Amina Salihu, Development Sector Specialist, Civil Society

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Subjects of Interest

  • Governance
  • Sustainable Development

Disruption and collective action as great necessities 19 Jul 2022

During my 2022 leave, I was in Berlin as part of a team of four brave women who are daring to transform the political economy of Nigeria. I thought I should share some of the great discussions I participated in during what should be my holiday. The German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) brought together all the German government's Governance Fund partners to foster discussions on country reform initiatives. The Fund’s partnership members were hosted at the Berlin offices of the prosperous Baden-Württemberg State or Land, in Southwest Germany.

There were seven participating country delegations, six of them from Africa – Nigeria, Benin Republic, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia – and the East Asian nation, Mongolia. The delegations from six of the countries were from the government. Nigeria was the outlier, represented by private citizens who are reimagining politics and daring to fix the anomaly of what the founder of the #FixPolitics movement, Obiageli “Oby” Ezekwesili, calls 'Monopoly Democracy'. The oxymoron alludes to the transactional nature of Nigeria's democracy, to the detriment and exclusion of its citizens. Up to 180 participants joined the conversation, in-room and online, from the public and private sectors and civil society, including former and serving ministers and public administration staff of GIZ and BMZ.

The delegates' work ranged from strengthening the rule of law, decentralizing citizen participation, public finance crisis management, and the fight against corruption.  

By far, the best conversation of the day was the keynote session. When the resourceful and engaging moderator, Kah Walla of Cameroun, asked the two keynote speakers, Nigeria's Dr. Oby Ezekwesili and Dr. Jurgen Zattler, Director General of the BMZ, to share one word that describes what the world needs to improve governance, little did we know she was setting the stage for a very lively discussion.

Zattler said 'collective action'. The participants adjusted to the edge of their seats once Ezekwesili said 'disruption,' curious about the context to the word. At the School of Politics, Policy and Governance (SPPG) founded by Ezekwesili, and where I was the pioneer Dean, disruption is a way of working and thinking. So, I knew where that was coming from. Ezekwesili's assertion was that there is a democracy recession going around. Even strong democracies are facing a democratic exhaustion, more so in Africa – where the majority of countries emerged in the ‘third wave’ of democracy after halting the incursions of autocratic military regimes.

Ezekwesili argued that politics is the base for economic transformation and the people need to take charge of it. Otherwise, the African continent will not be able to make substantial progress. But for the time being, our politics undermines family, community, the economy, governance – practically everything.

‘Disruption’ of the way things are now is, therefore, inevitable to get to an optimal situation. The former Nigerian minister of education argued that even before the coronavirus pandemic, Africa was in a bad place. And by the year 2030, the continent would have 90 percent of the world's remaining poor people. Covid-19 has even worsened this bleak outlook.

Africa’s economic ‘rise’ of the mid 2000s, stretching over the next decade, has come to a screeching stop. Without economic growth rising back to 7 percent and above, the continent’s development challenges will remain intractable. Countries in other regions, especially Asia, that used to have the same structural economic challenges like those in Africa have industrialised and technologised their economies. Africa needs to do the same, but this will not happen if the current political status quo is maintained. Political disruption has to preceed broad economic one in Africa, based on the current realities.

Nevertheless, the essential requirements for a sustainable African economic renaissance exist. The continent has 25 percent of the world's arable land and a young workforce. Indeed, Africa is the youngest continent on the planet, where the median age is 19.7 years, according to Worldometer. By 2025, Africa will have the largest workforce on the face of the earth.

But, of course, these speak to the potentials of our economies. Even then, the economic potentials of the African population require digital skills and digital tools to become actualised in the world that is moving fast in the digitalisation of every area of endeavour and living. Africa needs the political leadership that is competent and has character and the capacity to bring an end to its rentier economies and create enabling environment for a competitive, innovation economy to take off and flourish.

This does not preclude international cooperation. But Africa must define its goals and demand mutual benefit in the international space. It should be acknowledged that the continent would be negotiating from a disadvantaged position. As designed and maintained, the current global multilateral system is not working for Africa. Although the multilateral institutions were putatively setup to foster development, their structures and practices are at odds with their objectives. Ezekwesili asserted that the Bretton Woods institutions need to change their ways. They need to become true partners for development in Africa and other developing regions of the world.

This shows Zattler was also right. His advocacy for ‘collective action’ is apposite. As he observed, the world is facing multiple crises. The frequency of crises is also increasing rapidly. Compared with the 1970s, we have in recent years had multiple folds the number of major crises hitting countries of the world. And there are some systemic, long-term consequences of the present crises of 2022, like the war between Russia and Ukraine and the food and energy crises arising because of the military conflict. Africa and the rest of the world rely on these two countries for over 10 percent of wheat, fertilizer and energy supply. While Covid-19 remains a public health threat, the next epidemics or pandemics are believed to be around the corner, in what is now cyclical crises episodes.

No single country can tackle the current crisses and the looming ones alone. The interconnectedness of the world’s peoples, systems and solutions makes cooperation essential.

Zattler is hopeful about the prospects of the world and countries. In the good future he envisions, there should be equity, respect for life, and human rights. International cooperation should not be a zero-sum game of winners and losers. Indeed, developing countries should be supported to have access to export markets, including those of the advanced nations that currently characterise trade as unidirectional in their favour.

Ezekwesili also sees hope for the African continent and the rest of the world, in three game-changers – women, youth and technology. Women are the world's visible secret weapon for advancing development. However, the world is yet to awaken fully to the potentials of its women, she argued. For example, remarkably enterprising African women have continued to operate at small and micro levels because of the many obstacles they face – including denial of property right, lack of access to finance, skewed state incentive for businesses, and anti-competition practices.

For now, the strength of the youth is its number. But given the structure of the African population, youth unemployment rate is higher than the national averages. Young people need quality education and skills, which are increasingly difficult to access because of the broken productivity chains. But the youth can innovate. In Nigeria and elsewhere on the continent, they are already doing so, building tech hubs and leading technology unicorns.

By investing in technology, African countries can leapfrog. Many fintechs of African origin are very successful and have been attracting investment interests from around the world. Following the ground-breaking innovation of Kenya’s M-Pesa, Nigeria’s Interswitch and Flutterwave, and many more tech companies, are flourishing. The disruption should not be limited to finance. Broader technological innovations can transform Africa’s economies.  

It is worth emphasising that the disruption of governance in Africa is a condition precedent for economic transformation of the continent. It is also necessary for Africa to become a valued – and not a begging – partner in the international cooperative frameworks.

Amina Salihu, PhD, is a development sector specialist.