A prominent thread in the conversation about Africa’s development since the end of the Cold War has been the need for good governance. The continent’s resource and economic constraints have posed serious problems but a consensus has emerged that Africa’s success would hinge on getting its policies, institutions and public administration in order. This need for good governance was underscored by the tide of democratisation in the 1990s.
The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) attempted to codify this initiative in the early 2000s. The initiative emerged with unprecedented international backing and the sense that in contrast to previous endeavours, Africa was now serious about dealing with its internal problems and its governance pathologies. However, Africa’s governments remained wary of being put on the spot about their governance practices — and even more so about foreign intervention in their affairs.
The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) attempted to solve these problems. It proposed a broad, non-adversarial examination of governance, to be conducted by a panel of eminent persons — a group of highly respected African personalities whose reputations would lend credibility to the processes — and undertaken with widespread consultation. Subsequently, African states participating in the process would 'review' each state at plenary meetings and offer assistance in governance reform, persuasion, and ultimately sanctions for defiant refusal to address shortcomings. Its goals were defined as follows:
'The primary purpose of the APRM is to foster the adoption of policies, standards and practices that lead to political stability, high economic growth, sustainable development and accelerated sub-regional and continental economic integration through sharing of experiences and reinforcement of successful and best practice, including identifying deficiencies and assessing the needs for capacity building.'
Because it was designed to be about governance, then, the APRM would inevitably become a process that reflected heavily on governments’ performance. The potential for conflict was implicit. How the APRM and those who managed it navigated this problem would be key to its success or failure.
Since its launch in 2003, the APRM has signed up some 35 countries of the AU’s 54. However, of these only 18 have been reviewed, with 17 of these reviews taking place between 2005 and 2013.
A period of relative inactivity followed between 2013 and 2015, largely owing to the lack of a CEO at the body’s continental secretariat, the departure from office of the African statesmen who had initially championed it, and financial problems. With the appointment of a permanent CEO and the review process being revived in Djibouti between 2015 and 2016, it appears to have regained some life.
The APRM has produced a set of highly regarded reports, which have proven to be excellent reference points for understanding the continent’s governance dynamics. In particular, the reports have predicted a number of problems — such as electoral violence in Kenya and xenophobic violence in South Africa. They have also provided a guide for understanding an important but underappreciated issue on the continent, that of corporate governance.
To some degree the APRM has prompted governance reform, but with the exception of Ghana, no country has sought to link its own governance reform to the APRM process. And poor follow- through and financing of APRM national programmes of action have not addressed the identified governance lacunae. It is also unclear to what extent meetings of the heads of state — which were supposed to call recalcitrant countries to order — are in fact performing their peer review function.
Perhaps most worryingly, the APRM has failed thus far to conduct the regular reviews that were envisaged in its design. So far, signatory countries have only undergone initial or 'base reviews', when at least some of them should have completed second and perhaps subsequent reviews.
The APRM offered a quite novel opportunity for civil society and 'non-state actors' to critique their governments; these critiques were supposed to be presented to an oversight body for consideration. It also promised, in principle, that all issues were up for discussion.
In fact, its record here has been mixed. Civil society groups have been able to use the APRM to showcase particular concerns, including the situation of whistleblowers in South Africa and ethnic minority issues in Uganda. While such cases have not received the comprehensive legislative treatment their protagonists wished for, the APRM has proven a platform for civic activism.
But this has not always been the case. The APRM process in Rwanda was heavily government-dominated and reflected the cowed nature of Rwandan society. Indeed, the APRM’s reports on Rwanda and on other more authoritarian participants such as Algeria and Ethiopia have skirted or soft-soaped democratic failings in these countries that are robustly addressed in some of the continent’s more open societies.
When it was introduced, the APRM seemed to offer opportunities for the continent’s civil societies to be involved in driving reform processes and openness across Africa. It has had its greatest impact when conducted within relatively open societies. But it has not gained the kind of political support, continent-wide, that would enable it to push back against Africa’s residual strongmen. This is not to say that it has no utility in such countries, merely that they provide inhospitable environments. Countries such as Angola and Gabon, which have made little progress on being reviewed since their accession, have proven to be particularly tough cases.
The APRM’s capacity to operate as a democratic game-changer and an instrument of accountability within particular AU member countries has also been considerably shaped by the prevailing culture of the country under consideration. And it has suffered from the maladies of many African institutions — among them under-resourcing and the continent’s endemic instability. Some critics have suggested that the APRM’s under-funding, in particular, has been a deliberate attempt to undermine it, given the threat that it might pose to some of Africa’s less open societies.
Indeed, these problems led one commentator, who as a UN agency staff member was well-placed to observe the APRM in action, to write of it as a dream that has been lost:
'APRM is the single most significant event on the continent since independence. It is still a noble idea, still sorely missed. It was the best that came out of Africa, even though it was short-lived. People yearn to return to that, to the confidence to speak openly. If it had been maintained, it would have led to a significantly different Africa. It still has attributes of greatness. My hope is that it will be revived, restored, re-established, taking into account the lessons that we have learned.'
The immediate future for the APRM must lie in consolidation. There have been some promising developments regarding funding since the January 2016 appointment of the new CEO, who appears to have political support from some of the continent’s leadership. The APRM must prioritise getting reviews moving again, with less emphasis on base reviews of signatories that have failed to make any meaningful progress and more on those that have passed through their initial reviews and need to move on to their second. This kind of follow-up is crucial if the APRM is to become a fixed, institutionalised part of the continental governance process.
Signatories to the APRM should also be vocal in supporting it and demand high standards of it. And civil society must not abandon it. For all its weaknesses, the APRM has demonstrated its value as a participatory diagnostic tool that is potentially accessible to the continent’s citizens. It has made a contribution to the development of a more open continent, one inclined to democracy, and these gains should not be discarded.
Written by Terence Corrigan, a governance consultant and Research Fellow at the Governance and APRM Programme at the South Africa Institute of International Affairs; and Steven Gruzd, the Programme Head. This article was first published with Good Governance Africa (GGA).