Goverance and the Human Rights Challenge in Africa

Last week I attended an African regional dialogue at the Pan-African Parliament in Midrand, Gauteng, to discuss the “Post-2015 Development Framework”, a pseudonym for the vision of development after the expiration of targets for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Considering the discussion centred on governance in Africa, subsequent thoughts on the meeting have been in turn determined by the failure of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to award its annual prize for governance in Africa to any leaders. This is the third time in its six year history that the prize has not had a winner.

Sitting in the parliamentary chambers, listening to both African MPs and civil society discuss their thoughts and experiences of governance and the MDGs in their respective countries, it struck me that very few people attending had a reliable, broad and inclusive idea of the many development and governance-related challenges faced by Africa as a continent, or if they did, few were willing to speak critically of their own governance weaknesses. But this is to be expected due to the heterogeneity of the African continent. It is difficult to generalise the African experience and this is what makes defining a universal development trajectory almost impossible. As Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi (UNDP) stated in her speech at the dialogue, development involves and requires complexities.

However, with few exceptions, there was resounding agreement that the democratisation of African states is necessary to drive development. The question though, is whether democratisation is “good governance” and why the facets of this continue to fail in African states; as is indicated by the failure to award the prize. It was generally agreed that there has been some success in the achievement of MDGs. However, the success has been blighted by the failure of the goals to make the changes to peoples’ lives that were hoped for. Widening inequality in developing states is one indication of these inadequacies. Another is how the MDGs are foreshortened or subverted by other issues which may or may not have been taken into account. For instance, as Jay Naidoo so rightly points out, even though we have reached near universal enrolment in basic education, high rates of school dropout leave our children with poor skills and education levels and condemns them to a life of little opportunity; thereby subverting any tangible difference the education-related goals can make.

There was some consensus on those issues, past and current, who threaten the development trajectory of Africa. Time again, the following was mentioned:

  • The use and distribution of natural and financial resources through means which are not transparent or effective;
  • The restlessness and anger of the youth and the large percentage of the population who are youthful and unemployed;
  • An ineffective and corrupt civil service;
  • Unfair and imposed conditionalities on aid;
  • Growing inequalities despite overall positive growth trends;
  • The effects of climate change;
  • Poor education levels leading to lack of basic numeracy and literacy;
  • The on-going and future reduction in donor commitments.

However, a reoccurring theme throughout these discussions was lack of participation. This was in reference to youth, women and the poor in relation to governance, and governments in relations to donors. As Charles Abugre Akelyira (UN Millennium Campaign) said tellingly, when discussing the convergence of the political elite with the economic elite, “We need to contain the powerful so that the weak have space”. A commentator from the audience insisted that the international community is supporting the symbols of corruption by supporting the dictatorships which currently exist in Africa, thereby entrenching the powerlessness of citizens.

How do we open up spaces for participation in Africa? How does the governance framework for post-2015 look and how do states go about overcoming their development challenges? Does development require good governance or does good governance require development? Trends indicated by the Ibrahim Index of African Governance are concerning, especially when South Africa’s governance rating seems to have declined and stagnated at 71/100, with reductions in Safety & Rule of Law and Participation & Human Rights. As one of the more developed states in Africa, and in light of the fact that our Constitution is considered one of the most progressive in the world, the declining rating on human rights is particularly disconcerting.

The representative of the UN High Commission on Human Rights, Marco Kalbusch, gave a strong case for the importance of human rights and democracy in sustainable governance. However, his referral to human rights made me consider how poorly Africa seems to be doing in this regard. Although human rights principles include universality, indivisibility, equality and non-discrimination, accountability and the rule of law and participation, even in the more advanced democratic and constitutionally-driven countries in Africa, the commitment to human rights holds few of these principles. In fact, I would even suggest that Africa’s commitment to human rights is inconsistent and at times, invisible.

This is just one challenge to both governance and development. Development is about people; it is about giving people access to benefits of development and the ability to participate actively and without fear in their social, economic and political worlds. This requires a commitment to socio-economic rights and development processes; including the continued commitment to the MDGs, despite their imminent expiry date.

For the future, it is important that the facets of good governance are part of the development agenda. These facets can include: free, impartial and fair elections, people’s development, commitment to rule of law, political freedom and non-discrimination; to name a few. This should also include a commitment to human rights. In fact, it may be important to have this commitment as a separate one, divorced from its dependency on governance, but a requirement free and off itself.

More importantly, it is not about some human rights for some, but all human rights for all. It concerns me that there is no universality of human rights within Africa, that gender disparities are deeply entrenched, that xenophobia is enhanced and supported through discriminatory laws, that children are still recruited as soldiers and that homosexuals still face prison sentences. There is no justification for these continued discrepancies and it is time that Africa starts to seek a common human rights agenda. Without it, the governance index in Africa will continue to decline and development will continue to disappoint.

By: Claire Martens

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the Realising Rights bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Legal Resources Centre. The Legal Resources Centre is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the bloggers.


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The Legal Resources Centre is a public interest law clinic established in South Africa in 1979

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