Browsing articles in "Africa"
Oct 21, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Liberian Wars

Back in Liberia after a trip to Japan, president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told government officials to “follow or get out of the way”. By “follow” she meant her lead and the projects she has for developing a country plagued with poverty, divisions and the fresh memories of the the civil war(s).

Leymah Gbowee, left, and Ellen Jonhson Sirleaf

Nobel laureate Sirleaf faces a tough scenario. Elected and re-elected on high hopes of getting Liberia on a positive path, she has come under attack recently from inside and out. One of the most notorious of those attacks came from long time ally Leymah Gbowee, the peace activist who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the president. Gbowee criticized Sirleaf for not doing enough to curb corruption and nepotism in the government (two of the president’s sons are government officials; another just stepped down). As she came out publicly with her reservations against Sirleaf, the activist resigned as head of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The move also came after she was accused of mismanaging funds, which she denies.

It is hard to pin down who to side with. Transparency International said in a report this year that Sirleaf “has demonstrated a strong leadership on anti-corruption issues”. Still, Liberia has endemic and wide-spread corruption that does not seem to be waning.

Obviously, no one with a brain could expect her to finish the job in a couple of years. Experts have been studying corruption forever and there is no silver-bullet here. Besides, it doesn’t help that there were two civil wars totaling about 14 years in Liberia since the 90’s; that the country has 85% unemployment, 63.8% of people below or at the national poverty line, a GDP per capita of US$ 500 (ppp) and ranks 182 out of 187 countries at the UN Human Development Index. In other words, it is a deeply problematic place.

While her officials keep being accused of corruption, Sirleaf insists the government is about to begin a series of new projects to speed national development.

Many of those projects will no doubt focus on Liberia’s natural resources. Almost 80% of the economy is based on agriculture, and exports are basically rubber, coffee, palm oil, iron and other commodities. The rest of the world is very mindful of that: Liberia has the highest ratio of foreign direct investment to GDP on the planet. State funds are thus largely tied to the country’s natural resources, and when speaking of corruption and mismanagement we are also talking about this particular type of wealth.

Sirleaf is a big advocate of foreign investment, and has done everything possible to open up the country for them. There has been some positive results. Up to 2011 the government had secured over US$ 19 billion in investments, the majority in the iron ore and palm oil sectors. FDI could amass US$ 2 billion in taxes and royalties in the next decade, according to the IMF, with improvements extending to roads, ports and power plants.

But there are many, many downsides as well. A study completed by Columbia University last year mentions that job creation is low and that government corruption and financial mismanagement “have compromised the good intention of concessionaire-financed Social Development Funds and contributed to a rising mood of distrust and hostility regarding some concessions”. It further states that indigenous communities have been marginalized during the negotiations and implementation of projects, resulting in high tension around several FDI projects, while members of affected communities experience little improvement to living standards as a result of them. Finally, the study concludes that “institutions lack the full ability to effectively monitor compliance of concession agreements and penalize infringements”.

Liberia is also rich in diamonds and gold. It is interesting how at this point one almost cringes at this descriptions… It seems a recipe for disaster under the current rush of undeveloped countries to secure foreign investment, which on many occasions result in lack of transparency, corruption, embezzlement and increased domestic tensions.

Sirleaf’s challenges are far from new or original. But she better rush to get things on the right path again, if she wants to leave power as the symbol of progress and peace that she was on the eve of her first victory.

Oct 4, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Jobs, resources, democracy

gas project in Papua New Guinea

In its newest jobs report –mentioned previously by my colleague Pablo–, the World Bank dedicates a large section to resource-rich countries, some of which (in) famously struggle to manage the impact of the extractive industries’ revenues on the democratic practices of the state. The section starts with an important warning: investments in extractive industries do not create many jobs, regardless of their often sizable fraction of GDP and potential to foster “spectacular increases in export revenue”.

What does that have to do with democracy? Well it could have quite a lot to do with it, particularly in developing countries. Now, this is a complicated area of study (“resource curse”, anyone?) and I do not want to make a case for a causal link not fully established, but some things are worth noticing, particularly when we use examples.

While nations like Angola and Mozambique boast huge growth rates due mostly to the oil and mineral industries, their populations sink into poverty and find it hard to reap the benefits of living in a resource rich region of the world. Jobs, or their lack thereof, are a big part of that. The World Bank estimates that extractive industries “may not account for more than 1 or 2 percent of total employment in resource rich countries”, even when taking indirect ones into account. The numbers get worse when seen in parallel to investment in mining projects. A liquid natural gas project in Papua New Guinea, for one, had an investment cost of over twice the country’s GDP at the start-up, and while it may lead to double digit growth rates for years to come, it is “unlikely to generate more than 1,000 direct jobs in the longer term”.

Mozambique is also featured in the section as an example of low job creation. The Benga mining project, with an investment of 13,6% of the country’s GDP, currently employs 150 people and will generate 4,500 jobs once in full operation (projected). In one of the interviews I did during my summer in Mozambique, a researcher from Cemo (Center for Mozambican and International Studies) told me their estimate for formal employment in the country was about only 20%.

Obviously there is little development possible when there are no jobs and no income generation activities for the larger population. As we can see from the report, even when there are regulations that require extractive companies to hire most workers from the domestic labor force, their sheer number is not enough to impact even the regional employment rate. Also, the World Bank mentions a tension “between jobs for productivity and jobs for social cohesion”, which “may be even more difficult to avoid in developing countries due to the lack of institutional strength and implementation capacity.” Not to mention a rise in inequality, since there is no doubt a few are profiting from the projects.

I would add that in Mozambique and other resource-rich developing countries, megaprojects are many times set via secret contracts and tax relief policies to international corporations, which contribute to the little redistribution of revenue to the population at large.

What would be the impact on democracy? First, there could be a growing social tension caused by the imbalance created by these industries. Regardless of the growth rates, development is not a given, but conditional on very good policies implemented to deal with the revenues. Besides, countless studies link resource richness with challenges to democracies and democratization. I am far from a resource-curse determinist, but some things are easily noticed. To keep using the example of Mozambique: there was a soft version of Thomas Carothers’ “dominant power systems” present before the extractive boom, but afterwards the opportunities to replicate the “rentier state” effect* grew exponentially. Oil industries in general (gas and coal, in the case of Mozambique) fit well in this pattern due to their little use of labor force and concentration of revenues in the hands of states. And the lack of accountability is problematic.

The World Bank concludes the section affirming that “the main challenge facing resource-rich countries is to spread the wealth in ways that do not undermine productivity growth and social cohesion spillovers.” It is worth taking a further look.


*in very simplistic terms: governments use low taxes and patronage to relieve pressures for accountability while limiting group-formation that might lead to more democratic demands

Sep 23, 2012

The Great Wall of Libya

In one of his stories, Franz Kafka suggests that China would not have come to being if it were not for the construction of its Great Wall. People from all over the kingdom were summoned by an Emperor whose existence was probably unknown by many workers-to-be peasants. As well, at the building site, people from diverse regions would have suddenly realized that, though coming from villages previously just heard of in fantastic stories, they actually must have some kind of link because they were collaborating in the same effort. Even more, Kafka (maybe without sufficient historical accuracy but certainly with literary audacity) suggests that the enemies from which the Chinese were trying to protect themselves had never gone through the site where the Wall was being built, had never reached the villages of any of the workers or even could have been gone for many years. But the construction of the Wall, and with it saying “Here is China, there is not China. You are Chinese and must protect yourselves against the not-Chinese who want to attack you”, set the bases for an Empire that fell just 100 years ago.

Today, Libya might be under an analogous situation: trying to rebuild (or, perhaps, plainly build) their country as a single political unit. This Sunday’s English version of the Al-Jazeera website reports that the government “moves to dissolve rogue militias”. It is equivalent to say “We are the authority, you are not.” This matches with one of the key elements of the state as defined by Weber and that has been present in the mind of statesmen during all of the 20th Century: the state has the legitimate monopoly of violence. What is more, Libyans want their state to be democratic: “Even if you are not the authority, you can form a political party, present to elections, win representation in the parliament, talk and then we will see.”

Literature on transitions to democracy notice how difficult it can be to build at the same time the state, which implies a sense of political unity (or, at least, a tacit agreement that the institutions in place will not be challenged, even less by armed means), and a democracy, which entails a sense of political plurality (potentially opening the door to organizations that could undermine democratic practices). In Libya these two problems converge in one political actor: rogue militias.

Indeed, the term is used in plural. And in contrast to Kafka’s story, the danger in Libya is real. In December 2011, Al Jazeera organized a discussion panel which the participation of Libyan scholars, students, former rebel fighters and NGO representatives. At that time, a month after the interim government was inaugurated, they all agreed that one of the most important concerns of Libyans had to do with the two largest militias: pro-Gaddafi and anti-Gaddafi. On the one hand, given its weakness the government could do little to regulate weapons or to uncontestably impose its authority throughout all the national territory. On the other hand, there was a shared fear among the country’s population that if the course taken by the political processes did not satisfy the armed groups in one way or another (they could say a dictatorship was replacing that of Gaddafi, they could feel excluded from the institution-building discussions, they would like to prevent a particular group from being involved in the new political life of the country –a militia group says they attacked Sufi camp sites because they “supported Gaddafi’s regime and they believe in magic”-, they would pursue more radical ideas than the government or they wanted to catalyze changes) they would return to arms and the violence would resume. And no state, even less if it is weak or trying to become democratic, can survive in a violent environment.

In the interview mentioned above, the participants were proud to say that the Libyans had shown exemplar behavior after the fall and death of Gaddafi, as no mob riots had occurred and the only sources of violence were the militias. However, during this year, it has been clear that without a central authority any pretext can lead to violence. Just think of the last two weeks: the diffusion of the video The Innocence of Muslims caused anti-American revolts which, directly or indirectly, translated into the death of officers at the United States Consulate in Benghazi. In spite of the civic sense most Libyans have, rogue armed groups offer no guaranty.

Fortunately, the order of the Libyan government seems to have encountered a favorable environment. Even before being issued, this Friday inhabitants of Benghazi evicted members of the Ansar al-Sharia militia, arguing they were tired of living under their presence and to avoid more episodes similar to that of the American Consulate. As reported by Al-Jazeera, the Libyan military had established its presence in some hours’ time, apparently without incident. Then this Sunday, the government says it has decided to dissolve all remaining rogue militias. It is still to be seen if this goal will be achieved. It will be a major challenge for the newly elected Prime Minister, Mustafa Abushagur, who beginning September 12 has one month to form a cabinet. In any case, it is positively remarkable that in a state trying to consolidate power and to be democratic, citizens’ actions turn into government orders and not the other way round.

Sep 11, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Meet the New Boss…Same as the Old Boss?

(Farah Abdi Warsameh/Associated Press)

Somalia elected a new president yesterday. Or more precisely, the three-week old Somali parliament, a body of questionably qualified members appointed by a technical committee that apportioned seats according to a rigid clan formula, elected a new president yesterday. The victor, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, will succeed Sheikh Sharif Ahmed as the leader of the new government in Mogadishu.

I draw the distinction above not to disparage the legitimacy of the poll, nor to cast aspersions on the actors involved in organizing the transition and administering the election in line with the new constitution. It is difficult, dangerous, even admirable work to be sure, notwithstanding allegations of corruption and malfeasance. And reasonable people can disagree on the relative wisdom of this transitional path given the tremendous security, economic, and infrastructural constraints Somalia still faces, and how each of those might affect the implementation of electoral democracy on a universal level. But I feel it’s important to highlight what this election is, and isn’t, given the way that recent events in Somalia have been reported and received.

A few notable examples. CNN told its online readers a day before the poll that this election would move Somalia “a step closer to its first stable central government since the 1991 ouster of a dictator.” Reuters billed the event as “the first poll of its kind in decades.” Mr. Mohamud’s election is a “significant step forward” for Somalia, according to the New York Times.

And that was just the news coverage. Augustine Mahiga — chief of the UN Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS) — wrote on the UNPOS blog two days ago, in a post entitled “Somalia’s Most Qualified Parliament,” that the election would mark “one of the most important dates in the history of Somali politics.” This lofty proclamation followed a more formal UNPOS statement, released publicly but directed at Somali parliamentarians, in which the UN laid out its position that the election of a new president would complete Somalia’s transition and lead the country into a period of “political and socio-economic transformation.” Even the White House, in its official statement, congratulated the Somali people for “completing this momentous political transition.”

The remarks above unfortunately range from hyperbolic claims of significance to misleading versions of history. This election is not, in fact, the first of its kind in decades. The Transitional Federal Government held elections for president in both 2004 and 2009. And although neither poll was conducted in Somalia — votes were cast in Nairobi in 2004 and Djibouti in 2009 — the systems utilized were identical, with parliamentarians choosing among numerous candidates in a multi-round election. Beyond the historical inaccuracy, the headline in more than a few prominent publications announces some version of the following: “Somalia Elects a New President.” (Italics are mine). This is where the distinction I mentioned at the beginning truly matters. Even though the meat of every article lays out the specifics of the election, the implication of this coverage is to lead people to believe that parliament truly represents all of Somalia, and that its actions are both indicative of popular demands and inherently legitimate.

Legitimacy is indeed a difficult concept to nail down with any degree of authority. In the case of present-day Somalia, there are perhaps two ways to address it: first, whether the new government represents the best way to move beyond a violent past and into a stable and prosperous future for all Somalis; and second, whether the government derives its authority from the people and has widespread popular support.

While the former is debatable, the latter is simply not true. I discussed the ongoing challenges that stand between Somalia and genuine political change in a couple of previous posts. The short version is that the method of selecting the new government has institutionalized the central role of clans, some of which continue to exhibit signs that their commitment to a stable, legitimate, and unified Somali government runs second to their loyalty to clan communities. A perfect example of this is the composition of the new parliament. Many members were previously involved with militant groups, some even in leadership positions. They now find themselves in government by virtue of the technical selection committee, which was appointed to select 275 members according to the 4.5 rule that determines the level of representation for each clan. But this also meant that clans had a large role in placing their candidates before the committee for consideration. These clans knowingly nominated many candidates with records of violence and state subversion, possibly because they were leaders within their own communities, but also perhaps as a mechanism to bring more muscle to their legislative caucus should events not proceed as they hope. Former President Sheikh Sharif even petitioned the Supreme Court to reverse the committee’s decision to reject some candidates for past indiscretions, which the Court did by reinstating 15 individuals.

So we now have a parliament in Somalia that has given significant political power to some of those that have had a role in fomenting violence and instability in the past. The presidential election took place under this environment. Not surprisingly, allegations emerged of widespread bribery and corruption, with legislators reportedly exchanging payments of up to $50,000 to secure votes.

None of this is to say that this new parliament and president will inevitably fail to bring clarity and constructive action to address Somalia’s numerous challenges: al-Shabaab, corrupt governance, regional disputes over autonomy and resources, piracy, and a severely underdeveloped economy, to name just a few. But to the extent that expectations matter in a country suffering from one of the most protracted and destructive political transitions in recent history, a heavy measure of sobriety is certainly needed — far above what the media and international actors have demonstrated in their coverage and public statements. J. Peter Pham, an Africa expert at the Atlantic Council, does this and more in a statement he gave to the NYT for their report on the election:

“There is perhaps no better illustration of the hope springing eternal, or delusion than the notion that the imposition from above of yet another interim regime pretending to be the government of Somalia — in this case, the 15th or 16th such entity, depending on how one counts them, since 1991 — will make one iota of difference to the tragedy of the world’s most spectacularly failed state or the heartbreaking suffering of its people.”

While I’m not inclined to share his unequivocal pessimism for Somalia’s near-term future, Pham’s point on the similarities of this new government to previous attempts in the past is well-taken. The primary difference seems to be that this new regime will govern from Mogadishu rather than locations abroad, thanks to the mild success of AMISOM in carving out an area of relative security in the capital. That alone, however, won’t change the behavior of the current political actors. Popular elections likely won’t be held for another four years, per the constitution, which means that this new government has a lot of work to do in order to prove that it’s significantly different from previous versions. Contrary to claims elsewhere, the political transition is no where near complete.

Sep 9, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

The UN in Mozambique – time for change

This blog got its hand on a working paper that is being widely circulated in UN circles in New York about the need for a repositioning of the organization in Mozambique after a loss of influence since the early 2000’s. It suggests that the new Mozambican socioeconomic reality opens for the UN an opportunity (not to mention a necessity) to take on a fresh normative leadership role. It is implicit here what we may call an inability of the UN to keep up with changes and evolve from a role of great importance and impact in Mozambique after the civil war to a relevant one in the current context of fast growth, new mineral wealth and great inequality, combined with rapidly changing patterns of foreign direct investment (FDI) and aid.

Not only does the paper offer a great discussion of the adequacy of the UN’s present impact in Mozambique, but it also has an extra advantage: it aggregates important data on all of the variables mentioned above, from historical charts on FDI to the percentage of investment that is tied to the booming extractive industries (an incredible 84%). I met the author, Alejandra Bujones, in Maputo, and I witnessed her efforts to obtain accurate information that was generally not readily available. For that alone her paper is extremely valuable for those interested in Mozambique.

Extractive industries receive 84% of FDI in Mozambique

The paper, which was commissioned by experts Bruce Jenks and Bruce Jones as part of their major study called “UN Development at a Crossroad”, hasn’t been published yet, so it cannot be made available at this point, but I can’t help presenting a tidbit of the information she gathered:

-“Prospects of foreign investment in Mozambique during the 10 years from 2010-2020 are valued at close to US$90bn (…), equivalent to seven times the country’s current total GDP of US$12.4bn.” 84% goes to extractive industries, 6% to manufacturing and only 4% to communications and transport (which, as I witnessed during my road trips there, are in great need of refurbishing).

-The top FDI investors in Mozambique in 2011 were: Brazil (US$ 908 million, nearly double the amount of the second largest investor), Mauritius, Ireland, South Africa, Switzerland, Portugal, UAE, UK, USA, Vietnam. So where is China? Their investments actually come in the form of credit, and it doesn’t show in FDI data. Beijing lent in 2011 US$ 82.2 million, according to data obtained from Bank of Mozambique Balance of Payment 2011 report.

Aid flows have been “decreasing continually from 56% of the country’s budget in 2008 to 44% in 2010 to 39.6% in 2012. The majority of ODA received by Mozambique is either delivered through project or direct budgetary support. (…) The UN’s share of total ODA makes up only a small fraction of this”.

- “NGOs receive only 4% of UN’s programmatic funds in Mozambique (the bulk goes to the government)”.

It is easy to see that results from aid in regards to growth and social indicators have been mixed, as the stagnate progress of human development shows. In what pertains to the UN, Bujones points out an important challenge to the ability of the organization to provide aid: in the past decade donors preferred to channel resources through direct government budget support instead of through the organization’s system. The UN had then fewer and fewer resources at its disposal and, to make matters worse, it tended to spread them around “a number of remotely connected initiatives.” Thus, it lost influence both with donors and with the Government of Mozambique, and the general perception was that the UN lacked a clear and coherent strategy for the country.

In a well-intentioned attempt to act in a united effort, the UN in Mozambique tested the “Delivering as One” initiative. It was, according to Bujones, an important first step with good impacts on efficiency and economic gains. However, it meant that the country offices had to focus on internal procedures for a while, leading stakeholders to believe: “that the UN has spent too much time focusing inwards, rather than looking outwards; that projects and programs are not sufficiently cross-linked to explicitly draw upon each other and add value; that programs continue to be too disparate, lacking strategic focus; that, with the exception of some UN agencies that have a clear and visible mandate, nobody really knows what the UN is doing where; and together these factors hamper the ability of the UN to provide leadership and substantive policy input in Mozambique.”

Another problem was that the UN in Mozambique was perceived as unable to mediate effectively between government, civil society and private sector. Even the national government, although it has been the greatest recipient of UN funds and efforts,  “feels that “the UN’s project spread—especially its involvement in small-scale project implementation—is a distraction that takes it away from focusing on large-scale project management and strategic support at a higher policy and coordination level.”

To summarize it: no one is happy with the status quo.

Bujones lays out in the paper several suggestions for the UN to regain the important role it played in Mozambique in the aftermath of its 16 year civil war. First, she says the agencies have to move away from the inward approach. Second, they need to gravitate from “downstream direct service delivery programs” towards serving as “a catalyst to provide technical input and upstream advice to develop policy”. And, in general, the UN in Mozambique must “use its normative agenda to serve the whole of the Mozambican State (government, civil society, private sector, media) in areas where the interests of the State clash with the interests of the Government”, such as on how to best manage its new extractives revenues.

There is certainly great demand for the changes she proposes. As says Bujones in her final remarks: Both civil society and small private sector companies (…) are keen for the UN to intervene, either directly or by empowering Civil Society Organizations and Private Sector to participate in such discussions, in order to exert influence on the government and the multinationals to promote good governance, transparency and accountability.

I couldn’t have said it better.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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