The benefits of good governance: How US foreign policy can better help Africa

By Alan Cunningham

The United States relationship with Africa is something that I have felt has been neglected in the past twenty and thirty years. In the minds of many Americans, Africa is usually one of the last areas considered when discussing foreign policy or international affairs. With the Biden administration’s reinvigorated policies on Africa and a seeming commitment to better improving relationships with various African countries, it is important to look at how the United States could, through foreign policy measures, could improve the quality of life for many African nations.

However, the country is extremely important strategically and has a rich and vibrant history and culture. In my view, the most significant issue facing Africa and U.S. foreign policy is the emplacement of a strong, central, and domestically recognized government. As Bruce Jentleson notes in his book American Foreign Policy, “Various studies have shown a strong relationship between good governance and economic development, despite disagreement about sequencing and casual direction. He further notes President Obama’s views on U.S.-Africa policy in which he states, “Development depends on good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That is the change that can unlock Africa’s potential…African doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions”. I think this is incredibly important to ensuring that the continent as a whole is more stable and is effectively able to take part in the international financial, social, and political institutions. To me, before anything else can be accomplished, a strong government built upon liberal democratic policies and philosophy must be created in places like Somalia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Eritrea. Yet, this is more easily said than done.

For the U.S. to try and establish a core, central government in a foreign country is not at all easy. If the U.S. were to take a stance like this, then discussions about the U.S. trying to set up a proxy government or become more enmeshed in a country for personal and ulterior motives would be raised. For this reason, due to the level of public outcry and domestic political opposition, I do not think that this type of strategy would work very well. While some may believe that extensive U.S. physical intervention in a country can work to promote a democracy, I would argue that, more often than not, this type of activity in a foreign nation hurts the chances of said nation becoming a more stable and effective democracy.

Instead, I argue that the government and people of that country, with support, can take up the task of good governance. In an article published by the Brookings Institution, John Mukum Mbaku, a senior fellow, writes, “Weak governance manifests itself in other ways as well: Too often dysfunctional governance processes persist, creating environments where civil servants and political elites act with impunity, embezzling scarce public resources that could be used for education, healthcare, infrastructure, water treatment plants, electricity, farm-to-market roads, or technology. Elites are usually not incentivized to implement pro-poor economic programs that enhance the ability of the poor to participate productively and gainfully in economic growth, such as public investments in primary and secondary education, clean water, basic health care, and child nutrition”. These are some of the key problems to creating a strong government in many African countries, with corruption being widespread in the police, intelligence, and military forces, and poverty being a daily problem for much of the average populace within certain African countries.

According to Mbaku, “The type of governance structure that each African country should strive for over the next decade is one that should address peaceful coexistence and economic development, inequality, the effects of climate change, health pandemics, and enhanced regional cooperation, as well as ensure the full and effective participation in both the economic and political systems of groups that have historically been marginalized…First, countries in or recovering from crises must engage in process-driven constitution-making to produce an agreed-upon governing process characterized by the separation of powers, with effective checks and balances, including a robust and politically active civil society; an independent judiciary; and a viable, free, and independent press [noting that marginalized groups, a system of checks and balances, and safeguards to prevent social and political issues must be included]…Second, the countries that have progressive and inclusive constitutions undergirded by the separation of powers, including Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa, should engage in national dialogues to help their citizens understand and better appreciate the importance of the constitution to governance generally and the protection of human rights in particular…Third, all African countries, with the aid of civil society, should develop and implement education programs to help citizens understand and appreciate the constitution and its provisions, and recognize the law as a tool that they can use to organize their private lives and resolve their conflicts, including those arising from trade and other forms of exchange…Fourth, each African country should engage in regular dialogue, where necessary, to revisit such important governance issues as the centrality of human rights in the structure of the country’s constitution, as well as a strong and independent judiciary…Finally, each country’s citizens, especially its legal and constitutional scholars, including those in the diaspora, should play an important role in shaping the institutional and legal environment for the transformation of Africa’s governance architecture during the next decade”.

Mbaku’s ideas I believe are thought out and could potentially work within many African countries. The establishment of a fixed Constitution and Bill of Rights that are reflective of society and are able to be enforced is the first step towards a fully functioning democracy. While some may argue that the other problems of corruption, drought, and poverty must be fixed before a government is established, I would argue that good governance can fix these human security problems and that the establishment of a strong and central government can fix a large amount of these problems that many African countries are currently facing. A question that remains however is how the United States could be able to bring Mbaku’s vision to fruition in Africa. Given that the U.S. is the largest power in the world and has the ability to become involved in virtually any country or nation, it makes sense that the U.S. should take a stance of a support.

By this, I mean, supporting leaders, politicians, and government officials in foreign lands who are more sympathetic to liberal democratic ideas as well as supporting key governmental institutions that can foster those liberal democratic goals. I would argue a similar approach to how the United States dealt with reunified Vietnam in the 1980s/90s. Seeing the potential for an improved relationship, the U.S. began coordinating with the Vietnamese to modernize them, bringing them into the global economy and affairs in return for personal matters (names of all those missing or captured during the war, assistance with locating deceased U.S. soldiers, etc.). By assisting a former enemy combatant in normalizing relations and bringing them into the global political and financial stage, the country of Vietnam was drastically able to improve the quality of life for their citizenry, their standing within Asia, and their overall ability to become a productive nation. I feel that the U.S. taking these kinds of steps is very important to improving the overall stance of Africa. Take Somalia as an example.

Quite simply, Somalia is one of the more well-known countries within Africa, at least in American consciousness. It is the site of a major foreign policy and military failure in the last half of the 20th century and has remained a war-torn nation since American (and seemingly international) aid and involvement left in 1993. However, as Jentleson mentions, “In 2012, for the first time in 20 years, the Somali parliament met and a new president was chosen, raising hopes for further progress”. I believe that what the U.S. should do to promote a system of good governance in Somalia is to assist in, first, rooting out the clan governmental system in Somalia; this can be done by providing financial, military, and administrative aid to key governmental institutions (the Ministry of Agriculture, Minister of Power and Water, Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, etc.) while also promoting a governmental accountability office that can monitor the government and keep them in check and ensuring that boundaries are not crossed or that those that do embezzle or misuse funds are removed and charged. As well, the establishment of a broad constitution that will appeal to a variety of ethnicities and minorities within Somalia will assist in winning the broad support and public majority that can assist in the legitimization of a government. The winning of the hearts and minds of a populace, while often spoken pejoratively, is very key to establishing a fully, effectively functioning democracy.

Simultaneously, by creating this coalition and strengthening the country’s primary institutional body and the governmental resources at their disposal, the Somali national government could then go on the offensive, combating terrorist groups while practicing counterinsurgency in a similar vein to what was seen in Kien Hoa province during the Vietnam War. The province was commanded by Tran Ngoc Chau, a lieutenant colonel in the ARVN (South Vietnamese military) and former Viet Minh soldier, who, “trained specialized teams, tasked with gathering intelligence and providing help with digging wells and building bridges, constructing clinics and schools. Most important, he introduced an “open arms” policy, which provided NLF defectors and their families with financial help and exemption from the draft. “I didn’t want to kill anyone,” he remembered. “I wanted to convert them. When I located a real Viet Cong family, I tried to win them over and, through them, also to win over the family member who had left. Only after those steps failed did I order my teams to capture or kill them.” Taking this form of COIN tactic I feel would be very effective in general, but especially against ISIS and other terror groups. However, a key ingredient to defeating these groups is having a viable and effective alternative form of government. The U.S. could provide COIN trainers to Federal Government of Somalia military personnel while going on missions to advise and train, coordinating with well-known COIN theorists from the academic and military community and teaching the government officials and soldiers who to engage with the public on a positive basis when on military missions. I feel that the U.S. would be able to perform this quite well.

I too feel that a democratic government would do well by trying to improve the basic functions of their state, improving their economy, social services, and the rights of the average person. A centralized government could improve this by taking a land redistribution and nationalization format, similar to what Guatemala tried in the early 1950’s (before the government was overthrown by the U.S.). By doing this, the government could have full control over the country’s biggest exports which (according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity at MIT Media Labs) is sheep and goats, bovine, insect resins, and molluscs. While these commodities are not exactly the most high demand, certainly gaining access to new markets in Asia, Latin America, and Europe would prove beneficial and could assist in revitalizing the country’s economic standing. However, what must occur first and simultaneously with this economic revitalization is the creation of that strong and central authority that is a legitimate response to terror groups and warring clans.

Sadly, however, I do not see this as being taken by any government or international organization any time soon as Somalia is quite simply seen as being incapable of being reformed or saved, despite the progress that was achieved in 2012. Many countries seemingly regard the country as being a decayed state with no economic or political benefit towards their own countries by intervening.

Alan Cunningham is a graduate student at Norwich University

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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