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Good Governance, Good Grief!

A visiting Martian would be deeply impressed by the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) which documents codes, values and standards of good governance by member states of the African Union (AU): honesty, transparency, participation and accountability in government and public life; rule of law and equality of all before the law; individual and collective freedoms; democratic participation in free and fair elections; separation of powers in the state, etc.

However, historical experience is disillusioning: endemic corruption, gross inequality, judiciaries for sale and a tendency towards rigged and stolen elections. Old dictators long past their sell by date deny election outcomes unfavourable to them, or popular protests that try to remove them from power, their voices ringing with tired slogans of foreign neo-colonial conspiracies. When a crisis arises the AU tends to compromise: better tell the real winners of elections to form a ‘government of national unity’ that to tell a tyrant to get out or face the consequences.

This is ironic, given that most of them, products of the old colonial order, have run their countries into poverty by stripping assets for personal gain at a rate that rivalled if not surpassed that of former colonisers  – as noted by commentator Moeletsi Mbeki (brother of South Africa’s former president Thabo Mbeki, who at least left gracefully when pushed) in his book Architects of Poverty (2009).  Many too have never bothered even to maintain the infrastructure left by Empire.

Sadly, unlike the cases in India described last month by Shaji Kochuthara, civil-society pressure groups are still weak in most places. Leaders play ‘divide and rule’ with communities, sometimes co-opting and corrupting ‘clean’ leaders in the process.

One wonders, from an ecological viewpoint, whether it would be more moral for the AU to stop wasting paper and scrap such useless APRM policy paper trails!

Naturally the religious community is deeply concerned about it, not least because in many areas religious organisations are more or less the only effective providers of health, education and welfare. Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and other faiths protest about poor governance regularly.  Corruption and the challenge to the Church to battle against it was a central theme of the recent Second African Synod, though in my opinion its proposals (in truth more prophetic statements than a programme) were all too vague to be very useful.

Another approach, not as widely tried as it could be, might be a kind of political-moral education programme where one trains the next generation in public values. This was tried in the Political Leadership programme at St Augustine College, Johannesburg, South Africa in the mid-2000s, with the assistance of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Theologically this could include a focus on integrated cardinal virtues, as suggested by Jim Keenan: justice for the wider community, fidelity to one’s neighbours, care for oneself, mediated through prudence.

But would it work? Drawing on cases from Papua New Guinea and Melanesia, political scientist Francis Fukuyama suggests that some societies may simply be too deeply mired in a culture of patronage and Big Men that even the best programmes won’t work. This is saddening. I hope he is wrong. Meanwhile we keep trying.

Anthony Egan SJ works at the Jesuit Institute in Johannesburg, and teaches moral and political theology at St Augustine College in that city.  His doctoral studies were in history and politics.  His e-mail address is: