LONDON – My career as a businessman in Africa has turned me into an activist for better, cleaner government and for the rule of law. But promoting good governance is not just a matter of encouraging good leadership at the top (although I believe that definitely helps); it also requires all of us to be able to fulfill our responsibilities as citizens, and realize our rights.
In several African countries, there are impressive legal instruments in terms of independent court systems; but the challenge consists in impartial implementation. Democratic accountability requires that citizens can use the law, as well as be subject to it. For example, these countries have laws that prohibit seizures of land without due process and compensation for the owner; that bar public servants from accepting bribes; and that require government funds to be spent on the public good, not for private gain.
In the countries that currently do well on the Ibrahim Index of African Governance – Botswana, Ghana, South Africa, and others – citizens can use the law to protect themselves and their property from illicit encroachment, and to resolve their disputes in an impartial setting. For those at the bottom – Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic – the rule of law is a fiction that must be made real.
This work is already being carried out in places: in Sierra Leone, a country recovering from a brutal civil war, community-based paralegals are helping villagers to settle disputes peacefully; in Malawi, they are helping to reduce unnecessary imprisonment. In Mozambique, local legal experts have helped villagers draw up proper titles to their communal lands, helping to secure their economic future. In Kenya, community groups have used freedom-of-information laws to ensure that money earmarked for local school construction is properly disbursed.
This is the rule of law in action at the local level, and it is building, often from scratch, a culture in which disputes are settled peacefully and benefits distributed transparently. The alternative – recourse to violence in the face of unequal access to resources – has led to a cycle of political instability in many countries, with the consequent lack of economic development that has come to characterize much of Africa’s recent history.
As the debate on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals unfolds at the United Nations this year, it is my fervent hope that African governments will endorse the inclusion within these goals of measurable targets for access to justice. To be sure, the dominant themes that are emerging in the UN discussions – jobs, economic growth, infrastructure development, and poverty reduction – are all still desperately needed across the continent. But the rule of law is a fundamental principle that does more than promote economic growth, and it would be a serious mistake not to include it in the SDG agenda.
Indeed, acknowledging that all must be equal in the eyes and practice of the law is a prerequisite for strengthening the social contract between the state and its citizens. Without greater fidelity to the rule of law, too many African citizens will continue to see their futures blighted and their countries’ resources wasted.
If we are to build grassroots respect for the institutions and processes that constitute democracy, the state must treat its citizens as real citizens, rather than as subjects. We cannot expect loyalty to an unjust regime. The state and its elites must be subject, in theory and in practice, to the same laws that its poorest citizens are.
Mo Ibrahim is the founder and Chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.