The Pandemic Triggered the Questioning of Current Governance Systems in Africa

An interview with Dr. Ibrahim Mayaki, CEO of the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD)

In this interview for INET’s COVID-19 and Africa series, Camilla Toulmin and Folashadé Soulé discuss with Dr Ibrahim Mayaki, CEO of the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) about how the effectiveness of State responses to COVID-19 in Africa have been very visible, and are leading to far greater public scrutiny of the public sector and prospects for better governance.

Dr. Mayaki of the Republic of Niger has been the Chief Executive Officer of the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) since January 2009. A former Prime Minister of Niger, from 1997 to 2000, Dr. Mayaki set up the Analysis Centre for Public Policy in Senegal in 2000. He was a guest Professor at the University of Paris XI (2000-2004). He went on to serve as Executive Director of the Rural Hub, based in Dakar, Senegal, before taking up his current position.

In our discussions with African leaders and thinkers so far, many see the COVID pandemic as laying bare the weaknesses in current economic structures and relationships, and that Africa’s COVID recovery offers a starting point for doing things differently. Do you agree, and what lessons do you take from the COVID crisis for changes in Africa’s future economic direction? What has to change?

My first point is that such views have a certain truth. However, it also has to be put in perspective. It is true that, due to COVID-19, Africa has known its first economic recession in the last 25 years. It is recognised by multilateral institutions that generally, we had good economic growth rates and well-designed macro-economic policies in most cases. We were doing quite well and sustainability of debt in the pre-COVID period was fundamentally not an issue. However, there were some red flags for certain countries to be more careful, but overall, the situation was not alarming.

The second point is that the economic model we have been following is a consequence of structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s and 90s, and which was not sufficiently inclusive. We still are the most unequal region in the world. Inequality and youth unemployment are very important issues. The median age in Africa is 19 years and every year we have about 20 million young people coming onto the job market, but only 12 million jobs are created, and these are mainly in the informal sector. So, inclusivity was not the characteristic of that growth but nevertheless, we did grow. The COVID-19 pandemic accentuated existing fragilities, which you can see mostly in the social sectors – education, health, etc. - and we hadn’t invested sufficiently in primary health care. Evidently our capacity to respond to the pandemic was weakened by this limitation. We really need to take primary health care more seriously. Before COVID-19, we had 34-35 million children out of school and evidently this has increased with the pandemic. Pre-existing fragilities have been worsened during the COVID period.

The third point, to which we don’t give sufficient importance, which is happening as a consequence of the pandemic, is a questioning of the governance systems we have had till now. Why? The pandemic created a situation where governments face public opinion and public scrutiny directly, and the effectiveness of the solutions they are promoting can be gauged immediately. If you supplied sufficient masks or not, it was seen. If you had sufficient diagnostic tests, it could be seen. This immediate visibility of the efficiency of the State was immediately sensed by the population. It created a dynamic evolution where trust in public institutions has been reinforced in places where the response has been positive, or severely damaged because the response was not there. This is the most important facet from which will come a new economic model. Till now, governments and States had the monopoly of designing public policies. COVID-19 has led to communities becoming more pre-eminent, so we will likely see more co-creation of public policies. If it happens well, it will allow a reform of the economic model. If it doesn’t happen, we may see violent changes in certain parts of the continent.

The pandemic has shown the many advantages of coordinated collective action by African institutions, international institutions like the WHO, the World Bank and African governments, in addressing the health crisis early on and looking for financing. What are the key preliminary lessons that can be derived from this collective action and exercise of African agency for the future?

The first important point is that Africans could give concrete substance to the concept of regional integration. We have been promoting, discussing and reflecting on African integration through investment in physical infrastructure, but in this particular situation and in response to the pandemic, we could see an immediate reaction based on regional integration. You will remember that all the Ministers of Health met in Addis Ababa as soon as the pandemic started in February 2020. We had an organised and structured African Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and they drafted a roadmap which was immediately implemented in all countries, with the CDC outlining what needed to be done; for example, how to collect and report data et cetera. At the African Union level, we started putting in place mechanisms for the procurement of personal protective equipment, and diagnostics, and began thinking about a vaccine even before the COVAX system started. So, the content and purpose of regional integration in that domain was clearly understood by Africans and that has been one of the big lessons of the crisis. We realised we could use the same kind of approach in other domains beyond the immediate health issues. It also opened new reflections for African institutions. The World Bank, IMF, and EU have been helpful by accompanying us, without getting into the detailed discussions and decisions that were led by Africans.

The second lesson is this - most of the time when we design public policy, we bring our ideas and co-construct with donors and partners. However, this time we didn’t co-construct in this way but moved out on our own path which gave a real, tangible sense to what regional integration could do. At the same time, it opened new pathways for reflection in a very concrete manner. Access to vaccines was a real issue so we quickly started talking about vaccine manufacturing and that raised the question about broader manufacturing capacities on the continent. This concrete example has pushed us to reflect on the way we had been proceeding with regional integration. It is true that the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which was looked at rather theoretically by most Africans, even though it was a huge step forward, suddenly made sense. This is because it could enhance the creation of regional value chains, sharing lessons learned about manufacturing, especially from specific countries like South Africa which could produce and link to the other parts of the continent. Regional integration became even more real, once we started looking at the global scene. What we saw was vaccine nationalism, and we saw that global solidarity always starts with national solidarity. That meant that we as a continent really had to count on ourselves. If we look at the numbers of vaccinated people today, we see that in many countries there is a surplus of vaccines and people are talking about boosters. In contrast, in our countries, most people have not even had their first shot. So, there are economic questions about manufacturing, but there are also moral questions that need to be asked.

My other point is around vaccines and government behaviour. Some governments succeeded very quickly in getting vaccines accepted, while others couldn’t convince their populations to get vaccinated, despite having access to various media sources and much more information than in the past. It is therefore interesting to ask why some governments succeeded and others did not succeed in this domain. We have a list of countries where there is a surplus and people are not queuing to get the vaccine, and other places where there is a deficit and people are very keen to be vaccinated. Communities have played a big role here. Generally, the ordinary citizen believes much more in their community and on the views of local groups than what the state and governments are saying.

African countries will not be able to achieve their ambitions for economic growth and structural change without access to energy. COP26 has been an important moment to discuss climate and the constraints this places on Africa’s energy choices, but this is at a time when many countries are also discovering new reserves of oil and gas. How should fossil-fuel-rich countries navigate their future, given huge needs for energy on the one hand, and risks from stranded assets and climate change on the other?

Most western countries industrialised using fossil fuels and have benefitted enormously from them over the last 200 years, an era of explosive growth. Historically, Africa has been the least emitter of greenhouse gases, the principal drivers of climate change. This is nothing new. However, African countries have still made strong commitments to the Paris Agreement, in order to do their bit and contribute their part to the global goal of reducing warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. There is, on the one hand, a commitment to an international accord, but there is also, on the other hand, the sense that as we industrialise, we shouldn’t make the same errors that others have made. We need “green industrialisation”. But the problem is no one in the history of economics has gone through a process of green industrialisation, there is no model. It will need the construction of a fundamentally innovative process, which requires transfer of technology. When African countries want to use gas to be able to industrialise quickly, there are some global institutions that are critical of this use of gas. But look at California, where their renewable energy supplies rely on gas for base-load power. Within our new economic model, we must think about what kind of transition we want to take. We should not be blinded by severe commitments because we still have 50% of our population who do not have access to energy. Our transition cannot be one that increases extreme poverty. It must not increase the burden on the most vulnerable. We should think of a green energy mix that can allow us to have a reasonable implementation of commitments and at the same time reduce extreme poverty, which has been rising during the pandemic. That’s the way we should think about energy. We cannot reject coal. If you reject coal in South Africa today, you will significantly reduce people’s access to energy, since coal remains central to the grid. Nonetheless, we should have a mix of energy sources, and think about the use of renewables in an intelligent manner, following a learning curve in coherence with reducing extreme poverty and achieving more inclusive growth. Otherwise, we will be doubly penalised because we fully implement commitments, which doesn’t make sense. We need incentives to move towards green industrialisation.

Some initiatives associating with the private sector were launched during the pandemic, such as the mVacciNation digital toolbox with Vodacom, Mezzanine and NEPAD. How do you assess the impact of such joint initiatives? Do you think the African private sector has been involved enough during the crisis? What lessons can be derived for the future?

There are some critical issues here. First, if you look at indicators of innovation and levels of expenditure in R&D in Africa, it is mostly driven by the private sector. Sometimes governments create an ecosystem that allows the private sector to be much more innovative. It happens in Kenya and some other countries. Innovation comes from the private sector, and if governments want to implement innovative solutions, they have to partner with the private sector. That’s the spirit with which we went into our partnership with Vodacom, MTN and now Orange for the mVacciNation solution so we could tap into the innovative capacity of the private sector through these partnerships. We found a very receptive private sector to engage with, not only the big ones like Vodacom but also a full range of start-ups that are emerging from countries across the continent and have enormous energy in terms of innovation. So, this is the context in which the governments are working. Some have pushed in a resolute manner in the creation of an ecosystem that can let these innovative institutions emerge. Some haven’t done it at all, but this hasn’t prevented these actors to rise up.

We realised that we could as a development agency of the African Union create very concrete partnerships with private entities. The receptivity of many governments has been very high because they realise they need to facilitate quicker, accelerated vaccination programmes, get the data on how vaccination is going, and then correct and adapt it based on feedback. So this is also one of the lessons which can be drawn from the pandemic. The behaviour of central governments has been shaken because they have discovered two things: they recognised their weaknesses and two, they have at the same time understood that there are many innovative ideas happening, structures, products and systems from which they can benefit. But in order to do so, they need to partner with business, which demands a fundamental mental shift. Most civil servants in African countries do not have a private sector culture, so their ability to link with them is somehow limited.

We need to create a space where there can be intercultural interaction between government and business, which allows this partnership with the private sector to flourish. We also have decided to promote this, and we have an initiative called 100,000 micro, small and medium-sized enterprises. We know most employment in Africa is in the informal sector - 80% of those employed in Africa are in the MSMEs, and the pandemic hit them very seriously. Our idea was to create a digital platform supported by financial institutions – we have a partnership with ECOBANK and accompany them in managing the financial and institutional stresses which the pandemic has brought. We created a Digital Academy and a digital platform to allow them better access to finance. Why a Digital Academy? To allow them to move from informal to more formal structures. This partnership with the private sector helps shape and change the behaviour of our states and governments culturally and structurally too. I like the work of Mariana Mazzucato very much, and her book The Entrepreneurial State, which describes an approach that is greatly needed in many of our countries.

As a former Prime Minister of your country Niger, and President of the Sahel and West Africa Club of OECD, we must ask you how you see the future of the region. Ten years on from the overthrow of President Gadhafi of Libya, terrorist and jihadist groups have embedded themselves very firmly in much of Mali, and parts of Niger and Burkina Faso. Neighbouring countries, like Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal, are increasingly concerned with spill-over. Military solutions don’t seem to be working. What political and economic measures could bring a better result?

The first thing the political elite in the Sahel must do is to recognise that they are the principal people responsible for this situation with the jihadists. That’s absolutely fundamental. If you think that jihadism is just an import from elsewhere, and the consequence of the extremely negative NATO intervention in Libya - while this does play a role, it is not the main cause of jihadism. If you say it’s the acceleration of the influence of particular religious figures, or Middle Eastern countries which have established radical religious education networks, if you believe this you are way off the mark. You are not facing reality. The reality is that our governments in the Sahel have completely neglected the territorial dimensions of planning and implementation of development. If you put two maps of the Sahel one on top of the other, you see those areas where the government has been active to improve health and education, and compare with those areas where jihadism is rife, you realise they have grown in those locations where the government has been absent. We need to recognise this as the elite.

Moreover, our response cannot be based exclusively on military intervention. The response must be the presence of the State in those zones that feel they have been completely abandoned. Evidently, the presence of the State currently demands a military presence, but the military by themselves are clearly not enough. The fundamental question for the Sahel is the re-establishment and re-founding of the State. There is a lot of writing and literature on this subject, but the re-foundation cannot be done by elites based in ministries in capital cities. Let me give you an example. When I was Prime Minister, we launched a survey before an exercise in national planning to see what the population really wanted. We asked the population of Niger about priorities for health, water, roads, education, health, and so on. Astonishingly, what came to the top of the list as the priority across the country, was not water, health or education, it was justice. It was a system of justice that was equitable, accessible, and not corrupt. They needed this to live their lives with dignity. In this context, you see that a military solution cannot provide all the answers. Clearly, if you have people with Kalashnikovs, you need people on the other side who also have Kalashnikovs. Given the evolution of the conflict, there are people who are now drawing a livelihood from these criminal activities, which have nothing to do with jihadism. It is easy to recruit young people at US$2 to $3 per day who become kings and lords in their own right when they hold a Kalashnikov.

We need to rethink the presence of the State. The army cannot sort out the problem. What we need is the State to be present in a decentralised, locally rooted form. This demands the presence of public services, and engagement with local communities in deciding what is to be done. The State has to be decentralised. It is a new way of thinking. If we don’t go in this direction, we will follow the route of Afghanistan – many billions spent and nothing to show for it. States must be present and make difficult but necessary choices in budget expenses. They should no longer prioritize the functioning of ministries that have no capacity to deliver anything in practice. We must help to construct local communities themselves who can then become a rampart and defence against the jihadists. Unfortunately, this essential shift in approach is not well enough recognised and understood. Instead, we see the multiplication of military actions and the corresponding spread of jihadist and terrorist groups. Too many international actors also participate in the illusion that this is the way to make progress.

Changing course won’t be easy. It will be slow and long, but we must follow the right road. We must renew the State, decentralise our budgets, and reinforce community-based actions so that people can judge for themselves that they are better off under the aegis of the State than jihadist groups. This should be our aim for the medium and longer-term. At the OECD Sahel and West Africa Club, we are trying to create space where people from a wide variety of backgrounds can meet, in what we call the Concertations sahéliennes to ask the real questions and co-construct policies and solutions with actors on the ground.

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