Leaders of Sierra Leone, Senegal, Malawi and Cape Verde explain their approaches to governing to achieve stability and economic development during a discussion at USIP. The group visited Washington as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to promote examples of good governance and economic growth in Africa.

Jose Maria Neves, Ernest Bai Koroma, Johnnie Carson, Dr. Joyce Banda, Macky Sall
Jose Maria Neves, Ernest Bai Koroma, Johnnie Carson, Dr. Joyce Banda, Macky Sall

One president expressed support for reducing the term of his office to five years from seven. Another said she was determined to continue unpopular but necessary reforms even if it costs her re-election. A third has pulled his police and military forces through security sector reform. And a prime minister has eight women among his 15 government ministers.

The four top leaders of countries in sub-Saharan Africa stand in repudiation of the worst stereotypes – and some of the poorer records -- of governments on the continent. They spoke at the U.S. Institute of Peace March 29 as part of a visit to Washington for talks with President Barack Obama at the White House and with others on the link between good governance and prosperity in Africa.

President Obama a day earlier cited Presidents Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, Macky Sall of Senegal, Joyce Banda of Malawi, and Prime Minister José Maria Neves of Cape Verde as examples of what it takes to strengthen democratic institutions on the continent to spur economic development and regional stability. African nations often have struggled in the decades since their colonial days with dictatorships, corruption, natural disasters, arms and narcotics trafficking and various insurgencies.

In contrast, the four leaders’ decisions “have contributed to significant economic development and security gains in their countries and also in their respective regions,” Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson told the audience at USIP. He moderated a discussion among the four leaders that was televised live, with questions from the audience on site and through Twitter. “All of these leaders are focusing on tackling the most significant impediments to development in their countries,” Carson said.

The West African nation of Sierra Leone held free, fair and credible elections last year in which almost 90 percent of registered voters participated peacefully and 58 percent awarded Koroma a second term, he said. It was the country’s third election since the end of its decade-long civil war in 2002, and its economy is expanding rapidly.

Koroma established institutions to shepherd democratic change, including a National Commission for Democracy and an Independent Media Commission. He drove through reforms in security forces to improve their adherence to human rights standards, and has worked to bolster the agriculture and mining sectors to strengthen the economy.

“When there is democracy and stability, it will open investment opportunities,” Koroma said at USIP. “That is why we now believe that Sierra Leone is no longer a country of blood diamonds ... I believe that Sierra Leone is on the move.”

Senegal, also in West Africa and on Mali’s eastern border, just a year ago faced instability and economic contraction, Carson said. With the help of Sall’s political and economic reforms, the economy is expected to grow by almost 5 percent this year, Carson said. Last year’s election increased the proportion of women in the parliament to 44 percent, and the government now is making a push to end a long-simmering conflict in the southern Casamance region.

“We have understood that democracy is everybody’s business,” Sall said, noting that Senegal hasn’t experience coups as have so many other nations on the continent. He also said he’s seeking to solidify the rule of law in Senegal and reduce corruption to “a level that will be almost insignificant.”

He drew laughs when he said he’s putting one of his country’s two presidential jets up for sale because he only needs one. “No one seems to be interested in buying it. It might have to be given to a museum,” he said.

“I am in favor of a reduction of the term of office of the president from seven years to five years,” Sall said, adding that Africa today in general is far from the “clichés” that focus only on civil wars and coups. “Africa today is a continent on the march.”

Banda moved into the presidency of Malawi almost a year ago after the sudden death of her predecessor and a power struggle with his supporters who reportedly had long been scheming with him to install his brother in his place. She became Africa’s second female head of state after Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. As of last year, a woman also heads the African Union’s secretariat.

“I want to thank all African men for creating space for women of Africa to participate in leadership,” said Banda, a longtime grassroots and women’s rights activist.

Immediately after she took office, she “moved to implement tough but necessary political and economic reforms,” Carson said. She devalued the currency, removed price controls for fuel and cut government expenses. “In her first 100 days in office, President Banda has turned Malawi around. As a result, the country’s economy is expected to grow twice as fast this year as in the previous year.”

The island nation of Cape Verde off Africa’s west coast has risen from the bottom of many development indicators under the leadership of Neves, Carson said. The country has one of Africa’s highest literacy rates, consistently high economic growth and one of the best foreign investment environments, he said.

Governments in Africa need to focus more on political plurality, the environment and developing their burgeoning populations of young people, Neves said. He and others emphasized the need to stick to legitimate rules of the game rather than changing the rules when they’re no longer convenient. “There is no development without stability; there is no development without democracy,” Neves said.

New U.S. efforts to bolster African nations include a policy directive last year from President Obama on strengthening democratic institutions and spurring economic growth, and the Young African Leaders Initiative that was started in 2010 to promote democratic governance and a culture of human rights among the continent’s youth.

Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government agency that is investing $9 billion for economic growth in low-income countries that practice good governance and allow economic freedom, has compacts with Malawi, Senegal and Cape Verde. The agency has designated Sierra Leone as eligible to develop a compact, and Cape Verde became the first to reach a second agreement after having successfully completed its first, Carson said.

The U.S. Institute of Peace conducts extensive programs in Africa on areas including rule of law, security sector reforms, electoral violence prevention and strengthening the role of women and girls in societies.

“I think the most important thing that we can do for Africa is to build capable governments, capable states, states that can guarantee democracy and stability,” Neves said.

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