The year 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the African Peer Review Mechanism. Since this good governance promotion tool was launched in March 2003, it has been a long and sometimes bumpily uneven journey toward transparency, writes Steven Gruzd.
Born in the era of Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo that created the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) – today known as the African Union Development Agency, or Auda-Nepad – and transformed the Organisation for African Unity into the African Union (AU), the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) championed adherence to the many standards and codes developed in Africa and beyond.
It set out to highlight best practices, diagnose governance gaps and propose solutions through recommendations that would form the basis of a National Programme of Action (NPoA).
Participating governments were to glean the views of their citizens across a comprehensive range of issues, including the separation of powers, human rights, electoral systems and practice, corporate governance, healthcare, education and regional integration.
Back in 2003, six countries initially joined the APRM, including Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius and Rwanda, voluntarily submitting themselves to scrutiny by their peers and their citizens. No one knew if this ambitious, novel experiment to evaluate and promote good governance would work or whether it would last.
Ghana became the first to be reviewed, in 2006, and blazed the trail for those behind it. It developed the concept of the National Governing Council – the multi-stakeholder body that oversees the review exercise at country level – and pioneered a research methodology that encompassed desk research, popular surveys, expert interviews and focus group discussions.
It carried out an APRM process that met the standards of being technically competent, credible and free of political manipulation. Ghana set the bar high for subsequent countries. The journey has proved to be as important as the destination – an open, sincere process that consults people meaningfully has tended to produce a higher quality, more useful and realistic report.
For the past five years, the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) has worked with six southern African APRM countries (Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe), to help civil society organisations to co-create a written submission on what they consider the most critical governance issues. This has built civil society organisations’ capacity to engage with the APRM in a mature and meaningful way.
Today, the APRM has 43 member states, with Comoros having acceded in February 2023. It has the lofty goal of universal accession by the end of the year. Of those 43, 60% (26 states) have now undergone a first review. Just five have been reviewed twice – Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda.
SAIIA research shows that many of the governance issues in second reviews show little progress from first reviews.
Five states have conducted “targeted reviews” – focusing on limited subjects. Another six conducted specialised targeted reviews on unconstitutional changes of government, the theme of the biennial African Governance Report for 2023.
Slow throughput has bedevilled the mechanism since its inception. Some countries – like Angola and Malawi – joined in 2004 but have not been able to muster sufficient political will or funding to embark on the process, proving a thorny problem for the APRM system.
Another problem has been the length of time it takes country review reports (CRRs) to be made public. These are often delayed by the insistence on having a national launch. By the time this came around in Tanzania in 2017, their CRR was already four years old. CRRs are meant to be published six months after the head of state has been reviewed by his or her peers, a provision mostly honoured in the breach. And the APRM’s website does not have English versions of many francophone states’ CRRs and vice-versa. These should be easy to fix, to promote transparency and accountability.
Like any institution, the APRM has had its ups and downs. In the mid-2010s, the mechanism appeared to have lost its way, with reviews having ground to a halt, allegations of financial impropriety and a lack of leadership.
Maloka spearheads turnaround
The appointment of Prof Eddy Maloka as CEO in 2016 turned the fortunes of the APRM around. His energy and drive reinvigorated the moribund mechanism. States began acceding again – including longtime naysayers like Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe – reviews resumed, and the APRM was given an “expanded mandate” to monitor the governance dimensions of Agenda 2063, the AU’s long-term development blueprint, and the Sustainable Development Goals.
It was also fully incorporated into the AU, finally getting a stable budget rather than relying on recalcitrant member states to pay their dues.
But a critical question to consider is whether the 20 years of effort and money ($48.8-million in cumulative income from members reported from 2003-2018 alone) have significantly shifted the needle on good governance.
The Ibrahim Index of African Governance and Afrobarometer data suggest that, at best, governance has remained steady, if not declined, on the continent.
To reverse this, member states should start taking their commitments to good governance, transparency and accountability through the APRM more seriously.
Many APRM recommendations are simply ignored.
States need to be open to learning from the exercise and institute the required reforms. They need to budget and plan properly for their NPoAs, and report on them more frequently, diligently and accurately. Any tool is only as good as the use to which it is put.
The APRM should expect the civil society oxpeckers to keep on pecking away.
Research by Steven Gruzd, the South African Institute of International Affairs