Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Building a Capable State - Oct. 11, 2004

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
October 11, 2004— Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Fourth African Development Forum
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Dr. Amoako, Host of the Conference,

Ms. Mongella, Honorable Ministers,

Madam Vice-President

Distinguished participants.

Dr. Amoako, I thank you for the intellectual leadership you have shown in promoting the African development agenda and I thank you for the opportunity to participate in this Fourth African Development Forum. The parallel Ministerial Conference on Beijing + 10 provides added value.

It has been seven years since South African President Thabo Mbeki suggested the need and the coming of an African renaissance. It has been three years since our African leaders launched the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

The renaissance implies a rebirth, a renewal, a new commitment, new values for Africa. NEPAD provides the road map for transforming the renaissance into accelerated development, based upon a commitment between governments and their people on the one hand and between Africa and its international partners on the other.

We are still struggling throughout the continent to get the momentum and the enthusiasm that lead to a renaissance and we are still struggling to get NEPAD and progress made under the innovative peer review system accelerated and integrated into the thinking processes on the ground.

The lessons of experience suggest clearly that good governance practiced by a capable state is a pre-requisite for the achievement of those goals.

The definition of governance can be narrow, restricted to the exercise of political power to manage a nation’s affairs. In this context, the focus is on state sovereignty and those measures that enable a state to manage the affairs of nation-building efficiently and effectively.

A broader definition of governance covers two distinct but clearly related dimensions: one political, relating to the degree of state commitment to the welfare of the people; the other technical relating to issues of efficiency in public management.

In its broadest and more appropriate concept, governance includes but goes beyond the concept of management of the state and the welfare of the people. It embodies the processes of leadership determination; legitimacy; transparency and accountability, both policy and financial; participation, the protection of human rights; dependability and predictability; capacity and institution-building.

Interaction between the public and private sectors in determining how power is exercised is also an important characteristic of governance. These are also the pre-requisites for moving toward a capable state, able to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of poverty reduction, education access, gender equality, etc.


A major factor in the pace of Africa’s emancipation was the quality of political leadership – those who provided vision and hope to the people; those who commanded the respect of the rank and file of the population; those who motivated and channeled the energies of the people toward clearly defined goals; those perceived as honest and accountable, the choice of the people.

These qualities of post-independence African leaders conform to the concept of leadership which denotes the ability to motivate, to lead, to guide with the purpose of achieving defined objectives and promoting movement and change in the society. These qualities form part of a leader’s personality, shaped by values and norms to which the leader is exposed over time.

Africa’s traditional legacy has played a part in our leadership characteristics. The traditional society with the authoritarianism of the chieftancy, the centralized administrative systems of colonialism, the replacement of populist liberation leaders by military regimes have all contributed to what is considered the scarcity of good leadership in Africa today.

In “Institution Building and Leadership in Africa” Brautigan comments thus on the institutional constraints which have produced this leadership scarcity.

He says, “Leaders and followers are both ensnared by the politics of patronage and society currently offers few countervailing forces. As long as leaders make arbitrary policy decisions not based on careful analysis, as long as they rule mainly through patrimonial ties rather than rational legal norms, there will be little demand at the top for analytical capacity, technical skills and good management in public administration.”


The legitimacy of African governments continues to be an issue in the evolution of the modern state. To a large extent this stems from fraudulent electoral processes and the tendency of leaders to resist the good practice of limiting their term in office. In many instances tenure is delayed to perpetuate rent-seeking practices on the part of government officials and to continue nepotism which favors particular groups.

The issue of legitimacy goes beyond electoral fraud and office tenure. It brings into question the role and stature of traditional rulers and long standing customary structures and cultural norms in the society. Leadership inheritance in the chieftancy structure may provide legitimacy to the beneficiaries in the eyes of the cultural group but run contrary to the principle of choice as established by the state.

The traditional practice of female genital mutilation may be seen as legitimate by the people, but illegal by the government. The co-existence of monogamy and polygamy in a system where such duality is allowed may result in tensions in the exercise of both modern and traditional norms.

It will require bold leadership to address these disjunctures on the basis of legitimacy established by the will of the people while protecting the rights of those who may be victimized.

Transparency and Accountability

Transparency and accountability are key elements in the practice of good governance. There are several dimensions to these tenets and several reasons for the failure of governments and other actors in the society to be open and accountable.

Transparency requires that the public has access to knowledge and information regarding the decision-making process in the management of the affairs of state. Accountability requires participation and responsiveness to the public regarding the effect of policy decisions.

There is increasing public demand for adherence to these principles. The demand is for policies that foster democracy and development; for a budgetary planning process which is open and subject to public scrutiny; for measures that ensure a capable and proper functioning civil service with an adequate level of remuneration; for the design of a code of ethics for public service and measures to address violation by means of corrupt practices, an auditing system that is capable and independent.

The demand reaches beyond the executive branch of the government to the legislative and judicial branches as well.

It is expected that proposed laws will be subject to public dialogue and debate before enactment and that those representing the people will regularly consult and seek the peoples views. A judicial system established to provide legal recourse and protection to the public and to legitimate business interests is expected to render decisions and judgment openly, in conformity with the constitution and laws.


Participation is embedded in the principle of democracy in which people have a voice and a say in the decisions that affect their lives. The exercise of choice in association, or religion or economic activity is fundamental to this principle. Representative democracy enables people to participate through those freely elected by them and entrusted to decide or administer affairs in their name.

Subsidiarity or decentralization is another principle of participation for which there is growing demand.

This is necessary to change the post-independence centralized systems of governance. A system of decentralization involving a larger number of persons in the decision-making process and the provision of public service goes hand in hand with a devolution of power and authority from the center to the periphery.

As noted by Calme (Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation, France): “No democracy is possible without clear allocation, on each level of governance, of exclusive powers for which it is fully responsible.”

A functioning system of subsidiarity is essential for a capable state.

Human Rights

The respect for and promotion of human rights as one of the principles of good governance can be defined simply as the promotion of human dignity through the exercise of basic human freedoms. In other words, respect for human rights requires respect for the sanctity of life; respect for the right to speak freely with responsibility; respect for the right to choose one’s religion and one’s friends; respect and confidence in the assurance that the rule of law protects an individual from the violation of their rights, particularly by the state.

The 1999 Human Development Report addresses these concepts in a single all-embodying theme: “The mark of all civilizations is the respect they accord to human dignity and freedom.”

Dependability and Predictability

Another key element of good governance is the level of dependability and predictability in the management of the affairs of state. These are important elements in the effort to promote an enabling environment that attracts private capital and investment.

While it was possible in the past for a society to achieve dependability by relying upon traditional custom in modern societies, subjected to powerful new technologies that are reshaping and globalizing the world, it is necessary to have policies and measures that are responsive to changing conditions. Dependability in this context implies stability plus responsiveness to changing circumstances.

Consistency in policies and practices promotes confidence in dependability and provides the basis for predictability. These two reinforcing principles are far more important to private sector actors than tax holidays, investment incentives or subsidies.

Capacity and Institution Building

Capacity and institution development in both public and private sectors are required for sustainability in development effort. The response to this need within the context of a capable state generally involves a restructuring of the civil service in a move toward the establishment or strengthening of a meritocracy.

Bold action on the part of government in this regard would require a redefinition of the role of the state, allowing to itself only those functions necessary to protect the territorial integrity and security of the state and those that provide the social and economic services to the public that would be lacking otherwise.

The establishment and strengthening of government institutions responsible for managing the development process is a necessary part of the governance reform agenda. The process of institution-building takes time – it requires diversity in representation at all levels of government. It represents a long-term investment, which is achieved and sustained only in a peaceful, stable and predictable environment. The measures required to achieve this goal - to build a state capacity that functions with efficiency and effectiveness include a peaceful environment free of conflict, a deep-rooted and long-term educational system, skills-building through technical training and a properly compensated civil service. Consistency in policies nurtures creativity and industry. A capable state not only builds capacity through these measures but also retains capacity through the practice of good governance.


A system of good governance and a capable state also requires a partnership among the three relevant pillars of the society -- government bureaucracy, the private sector, and civil society.

The private sector includes both the formal - manufacturers, industries, financial institutions etc. and the informal - artisans marketeers, petty traders. A buoyant private sector is an essential and most times the missing link in Africa’s development. A system of good governance provides the leadership that ensures that the private sector has access and resources, human and financial; knowledge, labor and markets.

Civil society represents the third element of the partnership. A strong civil service, which has a stake in society and knowledge of their role and rights, can provide important checks and balances in the society. It can address the root causes of corruption and address the vested interests that prohibit and undermine the processes of change. This is essential in a democratic society committed to good governance.

Conclusion: a capable state

Honorable Ministers, Distinguished participants,

The challenges faced by African countries to build a capable state which manages the affairs of nation building in an open and democratic environment are many.

As we go through the processes of economic and political transformation, we are bound to experience both the positive and negative effects of the transformation.

The positive results in development brought about by sound, growth-oriented economic policies and a liberalized political environment are clear; supported by empirical evidence, more seasoned democracies such as Botswana and, Mauritius are being joined by many – Ghana, Benin, Tanzania, South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria, to name a few.

Twenty-three of our fifty three states have committed to the Peer Review system and the voluntary self-assessment in political, corporate and economic governance performance which this implies is a clear example of this positive result.

The new order inherent in these changes does have problems. Old institutional resistance to change quickly corrupts and even overwhelms fragile democratic institutions resulting in attempts to return to the centralization of power and clientalistic policies.

We need a consolidation of progress; the empowerment of domestic social forces which are prepared to defend the new order of accountability and transparency, the rule of law and protection of human rights.

We need to identify and adopt systems that ensure the regular and peaceful transfer of power. We need more participation of women in all aspects of national endeavor and we need to engage and prepare the young to take more responsibility in the building of our societies. We need more government commitment to development and to the unleashing of peoples creativity and industry in the process of nation-building.

We need an international partnership willing to stop the habit of patronizing while providing deeper and more meaningful support for democratization and ownership.

This is what NEPAD requires and this is what the African Renaissance is all about.

Speech from http://www.uneca.org/adf/adfiv/documents/speeches_and_presentations/101104_Ellen_Johnson_Sirleaf.htm