non-partisan.

The minister said she did not think the Ghana process was appropriate and, crucially, noted that the report would be written and edited in her department. She promised that it would reflect the full range of public comment. Would anyone believe the findings of a report so assembled by a minister in Angola?

The South African Institute for International Affairs has worked extensively on APRM and followed the experiences of civil society in all the early countries. It is clear that all the participating governments are greatly tempted to control the process, to name friends to the civil society panels, and to try to ensure a favourable report by controlling the editing process.

To allow this temptation to go unchallenged would guarantee APRM’s failure in its aim of catalysing a new form of policy discourse in Africa. Succumbing to this government-must-edit temptation renders the process a form of pseudo consultation designed to give the appearance of seeking input while making sure that nothing too damning gets into print.

At her press conference, the minister waved the government’s study of the first 10 years of democracy as if to say, “We have already done the work. All we would have to do is hand this in and we would be done.”

That is a gross oversimplification of the kind of analysis APRM seeks.

The 10-year review, for example, lists government initiatives on corruption but makes no analysis of the efficacy of these solutions. Nor does it assess any of the remaining systemic weaknesses. It says not a word about the lack of regulation of political party financing and how it induces conflicts of interest and corruption. It says nothing about how to stop nepotism; surveys indicating which branches of government are most plagued by corruption; systemic difficulties in prosecuting senior officials; or how the party list system and party solidarity have eviscerated parliament as a check on corruption and executive power.

That is the kind of analysis APRM calls for, not merely a list of the national bragging rights. Admittedly, those are sensitive issues but we will never solve our problems unless we learn to talk about them. For APRM to work, governments must have the courage to let the good and the bad news out. It also requires that opposition parties and the media act in an atmosphere of mutual respect
and use APRM to hold government accountable, but not as a stick to beat it with.

If the government tries to make APRM into a triumphant score card and seeks to retain government control of the process, it will be in violation of the advice given to other countries and will set a very bad precedent for the continent. If government wants real public support, it must cede control of the editing, writing and consultation process to a public panel dominated by civil society. It also must allow the panel ample time to craft its report and consult widely about the report after it is written, not merely before.