The origin of African checks and balances?

As Mugabe and Tsvangirai knock heads in negotiations this week, the New York Times asks who will emerge with the real power?

“Tsvangirai may be lured into accepting a power-sharing arrangement which would lead to Mugabe succeeding himself through puppets from ZANU-PF,” Raila Odinga, the Kenyan prime minister, said in an interview on Thursday. “The best option for Tsvangirai is to insist that Mugabe becomes a ceremonial president with executive powers vested in the prime minister” — a position that would be held by Mr. Tsvangirai.

Mr. Odinga speaks from his own experience with unity talks. Once the Kenyan opposition leader, he became prime minister in February after a deal brokered by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general. It followed a deeply flawed election that some observers believe had been stolen from Mr. Odinga.

The Times is asking the wrong question. How, we should instead ask, can we assure that neither man emerges at the helm?

Checks and balances in democratic systems are sources of stability. No one man or woman can rule the state as a fiefdom, and no succession battle can so destroy a nation country.

Africa’s strong man syndrome has, some argue, been the key to whatever meager development it has achieved. Witness Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda, Paul Kagame’s Rwanda, or Ellen Sirleaf’s Liberia–both men (and the one woman) pulled their countries back from the brink and on the path to health and wealth.

Yet today’s Kagame or Sirleaf may be tomorrow’s Kibaki or Mugabe–entrenched leaders who refuse to go when their time comes, destroying all they have wrought in the process.

The end point is clear: a system of government with power vested in multiple offices–judges, Presidents, prime ministers, district governors and mayors. But how to get there?

The current approach: (1) find an elder African statesman, (2) threaten economic sanctions; (3) force a tenuous power-sharing agreement, and (4) move on and forget about the country.

I am worried such deals live short lives. Lacking pressure from within and without, will we see these temporary measures solidify into real and lasting constitutional changes? I hope so, but I doubt it.

These thoughts linger in my mind as I head to Liberia in the coming week. There an opportunity lies for real decentralization, and real stability. Amos Sawyer is a Liberian political scientist and activist and, as it happens, a former President of the country. He was also my wife’s dissertation adviser at IU, and now a friend.

Amos has thought more and more carefully than any I know about building a lasting, legal decentralization of power. See his excellent articles and recent book. Now head of the nation’s Governance Commission, Amos has his work cut out for him. I’ll be a mere observer, expecting to learn before I can lend a hand. But expect more outsized and ill-formed opinions in the coming weeks.

6 thoughts on “The origin of African checks and balances?

  1. Decentralization is no silver bullet. Indeed, its effect varies widely across time and countries, and often it can make things a lot worse. See Daniel Treisman’s book “The Architecture of Government: Rethinking Political Decentralization” for one of many criticisms.

  2. Wise words – I worry that the Governance Reform Commission is grinding very slowly though. Some people at the Ministry of Internal Affairs have been doing a lot on this, hopefully you will find time to meet them!

  3. @ rupert simons

    I have a quip about the title of your blog – Adventures in Development.

    Development is a matter of life and death to many people, and calling it an adventure is rather patronizing.

    We should not take life too seriously, OK, and I see your point, but some people struggling to help their countries develop might take offense that you are there as an adventurer or development tourist:

    There is a fine line between working in development and being a development tourist.

  4. Think of a doctor working in an HIV hospital, “Adventures in the HIV Ward” does not sound appropriate does it?

  5. I’m not going to delete the previous two comments, since they are (more or less) civil. I’d prefer if the comments section did not further degenerate into anonymous mudslinging at other commentators. Also, I’d suggest that these specific anonymous comments probably belong on the blog in question, not here.

  6. Decentralization of power allways has two aspects. Historically in dutch society powersharing came through the forming of political parties at the end of the 19th century. But the right to vote for women came in 1920. Some say the threat of Russia’s revolution triggered that step forward.