Africa’s (Large)4 Problem

There is wide agreement that the African developmental problem is largely rooted in its institutions. The quality of governance is considered a relevant indicator of a country’s prospects for achieving high rates of economic growth and development. The link between good governance and economic performance is complex but largely operates through elements of the costs of doing business, political stability and investments in public goods that improve productivity.

The importance of the quality of institutions in determining economic outcomes has motivated researchers to develop various methodologies for measuring the quality of governance. Based on one of the most widely-cited governance indicators, the WGI, developed by Kaufman et al., many Sub-Saharan African countries perform relatively poorly on all aspects of governance. Another recent effort that has focused on the quality of institutions in Africa is the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which has been produced for the last three years and the latest installment has just been released.

With few exceptions, and irrespective of whether one uses the Kaufmann et al or Ibrahim indices, the rankings of the quality of governance in Africa show that geographical size matters: small states generally performing remarkably better while large states associate with weak governance.

The link between size and the quality of governance becomes more apparent when one considers three other characteristics: large population, high degree of population diversity, large endowments of natural resources together with large geographical size. The interaction of these aspects seems to translate into disastrous outcomes. Countries that satisfy all four or even three of these conditions generally score poorly in terms of governance and economic growth. Examples of countries with this (Large)4 problem include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Chad, Angola, Cameroon, and Sudan.

There are some exceptions—South Africa is large and well endowed with natural resources but is much better governed, and Somalia is small on all dimensions but it scores lowest in governance. But the exceptions are few and far apart.

The exceptions notwithstanding, it is fair to say that African countries are characterized by the quadruple problem of “largeness” that seems to affect governance. A 2004 study by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace observed that African states that are big in terms of land mass and population tend to be chronically unstable politically and have dismal record of economic growth. Other researchers have attributed Africa’s failure to develop to its large population diversity.

Evidence also shows that the presence of large natural reserves tends to undermine the quality of institutions often resulting in the resource curse. By combining large geographical size and population with a large degree of population diversity and abundance of natural resources, the result is a fairly messy situation. Thus, it does appear that the governance measures are in some respects reflective of the complexities of governing states that are characterized by what I refer to as the (Large)4 problem.

Consider some of the poor performers in terms of governance: Sudan has a land mass of 2.5 million square kilometers—over 25 percent of the area of United States. The country shares borders eight countries. Although not that large in terms of population (about 40 million), the country is richly endowed with natural resources, primarily oil, and has over 100 ethnic groups and a complex North-South-Muslim-Christian divide. Nigeria is smaller in geographical size than the very large Sudan, but still equal in land mass to the combined size of California, Nevada and Oregon. And Nigeria has a population of about 150 million and is home to over 250 ethnic groups and large oil reserves. The DRC is the third largest country in Africa, shares borders with nine countries, has a very diverse population of close to 60 million, and is well endowed with many natural resources.

If I am correct that size does matter, and given that all the dimensions of size discussed are not subject to policy manipulation, then it seems rather futile to talk about improving governance in many of the African states without significant restructuring of the state. True, establishment of anticorruption agencies, reforming judiciary and other such reforms might help deal with the problem of governance to some degree, but it seems that such reforms are unlikely to deal with core sources of state weaknesses.

In some work that I did during the early 1990s, I noted that many African countries were beyond their “optimal size.” I specifically noted that Sudan was ungovernable as one country under a system of unitary government. Likewise, I suggested that most nations could be better governed under a highly decentralized federal system even if this meant some degree of ethnic federalism and autonomy. Ethiopia has now adopted an ethnic based federalism which seems to have contributed relative peace in that country. As part of Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement, Southern Sudan is supposed to vote in a referendum on whether to be part of a the larger Sudan or opt to be a separate nation. Other African countries are considering federalist constitutions. It seems that such far more reaching initiatives to restructure the African state hold more promise to improving governance in Africa than the standard governance reforms that do not go to the core of the problem of size.