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Governance and the Supply of Public Services

“You’ve failed us”, Greta Thunberg

“By all of them we mean all of them”, Lebanese Protesters


In 1988, the African Governance Program (AGP) was created at The Carter Center of Emory University with a core concern: How to achieve the efficient, equitable, and accountable management of public institutions? This fundamental challenge was evoked on many subsequent occasions:

At the heart of the African predicament is the failure to establish viable institutions of public life…Africa’s future will not differ from the grim present if a Weberian culture of effective and legitimate bureaucratic organization does not take root in African soil. This precept applies to institutions in the private as well as public realm and, of course, to the state itself which is a complex of institutions.[1]

A few years ago, Roger Myerson, Nobel Laureate in Economics at the University of Chicago, stated: “The most important question in Africa is what can be done to improve governance.” Similarly, Hafsat Abiola, a Nigerian state commissioner and civil activist, cautioned: “Politics crowd out good governance.” Despite the ending of major wars, the introduction of numerous aid and development programs, and the conduct of many transitions to electoral politics, an impasse in governance has persisted in Africa. One of its dire consequences is the high-risk emigration of individuals and families, overland and overseas, fleeing hollowed-out states, anemic economies, predatory security forces, and violent militias.[2]

In a September 2018 opinion piece, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates highlighted this impasse and its deleterious consequences.[3] While acknowledging renewed economic growth from the mid-1990s, they contend that it seldom prevented the relentless rise in poverty. The reasons they suggested are violent conflicts, rapid urbanization, high population growth, and “weak governance and broken health and education systems.” “By 2050”, they warned, “more than 40 percent of the extremely poor people on the planet are projected to live in just two countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria”.

There are frequent media reports regarding Nigeria’s travails in the struggle against Boko Haram and other extremist groups, systemic corruption, and flawed elections. Nigerian scholars are unsparing in their depiction of the country’s demise. Books such as Authority Stealing (2011) and Against the Predators’ Republic (2016) carry forward earlier autopsies: Crippled Giant (1998), This House Has Fallen (2002), and Dancing on the Brink (2010).[4] In June 2018, the country’s precarious condition was starkly revealed when the World Poverty Clock reported that it had the largest number of poor people in the world.[5]

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila stepped aside as president prior to the December 2018 elections; but he manipulated the highly-flawed process and the selection of his successor.[6] In the introduction to a group of essays, Peter Lewis, drawing on Englebert’s contribution, writes:

Joseph Kabila has followed his predecessors by building a predatory regime that siphons wealth from resource exports, foreign aid, and a large number of illicit economic activities…The state oversees a stagnant economy with few public goods, compelling popular recourse to the informal economy… [As in Nigeria] Congolese elites …operate within resilient domestic networks of influence, distribution and coercion.[7]

The governance impasse, evident in dozens of African countries, is also mirrored in the perplexity of scholars and other analysts regarding this dilemma. No persuasive idea has emerged on how the now-familiar mechanisms can be overcome.[8] In 2019, a social protest movement swept across the globe. In dozens of countries, protesters targeted governments and ruling elites. Often, the triggers were deficiencies in basic public services, and increased fees charged for their provision: water, transportation, electricity, garbage collection, and internet access among them. The rage felt by citizens crossed sectarian lines. Primary goods and services were viewed, no longer just as entitlements, but as fundamental rights. A conviction emerged that prevailing systems of governance were rigged; economic benefits were corralled by the affluent; and elections had devolved into games of musical chairs played by political elites.[9]

The project on Governance and the Supply of Public Services (GSPS) will respond to this core challenge. It will seek through collaborative endeavors to identify pathways from the predicament. The case of Ghana in West Africa is intriguing. Competitive elections have been conducted in this country - with reasonable efficiency and fairness - since the return to constitutional government in 1992. In 2016, however, frequency of electricity cuts became the central issue in parliamentary elections. Unlike in other countries, popular anger was channeled into the competitive party process and electoral system. Voting preferences crossed traditional ethno-regional lines, resulting in a significant swing of support to the main opposition party.[11]

Important research is being conducted on these developments.[12] Can a model for sustainably improving public services - in this case electricity- be designed via democratic means? If so, can the model be scaled up and replicated in other policy areas? What other country experiences provide pertinent comparative information and insights? The Gates’ couple asked in the title of their essay: “What’s about to change?” What must change is predatory and non-developmental governance. A half-century after the publication of Stanislav Andreski’s provocative book, The African Predicament (1968), the search for answers has become a global humanitarian and security concern.



  1. Richard Joseph, “Smart Partnerships for African Development: A New Strategic Framework,” Special Report, United States Institute of Peace, May 15, 2002, p. 10.

  2. Eritrea, a country with 5.3 million people, accounts for approximately 500,000 refugees, attributable largely to political repression, military conscription, and involuntary labor. Adding to the distress in the continent are the ravages of climate change.

  3. “We were making headway on global poverty: What’s about the change?” The New York Times, September 22, 2018.

  4. The authors, respectively, are Wale Adebanwi, Biodun Jeyifo, Eghosa Osaghae, Karl Maier, and John Campbell. To these can be added R. Joseph, Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria (1987; re-issued 2014), and W. Adebanwi and E. Obadare, Democracy and Prebendalism in Nigeria (2013).  Campbell’s forthcoming book is provisionally entitled, “Giant of Africa: Cutting the Cake in Nigeria”.

  5. The travel ban on immigration to the U.S. from Nigeria, announced on January 31, 2020 – allegedly to counter terrorism – will further aggravate this country’s turmoil. NexTier is a source of incisive reports on issues of governance, security and development in Nigeria and its neighbors (

  6. See the in-depth report by Pierre Englebert, “The DRC’s Electoral Sideshow,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 30, no. 1 (July 2019). This oddly-named country is reminiscent of Soviet-era regimes whose inclusion of “democratic”, “peoples”, and “socialist” in their countries’ names bore no correspondence to reality. The practice continues today in North Korea and other remnants from that era.

  7. Peter M. Lewis, “Aspirations and Realities in Africa: Five Reflections,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 30, no. 3 (July 2019), p. 83. The reference to the informal economy is reminiscent of earlier studies by Janet MacGaffey and other scholars. See The Real Economy of Zaire (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

  8. This was the central theme of my inaugural address as John Evans Professor of Political Science of Northwestern University in October 2006: “Misgovernance and the African Predicament: Can the Code be Broken?” It was also delivered the following month to inaugurate a Faculty Distinguished Lecture series at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

  9. The travails of Mr. Omoleye Sowore, founder of Sahara Reporters, who was subjected to arrest and detention in Nigeria after calling in early August 2019 for “Days of Rage”, evoke these convictions.

  10. Then the New Patriotic Party (NPP). It is the party of Ghana’s current president, Nana Akufo-Addo.

  11. Including by Lauren MacLaren of the University of Indiana and her colleagues. A Northwestern student, Alison Albelda, is currently conducting research in Accra, Ghana, on this subject.

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