Diplomat: Civil Society Is Key To Good Governance in Africa

May 4, 2009 – Wars. Failed states. Dictators. AIDS.

Those are just a few of the enormous challenges facing Africa, but there has been progress on all those fronts, especially in the past 10 years, said Jendayi Frazer, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs and former U.S. ambassador to South Africa, speaking last Thursday at a University of Virginia conference on "Good Governance in Africa."

The key to progress is a strengthening of civil institutions and society in Africa, which has been happening at the local, national, regional and continental levels, Frazer said at the conference, hosted by U.Va.'s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and the Miller Center of Public Affairs.

As one indicator of the growth of democracy in Africa, 22 parliamentary elections and 25 presidential elections have occurred in just past two years, Frazer said.

In 2001, Freedom House, a U.S.-based organization that assesses the degree of perceived democratic freedoms in every country, classified 54 percent of African nations as "not free" and only 12 percent as fully "free," she noted.

By 2008, 23 percent were "free," 48 percent were "partly free," and only 29 percent were "not free."

Aid from the U.S. and other Western countries can help to create space for civil society to grow, said Frazer, who helped oversee the Bush administration's quadrupling of U.S. aid to Africa.

But then the messy work of building civil society and institutions begins. Solutions cannot be imposed on Africa, because "universal models just aren't useful," she said.

"Our democracy developed out of our context. Our rules and our laws, our Constitution have changed because we contested that Constitution and we contested those institutions when they weren't working for all of our society," she said. "The same type of back and forth and give and take and sloppy process has to take place within Africa."

"It's their fight. It's not our fight," Frazer said. "Ultimately we have to recognize that we're not the major player in this drama as it unfolds."

Sometimes the fight gets ugly and the West is tempted to intervene, Frazer said. But even a bloody conflict like the struggle of the National Resistance Movement in Uganda, which created more than 400,000 refugees, has eventually resulted in a transition toward a stronger civil society. Though it wasn't pretty, the process was ultimately good for Uganda, Fraser said.

The 2007 elections in Kenya offer a clearer example of civil society eventually proving its resilience. After a peaceful and orderly election with strong voter participation, a declaration of victory by the incumbent party before all the votes had been counted, according to international observers, led to violence in the streets that killed 1,500 and forced 300,000 people from their homes. But then Kenyan media, business leaders and other groups united around a campaign of "Save Our Beloved Country" and the escalating ethnic violence was halted, Frazer noted.

Civil society is also being promoted by the African Union, an organization of 53 member states from across the continent founded in 2002. The organization now refuses to seat any African leaders who gained power by a military coup.

This is an example of a cultural shift toward good governance that has been slow, but is under way, she said. As a next step, the union should also refuse to seat leaders who appear with the union to legitimize their contested elections, as Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe did in the wake of troubled elections in 2008, Frazer said.

"Better governance in Africa is not going to come from the United States yelling at Robert Mugabe," she said. "And it's not going to come even from a lot of us running in to be electoral monitors, even though that is extremely important.

"Good governance in Africa is ultimately going to come from civil society in the countries themselves, and from strengthening institutions, both internally but also regionally and continentally. Changing the norms, strengthening the institutions and supporting civil society domestically, I think, are going to be the key areas in which we and our policymakers should be focused."

— By Brevy Cannon