SPEECH: Remarks at the Panel Discussion by H.E Dr Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Secretary-General of the ACP Group— on the occasion of the 22nd Session of the Crans Montana Forum Brussels, 22 – 24 June 2011 on the topic: Has the time for an open society for Africa
The Chairman of Crans Montana Foundation, H. E. Ambassador Jean-Paul Carteron, Your Excellencies, Fellow Panellists, Ladies and Gentlemen, It is an honour for me to be chairing this Panel Session on the theme: “Has the Time for an Open Society Come for Africa?” This topic is particularly germane not only to current development efforts in Africa but also for us at the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States. The ACP is an intergovernmental organisation representing some 79 member countries. Our identity is rooted in our sense of shared history; in our commitment to the universal values of democracy and the rule of law; in that dialogue of civilisations without which humanity’s future would be cast in grave doubt. With Crans Montana, we are committed to dialogue between civilisations and strengthening that framework of understanding that is so vital to building harmony among nations and peoples. Ladies and Gentlemen, We face a changed, and, in many ways, more challenging global environment. Globalisation has made ours a common global neighbourhood. But it also imposes new competitive pressures on the economies of the poorest countries. The phenomenon of deepening inequities between and within nations imposes new moral dilemmas on all of us who occupy privileged leadership positions. We have seen it recently in what has been termed “the Arab Spring”. In the global governance system and in the development plans of rich as well as poor nations, it is imperative that we create those conditions that allow all citizens to flourish in freedom and in peace. This brings me to the theme of “the open society”; a paradigm made famous by the philosopher Karl Popper and his disciple, the financier and philanthropist George Soros. Perhaps I need not remind us that Karl Popper himself was, first and foremost, a philosopher of science who sought to defend the ideals of human liberty against the tyranny of dogmatism, intolerance and oppressive ideologies of all forms. His ideal is that of a society founded on the free market of ideas; a society that fosters the spirit of open criticism. He understood that all enduring social progress occurs within the framework of incremental problem–solving, which, in itself is possible only through scepticism and a critical spirit. In our age, an open society is, of necessity, a democratic one. In a world rendered small by the Internet, electronic media and telecommunications technology, mass publics everywhere share, increasingly, the same values. Whether in the Arabian Gulf or in the ancient savannah of Africa or in the tropical forests of the Andes, the quest for happiness is universal. They want to live in freedom and to see their lives go forward – to have a future for their children. Your Excellencies, In this regard, I would say that Africa has come a long way. Until recently, wars, conflict and famine — engendered by oppressive government — were the popular image of a benighted continent. From Sudan to the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and the two Guineas, our nations were entrapped in bitter conflicts that imposed a heavy toll on communities and on physical and social infrastructures. While it is true that most of these conflicts were fuelled by the struggle over natural resources such as diamonds and oil, they also have much to do with poverty and the structural violence occasioned by horizontal as well vertical inequities. Above all, they have to do with the absence of an open society; a lack of good economic and political governance and the absence of the minimum requisites of the rule of law and civil institutions needed to sustain economic development, democracy and social justice. Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe that the time for Africa has come. Not only is the continent ready for the open society, the countries of the region are showing a new economic and social vitality. That gives us reason to believe that what was once touted as “the African Renaissance” is not an idle dream after all! Significant strides are being made in economic growth, democracy and good governance. A new generation of Africans, tempered by war, tutored in the crucible of suffering, are irreversibly committed to the ideals of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. This is not to say, of course, that such progress is not without its challenges. But the trends, in my view, are largely irreversible. The first critical area of progress in this respect is the consolidation of good governance norms. The second, and related to the first, is the development of institutions to ensure compliance with the emerging norms. Gone are the days when African governments could hide human rights atrocities under the cover of “non-interference in the internal affairs of member states”. The Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU) maintains a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for unconstitutional change of government. This paradigm shift was informed by the bitter experiences of our recent past, when our nations were characterised by the rule of strongmen rather than by the rule of law; and in which the ensuing instability and war brought devastating consequences on the socio-economic fabric of entire societies. And when some members have deviated from these norms, the continental body has not hesitated to invoke the necessary sanctions. The swift response to the unconstitutional change of government in Mauritania, Madagascar, Niger and Guinea (Conakry) are classic examples of the efforts to elicit compliance with the accepted norms of constitutionalism. This brings me to the second important development of recent years, namely, the development of institutions and processes to strengthen democratic governance. The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), a voluntary peer review mechanism, championed by the African Union through its New Partnership for Africa’s Development Program (NEPAD), is a practical programme through which the state of governance in member states is assessed. To date, this voluntary accountability mechanism has been acceded to by over a dozen countries from East, West, Central and Southern Africa. That states are willing to share their experiences with their neighbours and the wider international community is indeed an indication of how far we have come. Your Excellencies, As it happens, I was the first President of the ECOWAS Commission after it was transformed from a Secretariat to a Commission in 2007; a position that I held until barely over a year ago. Like its sister continental umbrella organisation, the African Union, ECOWAS has articulated some intrusive norms and put in place mechanisms to improve governance among its members. As a matter of fact, ECOWAS norms such as the Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance predate those of the continental body; a testament to the political vision and commitment of the leadership of West Africa’s regional economic community. Thanks to these initiatives, the image of West Africa is gradually changing from that of being a hotbed of conflict to that of a region that is seen as a zone of stability and prosperity. This is, of course, a far cry from the 1980s when nearly the entire leadership of the sub-region had acceded to power through the barrel of a gun. Until recently, the Mano River Basin, consisting of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, played host to some of the most brutal conflicts on our continent. Today, I am happy to note that Sierra Leone, a country that once written off as a failed state, has organized two successful elections since the end of its brutal civil war in 2002. The restoration of hope in Sierra Leone today is a glaring testament of what effective partnership between Africa and wider international community could accomplish. Another salutary case is Liberia, a country that has risen from the ashes like the proverbial Phoenix. Liberia boasts of Africa’s only female elected President, an impressive development that I hope is a harbinger of women’s increasing empowerment throughout our continent. President Ellen John-Sirleaf has embarked on an ambitious programme of reforms spanning governance institutions to strengthening parliamentary and other oversight mechanisms, public service and promotion of private sector-led development. In so doing, she is contributing to healing the wounds of a traumatised people, rebuilding confidence and keeping hope alive. Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, The consolidation of democracy in Ghana, my home country, is leading to the emergence of a stable economy and an increasingly prosperous middle. The Ghana we see today — characterized by a fiercely independent press, a relatively accountable public service, a vibrant civil society and a thriving private sector — is not the Ghana of several decades ago. The country’s remarkable transformation from military praetorianism to one of the most vibrant democracies on the continent is the result of years of political and economic liberalization initiated in the early 1990s by the government under which I was privileged to serve as a member of parliament, and, later Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. Ghana is a good example of what democracy the open society, coupled with transformational leadership, can achieve against all the odds. Excellencies, While Africa is ready for the open society and has in fact made significant progress in that direction, several challenges remain. The first and most crucial is what I would term the absence of “the dividends of democracy.” No society, in my humble opinion, has been built on empty stomachs or in the face of grinding poverty. Africa is no exception to the rule. In this vein, special attention and resources must be dedicated to creating an enabling environment for the private sector to thrive so as to bring about accelerated growth and inclusive development. The second relates to the overwhelming need to develop credible election management institutions to ensure that electoral outcomes earn broad acceptability. A culture of electoral violence certainly portends no good for libertarian societies. Finally, there can be no open society without its watchmen and women. Free republics require strong institutions of civil government and effective constitutional safeguards. These can take various forms, ranging from parliamentary oversight committees, Human Rights Commissions, free press and access to information, to a strong and active civil society. The experience of democratic societies the world over makes it clear that free societies cannot flourish in the absence of effective institutions for public accountability. I thank you for your kind attention.