Urhobo Historical Society

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Democracy and the Challenge of Good Governance in Africa

By Rt Hon Raila A Odinga, Prime Minister of the Republic of Kenya

Full text of the lecture by Prime Minister of the Republic of Kenya, Rt Hon Raila A Odinga at the 25th Anniversary of The Guardian in Lagos, Nigeria, Friday October 11, 2008

OFTEN, people talk about democracy in Africa as if it is a foreign process, strange and exotic to our customs, and an import that has proved a singularly bad fit for the form it must clothe.

It should not be so. Democracy in Africa has powerful roots in our continent, as a study of African history will show. The problem has perhaps been trying to make a uniform to suit all the 53 countries of Africa, a uniform that at the same time will accord with international expectations. One of Africa's challenges is to embrace the inherent democratic values of our different cultures, and to adapt them to suit both national circumstances and today's global interdependency.

It is not that we in Africa wish to be judged by standards different from those applied elsewhere in the world. No. That is the kind of dismissive patronage we need to leave behind us. The intrinsic values of democracy and good governance, and aspirations towards that condition, are universal. Ninety per cent of Africans say they want to live in a democracy, and this year, we have shown in Kenya, and Zimbabweans have also demonstrated, that Africans are now more determined than ever before to have their say in governance.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, most of the remaining single-party dictatorships and one-man military regimes in Africa have crumbled and given way to emergent multi-party systems. There is an intense focus on replacing bad governance with good, and on the reform of political, economic, social and legal structures. There has been significant progress, but the way ahead is potholed with challenges.

Africa is a continent of huge contrasts, and it is a paradox that it is the richest in terms of resources, and yet the poorest in terms of living standards. One of the main causes of Africa's condition today is that it has been a victim of the self-interest of its exploiters. The richest nations throughout history have used and abused our continent to fuel their own economies, extracting and benefiting from our raw materials and in the process hindering our development and entrenching poverty. This history led former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to remark that conditions in Africa were "a scar on the conscience of the world".

Each year, nearly 15 million people die in Africa from causes that have their roots in poverty. To heal that scar requires sound, selfless and moral political leadership. At independence, we knew we could not rewrite the past, but we knew we could make a bold commitment to changing the future. We needed inspirational and visionary leadership that would perform effectively and deliver for the people.

Some of our independence leaders had such vision. Unfortunately, most of these heroes were swept aside, as the second group of exploiters of our people and our wealth took over. That group has consisted of the majority of our national leaders since the colonial 'masters' quit our continent. Instead of ensuring state and individual security, a functioning rule of law, education, health, and an economic framework conducive to trade, growth and prosperity, they in many cases have entrenched despotic power to pursue personal enrichment. It is a sad fact that most of our people are too young to have known anything else.

A recent and current example of someone who has dragged our continent's name through the mud yet again is Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. We were thrilled when Mugabe took power as Zimbabwe gained its independence, but he has turned out to be a grotesque parody of a leader. He became a brutal dictator, whose contempt for democracy he openly expressed when he said: "We are not going to give up our country for a mere X on a ballot. How can a ballpoint pen fight the gun?" These are chilling words uttered by a national leader in a continent struggling to entrench democratic ideals.

The African Union has also fallen short, failing to condemn brutal regimes and sham elections, including the second round in Zimbabwe earlier this year. But we should not be surprised at the AU's failure to stand up for democracy. Many of our national leaders have skeletons rattling loudly in their cupboards. Their personal misdeeds bond these leaders in a diabolical conspiracy of silence and complicity, in refusal to condemn their neighbours for fear of the spotlight falling upon themselves.

But I am energised by real evidence that the people of Africa have undergone an attitudinal change towards any leadership that fails to meet their expectations. They are calling leaders to account. In the past four years alone, there have been more than 50 democratic elections in Africa, and more than two-thirds of sub-Saharan African nations live in freedom. This is the first exciting step on the way to achieving the kind of leadership that can sustain democracy and bring prosperity to our continent.

Genuine democracy is about freedom of choice, a universal concept that is meaningless without free and fair elections where the people can choose those who will govern them, and also dismiss those who have failed them. No democracy exists where respect for the will of the people is absent.

Genuine democracy is also about freedom of expression and association, under which people can form themselves into likeminded groups and seek political power. It is about the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, without which none of the other freedoms can be secured.

Most importantly, genuine democracy is about transparency and accountability in government. Corruption has been and remains the major scourge preventing economic growth and stability in our nations. It is a barrier to national development, to infrastructural growth, to trade and investment and to the moral authority without which leadership is a dead duck.

Corruption is a close relative of ethnicity, the enemy of national unity. While each of us is rightly proud of our origins, our traditions, the stories of the ancients told by our griots, and the security and warmth of a shared cultural identity, the time has come when we must turn our backs on negative ethnicity, the kind that has been used to destroy our fellow countrymen and women.

Most of the countries in Africa are multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-cultural and multi-religious. That is not going to change. But if we fail to use this diversity as a force for good, welcoming and blending the positive aspects of our differences into a richer whole, we shall fail in our quest to embrace and uphold democratic ideals.

While celebrating our diversity, therefore, we must take bold steps to proscribe the kind of ethnic politics that have been so destructive in the past. In Kenya this year, we went to the brink and stared into the abyss. None of us wants to revisit that place. Thanks to the wisdom and commitment of fellow Africans, including Dr Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, President John Kufuor of Ghana, President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa and Lady Graca Machel of South Africa, we were able to confront our stark situation head-on. Thanks to rapprochement between President Mwai Kibaki and myself, under which we were able to make the sometimes painful decisions that were needed, we were able to reclaim our national sanity.

Things in Kenya might not be perfect, but momentous change takes time. President Kibaki and I are determined to provide firm leadership and to build sustainable democratic institutions to enshrine justice, equity and accountability. We have embarked on a process of institutional transformation in our society to give Kenyans what is long overdue - a new Constitution and far-reaching judicial reforms.

We have agreed to work together to create a conducive environment for national cohesion and economic prosperity, taking steps to leave behind the corrupt past and to create a new, inclusive Kenya. In particular, we are moving to tackle old grievances that have never been addressed and which have proved inimical to the entrenchment of democratic ideals.

An African proverb says, "Tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today". That is what we are doing, and it is a concept all of us in Africa must embrace. Without it, we will never take our rightful place in the world fraternity of nations - for we are part of an inescapable global interdependency, and many of the decisions we make and paths we choose to follow will be informed by our role in this world community.

African leaders made a good start in forming the New Partnership for Africa's Development, Nepad, in 2001. This programme of action for the redevelopment of the African continent addresses key social, economic and political priorities in a coherent manner. It is part of an African solution to African problems, and an expression of commitment by African leaders to the people of Africa, and to the international community. Essentially, it is our vehicle to drive a new partnership between our continent and the rest of the world.

I have come to Lagos direct from France, where I have been attending the World Policy Conference, hosted by the French Institute of International Relations. I told my fellow conference participants, comprising heads of state and government from all over the world, that the old order of aid and dependency has perpetuated under-development in Africa, resulting in debt portfolios that represent merely resources that have been diverted into personal wealth, leaving the common man and woman with nothing to show for this massive influx of international wealth.

I told them that the Millennium Development Goals established by the international community were but benchmarks that we in Africa must use to encourage efforts towards the achievement of greater national visions. MDGs alone will not eliminate poverty in Africa, nor will they ensure equity in resource allocation within our countries. These goals will only be achieved with good governance and sound economic policies formulated in the national interest and implemented in a non-partisan, equitable manner.

We need the developed world and they need us. We need significant private investment, and they need a strong and prosperous Africa to be a good and dependable partner in the international trading community. We in Africa must shoulder our share of the responsibility in aiming for the UN's "global partnership of equals". We shall not achieve this lofty ideal without the groundwork and sound construction materials required to build a solid edifice that can stand the test of time.

That groundwork can only lie in a bold determination to commit long-term to good governance and leadership on our continent, building development-oriented solutions for our myriad problems, and embracing true humanitarianism in our democratic revolution. It is a vital step for all of us, whether we are Kenyan, Nigerian, Zimbabwean, South African or a citizen of any other country on this great continent.

Terrible to recount, this has been a continent where our own people have visited on their brethren great wrongs and injustices. But this is our defining moment. We must seize it and never let it go. We have the power, we have the opportunity. We can change our world.

Our only enemy is inaction - otherwise, everything is possible. We must confront our demons, raise our heads proudly, shoulder the burden and go the extra mile. We must make democratic change - and all that this entails - not just possible, but a reality.

Thank you.