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Africa’s Missed Opportunities For The Developmental State, By Duma Gqubule

Aug 19, 2023

In March 2005, Omano Edigheji, who was then research manager at the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), was livid after reading the ANC’s discussion documents for its forthcoming National General Council (NGC), a mid-term review of the party’s performance. The ANC convenes NGCs mid-way between its national conferences, which are held every five years. “The discussion document on the economy was the most reactionary I had ever read. I realised that South Africa would reverse the gains it had made since 1994 if the ANC adopted it. The reliance on the market was prominent throughout the document. There was no conversation about structural transformation,” he said.

Edigheji, an academic, author and policy advisor, who has lived half his life in Nigeria and the other half in South Africa, has had a unique window on economic development in the continent’s two largest economies. In 2010, he edited a book Constructing a Democratic Developmental State in South Africa, a classic that included contributions by the world’s top scholars. In 2020, he wrote a book, Nigeria: Democracy Without Development. How to Fix it. He recently returned to South Africa after serving a term as Special Advisor to Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, the governor of Kaduna State in Nigeria.

In his house in South Africa, he recalled how he told Chris Landsberg, the CPS director, that they must respond to the ANC’s discussion documents. There was no money and not enough time but the Johannesburg think-tank found a way around this and commissioned a number of papers. By the end of June 2005, a few days before the NGC, Edigheji rushed to Luthuli house, the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg, and handed out copies of the CPS response to the party’s top six officials, just before their weekly Monday meeting at 10 a.m. It was a daring intervention that succeeded.

In his opening address to the NGC’s 3,000 delegates on 30 June, President Thabo Mbeki quoted at length from the CPS document and said: “I would like to convey our sincere thanks to the Centre for Policy Studies. Three days ago, the Centre sent me an interesting document. Though we received this document rather late, with no budget to cover its reproduction, I have requested that it should nevertheless be made available to the delegates for their information.” And so it was that the ANC first embraced the need for a democratic developmental state, which was the core of the CPS’ response.

Developmental state theory is an explanation of the experience of Asian countries – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore – which achieved rapid economic transformation to become newly industrialised countries within one generation. They had a “developmental mindset” or “ideological orientation” as Edigheji says. This was a single-minded focus on economic development, which provided legitimacy for the political elites. Typically, there was a long-term vision, broken down into five-year plans with annual targets. The objective was to double the size of the economy every decade.

Developmental states have an “organisational structure” that included: a pilot agency at the centre of the state; a powerful, meritocratic and elite bureaucracy; and a political system that insulated the bureaucracy from special interests. Developmental states utilise a wider range of macroeconomic policy tools that go far beyond Keynesian policies that stimulate demand. For example, Chalmers Johnson, who coined the concept, said state control of finance was the most important, if not the defining feature of the developmental state. It provided an additional macroeconomic policy tool.

In 2007, the ANC conference in Polokwane endorsed the concept of a democratic developmental state. But Edigheji’s victory was short-lived. In 2009, there was “an uproar from COSATU and the SACP when President Jacob Zuma appointed Trevor Manuel as minister in the presidency for the planning commission,” Edigheji says. While Polokwane meeting had agreed on the need for an “institutional centre for government-wide economic planning,” understood to mean a super-ministry, the October 2009 green paper on national strategic planning provided for “everything but a super-ministry,” he said.

Edigheji pointed out that a super-ministry sets the broad policy direction. It determines budget allocations and ensures that they are aligned with developmental vision and plans. The “National Treasury becomes like an ATM.” Now working at the Human Sciences Research Council, he penned a scathing critique of the green paper. The argument was that the state had outsourced its planning responsibilities to part-time commissioners from outside government, for whom planning was a side hustle. By definition, they would not have the capacity to perform planning functions. Since a super-ministry is the nerve centre of a developmental state, the government had effectively killed its own policy.

Soon after the publication of his first book, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi invited Edigheji to the country, which then had one of the fastest GDP growth rates in the world. “I spent the whole day with Zenawi (and his successor Hailemariam Desalegn) and he took me to a local market for lunch.  He understood the concept of a developmental state and aspired to be one but recognised that some of the institutional architecture was missing. I told him that a country in which a ruling party gets 90% of the vote is not democratic and that he needed to reduce the dominance of the Tigray ethnic group.”

Edigheji was born in Nigeria to a family of subsistence farmers and went to the University of Jos where he became a student leader. Upon graduation, he joined the pro-democracy movement during the early 1990s, when Ibrahim Babangida was the country’s military president. “We were inspired by developments in South Africa and Namibia.” He came to South Africa in 1994 and spent four months at the Community Law Centre and Lawyers for Human Rights in Durban as an intern. He returned to the country in 1995  and enrolled for a Master’s degree in Social Policy at the University of  Durban-Westville.

“I became the face of the Nigerian human rights movement in South Africa. I briefed many civil society organisations and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said he would talk to President Nelson Mandela.”   Desmond Tutu subsequently became the first envoy of President Mandela to discuss the human rights situation in Nigeria with General Abacha. In November 1995, Mandela lambasted military dictator Sani Abacha after the Nigerian government executed environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was Edigheji’s friend, and eight other people. “It was a huge turning point in the struggle for democracy in Nigeria,” he recounted.

Edigheji’s interest in the developmental state started when he was doing his master’s degree, and he went on to obtain a PhD in Norway. “The essence of the developmental state is the structural transformation of the economy and the enhancement of human capabilities, including education, health and social security. There must be a patriotic elite that has an ideology of development nationalism and is obsessed with transforming the economy. This requires an  element of madness.”

Edigheji’s second book focuses on the period between 1999 and 2019, when Nigeria had uninterrupted electoral democracy – the longest period of civilian rule since independence in 1960. Nigerian politics is transactional and has no values, he noted. The two main parties – the Peoples Democratic Party and the All Progressives Congress – have no clear ideology. There is a system of “godfatherism”, where financiers determine who gets party tickets. The elected officials, the “godsons”, are the stooges of the godfathers. “The elite has institutionalised corruption as an institutional norm,” he writes. And Nigeria allocates only 7% of its budget towards education, far below a United Nations benchmark of 26%.

Edigheji says when you look at both countries – Nigeria and South Africa – there has been democracy without development. ”The economies of both countries are benefiting the elite to the exclusion of the majority of the people. Both countries have been unable to undertake structural transformation – from oil in Nigeria and minerals in South Africa – or have meritocratic recruitment into the civil service.” In South Africa, almost two decades after the ANC first embraced the concept of a developmental state, the government has pivoted back to the reliance on the market that enraged Edigheji. “South Africa is not only relying on the market, it is dismantling the state, and there are increases in poverty and unemployment,” he says. “We have betrayed the hopes of those who died for freedom. We have dashed the hopes of the whole of Africa and Black people everywhere. Similarly, the Nigerian political elite has followed the same path as their South African counterparts, because it is unable to transform the economy and ensure that every Nigerian enjoys the benefits of democracy. The two largest economies of Africa have not met the aspirations of their people under democracy”.

Gqubule is a columnist and research associate at the Social Policy Initiative in Johannesburg, South Africa.