Institution Building: African Perspective

Interestingly, there’s an almost universal claim that many of Africa’s socioeconomic and political afflictions are due to, and therefore an indication of institutional dysfunctions or lack of institutions altogether.

While that claim is without its substantial merits; there’s and has been, consequently, an equally universal trumpet call, not least from Africans themselves, for, not only building functional institutions but also – and with much emphasis on “strong” – institutions. However, what is and should be cause for concern, is that, the call for “strong” institutions lacks critical consideration to the nuances of the word “strong” in (much of Africa or) African context.

The word “Strong” is widely interpreted (and mistaken) for and associated with physical strength; in many instances, with brutality and, importantly, dominance. So, strength is applied, in most circumstances, to subdue others, often the weak, into submission.

Many Africans, not without exceptions, of course, especially with cultural nuances, tend to demonstrate and convey their “strength”, even in their voices (and intonations), purposely to intimidate those around and surrounding them into fear and eventually submission to their will.

As such, a “strong” institution in a wide African context, is one that displays – and is widely known for – excessive use of physical force, i.e, brutality. Too often, when people say an institution is “strong“, they mean it’s brutal; known for excessive use of physical force.

Where that’s less or, sometimes, entirely not the case, a “strong” institution usually means an institution built on and therefore whose credibility and functions rest on the shoulders and/or head of one person: a single individual in whom institutional power and life is vested. So that, the “strength” of such institution, is in effect and in reality, the strength of such individual. The individual becomes, and is thus, the institution. The institution becomes a conduit of – and functions on – the whims and diktats of such individual.

In other words, the institution works primarily for – and to serve – the interests of such individual. It’s beholden to such individual, in whose (sudden) absence or death, the institution is effectively kaput and rendered ineffectual. That also helps to explain why, for instance, corruption within institutions – institutional corruption, i.e, organised institutional mischief, sometime borderline criminality – and nepotism, cronyism are endemic in many supposedly government or public institutions in many African countries.

It’s not uncommon, for instance, for individuals to brag about their proximity to – or close relationship with – the President (Head-of-State) and his/her spouse and family, and owing their position in a government or public institution to that proximity or relationship with power. So, they serve the individual and his/her interests; and not government or public interests.

Their primary purpose is to effect orders from ‘above‘ and ensure the whims and fancies of those to whom they owe their positions, are catered for and served well, above all else. Theirs, is a concierge relationship with those to whom they owe their positions in what are, supposedly and ironically, government or public institutions.

This also explains why many supposedly government or public institutions in many African countries are run as though they are privately owned entities.

“A system that depends on the right man is a bad system” Milton Friedman

Too often, supposedly government or public institutions are built around a single individual, vesting all institutional power in one individual as the right and only capable individual. This is why, it is imperative to consider avoiding the use of the word “strong” in institutional vocabulary in Africa. In fact, there should be campaigns against the concept or idea of a “strong” institution in Africa because it often means it’s prone to all manner of abuse.

Strong institutions will require strong people, i.e, powerful individuals in and with power to remain strong. Powerful individuals, i.e, those with sociopolitical and economic power in Africa, have demonstrated that they hijack and individualise, otherwise supposedly government or public institutions, hence, the genesis to the creation of the malaise of “Strong men” that blights Africa’s politics.

Institutional building should really be about the building of stable and independent structures of governance and interactivity. That means building structures and systems of interaction, communications and ethos within the institution and inter-institutional relationship and interaction.

Building internal institutional structures and systems that primarily serve the purpose of the institution but also ensure institutional independence from individuals, such as heads of institutions and checks on the likely abuse of institutional power (and privilege) and therefore, ensure institutional continuity beyond individuals.

The strength of an institution lies and should be in the institution’s ability to continue serving its purpose with or without a designated head of institution. Institutional independence, checks on power and privilege and continuity are and should be, among other important factors, what make a strong institution.