Peer Review Under Scrutiny

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

Sparks flew in dusty Addis Ababa, Ethiopia last weekend, as representatives of the 29 member states of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) – the continent’s home-grown governance promotion instrument – gathered for their biannual meeting on the fringes of the African Union (AU) Summit.

Many APRM Focal Points – ministers and other senior officials – raised grave concerns about the transparency, integrity and governance of this innovative experiment.

A particular concern emerged over the criteria and process for selecting the four new members of the APRM’s Panel of Eminent Persons, the key body steering the process. Ghana’s representatives even went to the media to decry “dictatorial” tendencies in APRM leadership. Who are these eminent persons? What is the health of the system that they will steer? And  what do Africa’s citizens expect of them?


The four new Panel members are:

  • Professor Amos Sawyer, former president of Liberia and political scientist;
  • Mr Akere Muna president of the AU’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC), and a lawyer from Cameroon;
  • Ambassador Dr Siteke Mwale, Zambia’s Special Representative to the Great Lakes Region, and former Minister of Foreign Affairs; and
  • Ms Julienne Ondziel-Gnelenga, a Congo-Brazzaville lawyer who served as Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa and on the African Court for Human and People’s Rights. 

They join three incumbents on the seven-member Panel:

  • Ms Domitilia Mukantaganzwa, who headed Rwanda’s gacaca courts;
  • Professor Mouhamed-Seghir Babes, head of the Algerian National Economic and Social Council; and
  • Professor Adebayo Adedeji from Nigeria, long-time head of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and current chairperson of the APRM Panel of Eminent Persons

The APRM was established at the AU’s inaugural Summit in Durban in July 2002. At first closely connected to the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) – which this Summit decided, after years of deliberation, to subsume into the AU – the APRM has forged an independent path. Atypically, it is voluntary, and requires the maturity of leaders to undergo critical self-reflection, scrutiny from their people and examination by their peers. It delves into sensitive processes vital for democratic progress – separation of powers, elections, service delivery, human rights, economic management, corruption, corporate governance, and development. The results are made public. And it requires governments to commit to resolve the problems in a wide-ranging, ambitious National Programme of Action (NPOA).

So, what value has this process added? First, the APRM has defied the sceptics, and moved successfully from concept to concreteness (albeit slowly at times). It has grown into a vibrant, dynamic, multifaceted system – with many actors, institutions and stakeholders – that is more of a living organism than a robotic mechanism. It has survived the political departure of its creators, Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo. The APRM has established its identity; developed rules, institutions and processes; generated funding and political support in Africa and beyond. It has collegially yet publicly tackled thorny issues – such as corruption, presidential dominance and electoral fairness – that few Western leaders would ever contemplate discussing openly.

Second, while it’s not a numbers game, the APRM has continued to attract new countries. 29 of the 53 African states have voluntarily signed on, covering more than three-quarters of Africa’s inhabitants. Although bigger is not always better, the steady growth suggests that countries still see opportunity and value. Countries are not ranked or rated against each other, but compared rather to their own potential. And other regions – notably Latin America – are considering adapting Africa’s experiment to their own context.


Algeria, Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo (Brazzaville), Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, [1] Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, São Tome and Principé, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and Zambia.

Third, the momentum has snowballed. Now a dozen states (Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, Algeria, South Africa, Benin, Uganda, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mozambique and Lesotho) have been through the first cycle of the review. In Addis, the presidents of Uganda and Burkina Faso presented their progress reports, South Africa requested a deferral to June, and Benin could not present as its president was absent.

Fourth, the reports are solid, sober analyses of the critical issues. They provide a comprehensive and candid diagnosis of key governance problems. They predicted the ethnic violence that flared after Kenya’s 2007 elections, and warned about the powder keg of xenophobia in South Africa, which ignited in May 2008 and again last year, although both governments ignored their advice.

Fifth, this process has started to open up political space. Through its novel admixture of peer pressure, diplomacy and dialogue, the process can spark, spur and sustain change. To varying degrees, the APRM has initiated conversations in societies about what’s wrong and how to fix it, often from groups unused to being asked, or listened to. And reforms are slowly taking root.

Many challenges, however, face the incoming Panellists. The acrimony in Addis demonstrates how seriously the APRM community takes its process, and how concerned actors are about the perceived erosion of the core values of transparency, openness and accountability. They have sent a strong signal to the Panel that stakeholders will not allow this process to be compromised for political expediency or personal agendas.

Questions about the restructuring of the continental APRM Secretariat based in Midrand, South Africa – which assume greater significance with the demise of Nepad as we know it – were deftly ducked in Addis. The new Panellists will be asked why. The institution has lacked a CEO since June 2007, and faces tremendous capacity constraints to deal with the demands of countries for help.

The Panel will need to confront the problem that newly-acceded states like tiny Djibouti face: lack of support from the centre. To avoid reinventing the wheel, they are compelled to look to other countries as mentors. They need practical advice on how much the APRM costs and how to raise funds; what a typical marketing plan or sensitisation campaign look like; and the scientific rigour required to conduct governance surveys.

The Panel also faces a bifurcated system. Almost half the members have completed a full review cycle and are starting the next one, while the other half has barely left the starting blocks. This raises questions: Who gets prioritised? How are political blockages removed? How can the NPOAs add value, gain traction and show real results, without duplicating existing development plans? And how can progress be effectively tracked?

Most of the new Panellists come from a civil society background, and have fought for justice, human rights, dignity and development in Africa. They should know how much ordinary people care about making their lives better. But civil society has hitherto been the neglected poor cousin of the APRM, scarcely consulted, often ignored and frequently vilified, especially when they have dared to raise flags about the integrity of the process.

Therefore, the Panellists should understand how much the people of Africa expect from them. They must build on the foundations laid by their predecessors, ensure integrity, rigour and accountability, and acknowledge the legitimacy and concerns of non-state actors who want to contribute to this continental dream. They must prove their eminence through their actions.

But above all, going by the acrimony from Addis, their most important task is to restore faith in the APRM, and make it more than merely “A Public Relations Move.” Otherwise, we all risk losing the investment we have made in this remarkable, powerful phenomenon over the past decade, and will struggle to recapture the support it has generated.


[1] Mauritania remains a member, but was suspended due to a coup in 2008. Cape Verde indicated willingness to join in July 2009, but is yet to formally sign the accession Memorandum of Understanding.

7 Feb 2010