Welcome to Africa Research Institute’s blog. Africa Research Institute is a strictly non-partisan think tank based in London. Our mission is to draw attention to ideas which have worked in Africa, and to identify new ideas where needed.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

When China Met Africa, a review

I recently attended a screening of “When China Met Africa” at the London School of Economics. It is a documentary I had seen before, but having just completed work on Africa Research Institute’s latest Briefing NoteBetween extremes: China and Africa” I was keen to view it again.

The documentary’s simplicity is its greatest asset. Set in Zambia, the three protagonists each provide crucial insights into the dynamism and nuances of contemporary China-Africa relations. Mr Liu is an office worker turned entrepreneur and farmer; Mr Li, a project manager for China Henan International Corporation tasked with resurfacing 323 kilometres of road; and Felix Mutati, was Zambia’s minister of trade, commerce and industry when the film was shot. These three individuals do not know one another, nor do their paths cross. But as their stories are juxtaposed they directly challenge the stereotyping to which China-Africa relations are so often reduced – China as Africa’s metaphorical “fairy godmother” or its neo-colonial exploiter.

Mr Liu’s decision to uproot his family and purchase several plots of land in Zambia to cultivate crops and livestock for the local market proved an astute move. His business is thriving and he relishes working for himself. An ardent champion of the free market, Mr Liu talks with conviction about his belief in enterprise, competition and hard graft. In many respects, Mr Liu represents the vanguard of the Chinese presence in Africa. Contract workers employed by state-owned and large private corporations seldom encounter Africans outside the workplace. For the vast majority of Africans who do come into regular contact with Chinese migrants, interaction is with people like Mr Liu – small and medium-scale traders and business owners who have arrived on the continent without any sort of sponsorship or support from Beijing. In depicting this reality, the film exposes a fascinating paradox emerges. Mr Liu provides much needed employment locally – but his uncompromising quest for productivity and profit creates a relationship with his workers that makes for uncomfortable viewing and is redolent of the colonial era in Zambia. 

The increase in economic migration from China to Africa has become an emotive subject. Estimates of the number of Chinese living in Africa range from 500,000 to 1 million. Competition from Chinese traders and businesses has caused discontent in local markets. In Uganda, retailers closed their shops in protest at being undercut by competitors and cheap goods from China. African authorities have responded to popular demands for greater regulation. In Malawi, foreign traders are restricted to establishing businesses in the four main cities. Poor quality goods and strict no return policies have provoked widespread demands for better regulation of Chinese imports. Concerns about reputational damage have prompted officials in Beijing to address quality control to mitigate negative effects on wider diplomatic and economic ties.

Mr Li’s employer, the China Henan International Corporation, a provincial parastatal, exemplifies the “China” with which African states increasingly engage. Globalisation has entailed a diminution of central control over Chinese concerns operating overseas. Provincial administrations and private companies attracted by the margins attainable in Africa have forged their own presence in resource extraction, infrastructure and consumer markets – accounting for a quarter of Chinese investment in the continent as early as 2007. Mr Li believes wholeheartedly that the job he is doing will bring prosperity to Zambia by facilitating trade and economic growth. This, he argues, was the path followed by China.

The inclusion of Felix Mutati in the documentary is important because it highlights the active role Africans play in encouraging Chinese trade and investment. However, Mr Mutati’s conduct during a trip to China provokes unease. In his eagerness to secure Chinese investment, in any shape or form, the need for appropriate negotiation of terms or conditions is glossed over by the Zambian minister. It is as if any investment will do, on almost any terms.  The bargaining position of African governments is often not maximised. Although coherent national and regional development strategies are becoming more commonplace in Africa, negotiations with foreign investors are often conducted with too little reference to these strategies. The onus is on African governments to ensure the long-term effectiveness of foreign investment by channelling resources into priority sectors, and to secure terms which enhance skills and technology transfer. This imperative seemed to be far from Mr Mutati’s mind as he sought to entice Chinese investors.

The narratives in “When China Met Africa” do not represent a comprehensive depiction of China’s multifaceted engagement with Africa – and the makers of the film make no such grand claim. Their achievement is to underscore, with subtlety and sensitivity, that there are many Chinas in Africa – and that continually evolving China-Africa relations are shaped and altered by the likes of Mr Liu, Mr Li and Felix Mutati. Many more individual stories could usefully be told. It would be fascinating, for example, to learn more about the dilemmas the Beijing government faces in maintaining its official stance of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations as economic relations deepen; or about the experiences of African entrepreneurs who have been driven out of business by the competitive pressure from cheap Chinese imports; or about African businesses sourcing products from China which are thriving. A series of sequels would be welcome.

Jonathan Bhalla
Research Manager, Africa Research Institute

To download a copy of Africa Research Institute latest Briefing NoteBetween extremes: China and Africa” click here

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The more things change… Sierra Leone’s 2012 elections

In the late 1980s, a common joke told on the streets of Freetown was: “What did Sierra Leoneans read by before they had candles? … Electricity!” By then, life expectancy in Sierra Leone was one of the lowest in the world. Infant mortality was amongst the highest. The literacy rate was just 15%. Since 1978, the country had been a one party state. The effects of a collapse in world prices for Sierra Leone’s exports were compounded by decades of economic mismanagement and endemic corruption. When Albert Margai left office in 1967, after three years as prime minister, he was worth an estimated US$250m – despite receiving an annual salary of just US$4,000. In 1985, when President Siaka Stevens stood down, he is said to have amassed a fortune of US$500m. The Bank of Sierra Leone, in contrast, held US$196,000 in its foreign reserve accounts. Salaries of lower level public officials went unpaid. Hospitals, schools and roads fell into disrepair. In 1991, the United Nations ranked Sierra Leone last of 160 countries in its Human Development Index. The country was taking its final steps towards war.

On the eve of the November 2012 presidential, parliamentary and local council elections, Sierra Leone is often depicted as a country unrecognisable from a quarter of a century ago. Since the civil war officially ended in 2002, consecutive national elections have been won by different parties. When Ernest Bai Koroma and his All People’s Congress (APC) party were elected in 2007, the incumbent Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) accepted defeat – albeit reluctantly. In 2005, the United Nations’ largest deployment of peacekeepers – numbering 17,500 at its peak – was withdrawn. In 2012, Sierra Leone committed 850 peacekeepers to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMIS). International hotel chains Radisson and Hilton Worldwide have signed agreements to open outlets in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Free health care for pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under five was introduced in April 2010. According to some estimates, Sierra Leone’s economy will grow by 34% in 2012 due, in large part, to the onset of iron ore exports.

The achievement of voting the opposition to power in 2007 – an infrequent occurrence in Africa – was tarnished by virulent accusations of fraud and manipulation. The decision by the National Electoral Commission (NEC) to nullify votes cast at polling stations with over 100% voter turn-out provoked outrage from the incumbent party. Of the 477 invalidated polling stations, 426 were in electoral strongholds of the SLPP. The party accused the NEC’s Chief Commissioner, Christiana Thorpe, and the international community of connivance in an orchestrated scheme for regime change. The NEC maintained that, in the absence of a provision in the electoral law specifying the body mandated to annul votes in instances of unambiguous electoral malfeasance, it had the de facto right – and responsibility – to do so. It also insisted that the annulled votes would not have affected the final outcome of the election. The SLPP countered that only the Supreme Court has the authority to cancel votes.

For the 2012 elections, the principal way the NEC has sought to mitigate electoral fraud is by implementing a system of biometric voter registration. “Credible elections start with credible voter registration”, remarked Christiana Thorpe during a presentation at Africa Research Institute in London in July 2011. Rather than manually registering voters before each election, biometrics enable creation of a permanent electronic register which can be updated as new voters become eligible or existing ones die. The system captures unique data – thumb prints and facial features – in addition to personal details, and can identify whether someone has registered more than once by centrally matching thumb prints. The NEC’s determination to improve the integrity and transparency of the electoral process is laudable.

The shortcoming of biometric technology is that it counters the symptoms – not the causes – of electoral fraud. Biometrics cannot detect whether a registrant is underage, or determine an individual’s nationality. There is also no evidence of a deliberate strategy by any political party to rig elections through multiple registrations. All previous electoral registers have contained names of the deceased, the underage and foreign nationals – but the most significant type of electoral misdemeanour has been physical stuffing of ballots and false recording of results by temporary election workers. Both parties, when in power, have used their position to fund political campaigns and buy voters. This practice remains widespread. Political parties continue to organise and condone the intimidation of voters, often perpetrated by their youth wings. Biometric technology offers little scope to tackle these transgressions. Elections are more than just a technical exercise.

For many, elections – and the preceding campaigns – provide the true measure of how Sierra Leone has progressed. As yet the fundamental character of political competition in Sierra Leone has not been altered. Identity, not ideology or policy, remains the paramount factor. Ethnic and regional voting blocs – sustained by entrenched patronage networks and corruption – are as rigid as ever. The APC draws majority support from the Temne, Limba and other northern tribes, and Krios of the Western Area, while the SLPP are favoured by the Mende and tribes of the south-east. Elections are regarded as “winner takes all” contests with defeat entailing exclusion and disadvantage for the losers, and their regions.

The past is still utilised in pursuit of political advantage. Shortly after Julius Maada Bio was elected leader of the SLPP in July 2011, there were renewed calls for an inquest into the December 1992 executions of 26 people suspected of plotting to overthrow the government. The extra-judicial executions – by firing squad – were ordered by the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), which had itself seized power by force in April 1992. Britain promptly suspended aid to Sierra Leone. Maada Bio, one of the chief architects of the NPRC coup, was heavily implicated in the executions. In January 1996, Maada Bio ousted NPRC leader Valentine Strasser and for a short time was head of state. With former members of the NPRC junta now prominent within the SLPP, the calls for an inquest were viewed as brazen political manoeuvring by Koroma and the APC.  

In 2011, when Michael von der Schulenburg, then Executive Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Sierra Leone, criticised the proposed inquest, relations with President Koroma soured. In 2012, in a leaked UN document, Schulenburg noted “there can be little doubt that the decision of the President to force my early departure will be seen – rightly or wrongly – by virtually every Sierra Leonean as an effort to remove a potential obstacle to his re-election and as an opening the door to manipulating the election outcome in his favour”.

Political parties still use violent means to achieve political goals. Election campaigns for the 2007 elections were tarnished by clashes organised by the upper reaches of the APC and SLPP. A return to war was never probable, but President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah threatened to suspend the vote and impose of a state of emergency. On 9th September 2011, during a “thank you tour” to SLPP supporters, Julius Maada Bio’s convoy was pelted with rocks by mobs of APC supporters in the southern city of Bo. Maada Bio required stitches to the head. SLPP mobs retaliated by setting fire to the APC district office and residential properties. A public enquiry concluded that the violence was both premeditated and orchestrated by elites of both parties. The government’s recent purchase of US$4.5 million of predominantly military grade weapons caused a public outcry due to suggestions that they were intended for the Operational Support Division (OSD) of the police – a force which within living memory had been used by President Siaka Stevens as a personal paramilitary unit. After much public – and international – pressure, the government transferred the weapons to the army for use by Sierra Leonean peacekeepers in Somalia.

Sierra Leone remains beset with privation that pre-dates the civil war. Koroma’s insistence that “attitude is everything” – a slogan ubiquitously plastered across billboards in the capital – offers little solace to Sierra Leoneans who were promised a “peace dividend”. In reality, many people find themselves in a similar financial predicament to that of pre-war days. Hype regarding the country’s economic potential and the unprecedented scale of investment in the mining sector have raised expectations – but offered few discernible benefits to ordinary Sierra Leoneans. The purchasing power of low income earners has halved since 2007. Food prices have spiraled. A cholera epidemic concentrated in the slums of Freetown had killed 392 residents by September 2012. Youth unemployment remains endemic.

Sierra Leone’s 2012 elections are unlikely to reveal anything new about the country and its politics. President Koroma is expected to win a second term, but not because he has transformed the country’s economy. The incumbent has deployed clever tactics, co-opting proxy parties – including the Revolutionary United Front Party – to carry out political dirty work, and enticing high profile SLPP politicians to defect, most notably veteran Tom Nyuma formerly of the NPRC. The contest is proving harder fought than Koroma – and many in the international community – anticipated. Efforts to dismiss Maada Bio as a relic of Sierra Leone’s authoritarian past have met with resistance due to his popularity amongst “youth” and the military. But despite his charismatic appeal, many in the country consider Maada Bio to have more style than substance.  

In Sierra Leone, the process of building a modern democratic state after a decade of war has been heavily contested. Important progress has been made, particularly in the area of electoral management. But legacies of identity politics, violence, corruption and inequality have been – and will continue to be – harder to overcome. While the economy has grown, it is structurally little different to its pre-war incarnation. The notion that African countries like Sierra Leone should pursue a model of “authoritarian developmentalism” in order to hasten wealth and job creation is fanciful. Sierra Leone’s government budget is minuscule, about US$500m per annum, most of which is from donors who insist on democratic and liberal economic reforms in exchange. The government is not in a position to adopt political and economic policies that will inevitably be unpopular with donors. Nor does it possess the human capital or institutions to successfully implement such measures.

What is certain is that any further consolidation of democratic reforms will be intimately tied up with the state of the country’s economy. But the imperatives of how to create employment and distribute wealth more equitably have been keenly avoided by Sierra Leone’s political class.

By Jonathan Bhalla and Sareta Ashraph

Jonathan Bhalla is Research Manager at Africa Research Institute

Sareta Ashraph lived and worked in Freetown, Sierra Leone from 2003-2009. She maintains a keen interest in the country's history and returns there regularly. Sareta is currently writing a book on the conflict in Sierra Leone.

In April 2011, Africa Research Institute published “Old Tricks, Young Guns: Elections and Violence in Sierra Leone”. To download a copy, please click here

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Rwanda’s coming of age

In his speech to mark the 18th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, President Paul Kagame noted that the first generation of men and women born during the genocide will come of age this year. There is more to this than obvious symbolism. Rwanda’s median age is estimated at 18.7, which means that less than half of the country’s current population experienced the genocide first-hand. The figure is arresting – and suggests that Kagame’s government may soon have to adapt the way in which it controls the public discourse surrounding the genocide.

The changing nature of how Rwanda relates to its tragic history is particularly relevant this year. In 2012, two radically different legal processes designed to judge those guilty of genocide are due to conclude. The final hearings of Rwanda's gacaca community courts – based on a traditional method of conflict resolution and reconciliation – will end in June. The UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania – created to prosecute the architects of the genocide under international law – will lose its power to indict in July.

Despite the ICTR’s reduced mandate, its difficult relationship with the Rwandan authorities is likely to continue. Kagame has criticised the Tribunal’s ineffectiveness at apprehending genocide suspects, and the length and cost of its judicial procedures. The issue of the Tribunal investigating crimes allegedly committed by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1994 is likely to be left unaddressed – just as Kagame wanted.

The most recent source of tensions between Kigali and Arusha is the final destination of the ICTR’s extensive archives. The argument isn’t new – it has been brewing since 2009, or earlier. While Rwanda demands that the archives be housed in Kigali, the ICTR has expressed a number of concerns about this solution – both officially and unofficially. These range from the pragmatic (the lack of proper facilities to store the archives in Kigali), to the legalistic (the archives, compiled by the UN, legally belong to the international community), to the accusatory (a concern that confidential information might be “lost” or used inappropriately in Rwanda). In his speech, Kagame made his position categorical: “we should be the primary custodians of all these things because they are the core part of our history and of great value to us. There is no sound reason why all records regarding the genocide should [not] be in our custody in our country, here in Rwanda.”

The conclusion of the gacaca process had a predictably warmer mention from Kagame. He praised Rwandans for administering justice and, at the same time, uniting as a nation. Gacaca has been criticised by some human rights organisations – and others – for falling short of international legal requirements for trying genocide crimes. In other quarters, it has been praised as a monumental achievement and commended for its grassroots, participatory nature; the speed with which it dealt with the backlog of cases; and the emphasis on incorporating reconciliation into the legal framework. Some genocide survivors have argued that, while the judicial process has been accelerated, true reconciliation is likely to take significantly longer. I wonder whether this is where Rwanda's youth will really come to the fore – a generation living in the shadow of the memory of a genocide it did not experience.

Piotr Cieplak
Publications and Communications Officer, Africa Research Institute

ARI has collaborated with Dr Phil Clark (SOAS) to evaluate the impact of Gacaca in Rwanda in our most recent Counterpoint: ‘How Rwanda judged its genocide.’

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Personality politics in Malawi

I first heard mutterings about the death of Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika hours after leaving Lilongwe on my way back to London. I had been in Malawi conducting research for a forthcoming ARI publication which will examine the work of the Malawi Law Commission, and wider issues of law reform and constitutionalism. The death of President Mutharika sent shockwaves through Malawi’s fragile political system, and the region. The fallout has been telling, and highlights the predominance of personality over institutions and the rule of law in Malawian politics.

Malawi’s constitution provides for succession by the vice-president if the president dies in office. The erosion of the rule of law, which characterised Mutharika’s presidency, led his allies to believe they may be able to subvert this constitutional provision, and install Mutharika’s brother Peter instead. The official announcement of Mutharika’s death was delayed in an attempt to buy time before claiming that Vice-President Joyce Banda was ineligible for the presidency.

In 2010 Joyce Banda was expelled from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after she refused to back Peter Mutharika’s candidacy for the 2014 election. Mutharika’s allies alleged that Banda could not become president since she had violated the constitution by joining the People’s Party (PP). The constitution stipulates that if an MP leaves the party under which they have been voted into office and joins another party – known as “crossing the floor” – their seat is to be declared vacant.

The problem with basing the claim against Banda on her “crossing the floor” is that Bingu wa Mutharika also “crossed the floor” during his first term in office. He was elected on a United Democratic Front (UDF) ticket in 2004, before establishing the DPP, a party that relied heavily on attracting opposition and independent MPs to achieve a parliamentary majority. In none of these instances had an MP’s seat been declared vacant.

Diehards and Democracy – a recent publication from Africa Research Institute – examines trends in recent African elections and notes that multi-party polls have fostered more widespread observance of formal rules and procedures. The constitutional succession that saw Joyce Banda sworn in as president on 7th April seems to be part of this trend. Banda promptly began talks with donor countries about reinstating aid which had been suspended after diplomatic ructions over Mutharika’s increasingly authoritarian rule and economic mismanagement. She is likely to devalue the kwacha as has repeatedly been demanded by the IMF. A shortage of foreign exchange triggered a fuel crisis. In March, petrol was a staggering £6 a litre on the parallel market. Petrol stations, displaying a promising Kwacha 340 (£1.32) price, were empty.

The aftermath of Mutharika’s death highlights more fundamental challenges to constitutionalism in Malawi. Previous presidents have often ignored, or attempted to amend, constitutional provisions which are not in line with their political aims. In 1995 Bakili Muluzi repealed the “recall provision”, designed to make MPs more accountable to their constituents. In 2003 Muluzi attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to remove the presidential term limit so he could be re-elected for a third term. Local government elections have not been held since 2000. An amendment to the Local Government Act, pushed through by Mutharika in 2010, empowers the president to hold local elections when he or she chooses. With possibly as few as 100 weeks remaining until the 2014 presidential polls, there is still no Electoral Commission in place.

The change of tack that many people hope Joyce Banda will bring about indicates that personality politics continue to have a firm foothold in Malawi. As long as political and judicial institutions are kept weak, the realisation of democratic reforms will continue to be dependent on the goodwill of the president.

Rather than rushing to celebrate a new wave of democracy in the wake of a chance event, reforms aimed at strengthening political institutions and the entrenchment of constitutionalism, should be prioritised. Most importantly, this must be done in such a way that these cannot easily be undermined – regardless of who is in power.

Hannah Gibson
Policy Researcher, Africa Research Institute

ARI is working with Janet Banda of the Malawi Law Commission to produce a publication examining issues of law reform and constitutionalism in Malawi.