A new wave of policy makers has arrived in governments across Africa, with a growing cohort of women taking charge

For decades, government jobs across much of Africa were allocated according to patronage, kinship or social network. At the top, strongmen dominated politics from the end of colonial rule to the 1990s, with barely any rulers peacefully ousted at the ballot box.

Today, things look very different. The Organisation of African Unity worried little about undemocratic practice. Its successor, the African Union, is less tolerant. Most of the continent’s dictators are either out of government or out of touch.

A new generation of leaders is entering politics, their outlook more cosmopolitan than their predecessors. “Globalisation has brought what is happening around the world into our living rooms and so people no longer feel as if our part of the world is so secluded and we can carry on at our own pace,” says Kingsley Moghalu, deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. “They see what is happening all over the world and people want to enjoy the stability, economic growth and other positive attributes they see in other societies.”

Nigeria’s trade and industry minister, Olusegun Aganga, points out that, along with a change in consciousness, there is also a shift in skill sets, with managerial experts increasingly powerful within his government. “When you look at the different portfolios in Nigeria, in the most critical ones you have technocrats,” he says.

The same is true in Kenya, where several key posts are now occupied by technically skilled policy makers with diverse global experiences. At 47, Phyllis Kandie, cabinet secretary for East African Community affairs, commerce and tourism, was previously an investment banker, and an adviser to the World Bank and European Union. Henry Rotich, at 44, is cabinet secretary at Kenya’s Treasury, and has previously worked for the country’s central bank, and for the International Monetary Fund (IMF). And Harvard graduate Adan Abdulla Mohammed is cabinet secretary for industrialisation, having previously been chief administrative officer at Barclays Africa.

The old guard stands down

Liberia’s Ellen John Sirleaf, aged 74, stands out as a leader intent on ushering in a new guard. Since coming to power in 2006, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president has sought out promising young Liberians at home and abroad, and offered them training and government work. “The president is consciously trying to put the younger generation in leadership positions,” says Steven Radelet, a government adviser.

Amara Konneh, the 41 year old finance minister, is one of Africa’s most impressive young leaders. His nouse was evident in his early twenties when, displaced by civil war and living in a camp in Guinea, he convened an administrative committee, opened a school and worked with the United Nations to meet the needs of refugees. After emigrating to the US, he returned to Liberia in 2006 and in a short space of time has made remarkable headway.

As planning minister, Mr Konneh led the implementation of Liberia’s first poverty reduction strategy, which connected 10,000 households in Monrovia to the power grid and restored basic government services including health, education and policing to all 15 counties. As finance minister thereafter, he implemented an action plan for the first 150 days of the president’s second term, which saw the rebuilding of the container terminal at the port of Monrovia, and the completion of a new highway from the capital city to Buchanan, which cut in half a four hour journey.

Lessons learned

Policy makers in their 30s and 40s do not remember Africa’s jubilant independence, but they did witness as youngsters its worsening economic fortunes as the 1970s wore on. Now, they are eager to change that story.

Sierra Leonean economist Omotunde Johnson, a former IMF official, says the woeful economic trajectories of post-independence Africa influenced how today’s leaders think about governance. “Countries had seen the consequences of overvalued exchange rates, governments’ excessive borrowing from central banks, non-concessional foreign borrowing, producer prices of state-owned marketing boards that resulted in huge taxation of agricultural commodities, subsidies and price controls for grain and fuel, and mismanagement of government budgetary revenue, especially from natural resources,” he says. “These made them sit up and re-think their whole budgetary management as well as other aspects of their macroeconomic management.”

In several resource rich nations, leadership changes have been accompanied by more responsible management of revenues. “The government framework surrounding resources extraction; the knowledge surrounding the various resource curse types from yesteryear; and the level of transparency that envelopes resource extraction are so much improved,” says Goolam Ballim, Standard Bank’s chief economist, referencing the development of sovereign wealth funds and more robust petroleum development bills, which attempt to share resource revenues more equitably between investors, the state and its citizens.

Poverty and economic crisis are not the only reasons today’s leaders seek a root-and-branch reform of government. Conflict has also been a catalyst. Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president, references his country’s 1994 genocide as the starting point of today’s developmental success. “Our tragic history, and many of the problems we have faced, bad as they are, also constituted a lesson. [It] had its own silver lining in the sense that people have internalised it, they have felt pain. We are there to say: ‘No, you can’t keep like this, we don’t deserve to be like this. There is a way out of this’,” he tells This is Africa. “[Success] also has to come from a mindset that nobody is going to come and take you out of [trouble] without your participation.”

Nigeria’s new cadre

In Nigeria, a combination of greater skill sets and younger perspectives are coming together to improve a broken system.  A power privatisation programme, the first attempt in half a century, promises to improve catastrophic energy supplies.

Anti-corruption efforts are starting to bear fruit in the extractives industry, albeit from a low base. “Nigeria is an example par excellence of the resource curse. And [they are] now working away at getting the figures out, and doing audits, and making things more transparent… They have revealed some very considerable money that hasn’t been paid over, giving some ammunition to parliamentary inquiries,” says Clare Short, chair of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).

The overhaul of banking regulations has seen the country’s financial services sector emerge from a state of mass fraud and inefficiency, under the leadership of the soft-spoken central bank governor Lamido Sanusi. Appointed in the midst of a debt crisis in 2009, his bold moves to fix Nigeria’s corruption-stricken banks toppled eight local chief executives and ushered in sweeping reforms aimed to protect depositors’ cash, recapitalise banks, boost financial inclusion, and curb illicit financial flows. His prudent monetary policy has brought inflation down to single digits and steadied the exchange rate, protecting jobs and growth along the way.

Making those changes in one of Africa’s most notoriously opaque economies is no easy task, but Mr Sanusi has stuck to his guns. “Throughout my tenure of governor I’ve had a very clear sense of who I am there to serve. I have no doubt in my mind that my primary constituency is the poor, uneducated, unenlightened depositor,” he explains. “But since you are standing on the side of the weak against the rich and powerful you end up with opposition every single step of the way. It’s faceless largely, but it’s really about groups and classes who continue to benefit from the status quo who don’t like the change.”

The governor is proud of the reforms. “In 2009 there was a sense that certain people were untouchable; if you have enough money and enough political connections you can do what you want to do. And I think that just being able to remove those CEOs and prosecute them was a great achievement,” he says.

There is still work to be done, and there are inevitable risks of back-tracking when Mr Sanusi steps down in 2014. “Who is chosen as governor will be important in terms of the belief in the reform and how it will continue,” he concedes. “[But] I have tried to get the board of the central bank involved. I have tried to get everybody to own these policies… I am hoping that, having carried the institution along with me, that they really do believe in it, and that whoever comes in will find an institution that is already wired in a particular way.”

Mr Sanusi leaves a meaningful legacy. Standard Bank’s Mr Ballim argues that his reforms have influenced central bank governors across the continent. “You have a leadership influence emanating out of the better policy makers and positive externalities emerging from Lamido Sanusi,” he says. “He has taken the financial services sector, riddled with instabilities, and transformed it. The type of zeal that he has shown to central banking and broader citizenship has created a sense of competition amongst African central bankers, who show him enormous regard.”

Meanwhile, Nigeria’s agriculture reform agenda – led by Akinwumi Adesina, a young agricultural economist and former vice president for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – has been equally impressive. When Mr Adesina arrived in post, Nigerian farming was in a pitiful state. A longstanding national input subsidy programme was rampant with corruption, with government-supplied fertilisers and seeds failing to reach farmers and much produce going missing along the way. “It was a very corrupt system, one of the most corrupt systems that I’ve ever seen,” recalls Mr Adesina. “My job was to clean that up and it took us 90 days. In 90 days we ended the corruption of 40 years.”

His ministry and the central bank launched an electronic wallet system to distribute subsidy coupons which helped farmers purchase seeds and fertiliser directly from companies rather than the government. In the first year, around 1.5 million farmers were involved. With an average of five people per household, that means around 7.5 million people would have directly benefited from the programme. “Taking the government out of buying and selling seed also saved the government $158m a year,” he claims.

Last year, companies sold $10m worth of seed for the first time in Nigeria, directly to farmers. “In one year, the number of seed companies went from 11 to 70 because they could see that the government is out of the way and the farmers are getting the inputs,” says Mr Adesina. The withdrawal of government from fertilisers has encouraged major capital investment, including bold plans launched by Aliko Dangote to build a major fertiliser plant. He says his efforts are working in the long-term favour of Nigeria by reducing the import bill. “When you import something from a country you are creating jobs over there, and creating poverty in your own local domestic market, because you are not producing what you consume,” he warns.

Women in charge

African governments feature a growing constituency of women, who across the continent are filling posts traditionally dominated by men. Among the most senior are the likes of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who in 2006 became Africa’s first female head of state. Last year Joyce Banda became president of Malawi, and in September Aminata Touré was named prime minister of Senegal. Women have also taken power in the most senior ministry of all – finance – in Uganda and Nigeria, where the indefatigable Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala keeps a lively roster of male ministers in check.

“Africa is very progressive, more progressive than other continents. What I find is that I have come into office and I am only one of two [female] presidents, but you find our African men have created space for women to participate in leadership,” Malawi’s President Banda says. “I have been gender minister, foreign minister, vice president, I am president now. I can’t remember a day in those 10 years when I saw anything from a man that suggested to me that I was being undermined.”

This isn’t just a question of playing catch up; Africa has made greater gender gains than many other regions. The average representation for women in sub-Saharan parliaments stands at 21 percent, compared to 9.8 percent in 1995, figures from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) show. That’s enough to make many more developed Western nations blush: female MPs make up 22.5 percent of the UK’s House of Commons, and 17.8 percent of the US Congress. In fact, of the 36 global lower houses of parliament that have reached the 30 percent threshold considered necessary for women to have an impact on decision-making, 11 are in Africa. Those include some of the continent’s lower-income nations, such as Burundi and Mozambique.

“A lot of these [African] countries have emerged in their recent past from conflict and have used the opportunity of reconstruction to address discriminations that have afflicted them. For many of them ensuring that women were part of the political process was a priority,” says Kareen Jabre, head of the IPU’s gender programme. “It was a way of acknowledging the role that women played in liberation movements; that they took on responsibilities during the civil conflict and that they are part of the solution now.”

The most impressive gains have come from Rwanda. After parliamentary elections in September, the proportion of women in the country’s lower house reached an unprecedented 64 percent – the highest rate globally. Many of the country’s female politicians put that down to the inclusiveness of the reconstruction process. “In Rwanda we were for a long time a society in which women were not given political space even if they had the education,” explains Marie Josée Kankera, an MP and former deputy speaker.

But the war changed those possibilities. “We had so many widows, and those widows were mobilised to work hard, to travel, to get enough income to feed their kids,” she says. “We were mobilised to contribute to the redevelopment of our country, to increase our economic capabilities, to finalise our education. After the war, women, girls, boys, and men worked together to rebuild the country.”

Those changes were institutionalised in 2003, when President Kagame engineered a new constitution for Rwanda, which mandated that 30 percent of all decision-making positions must be held by women. “We are aware that historically the ground has not been level, so we had to create some kind of balance by really trying to uplift women,” he explains. That shift has catalysed more equitable legislation, impacting in turn on discrimination. In 2012, a poll by Gallup showed that Rwanda is now considered the safest place for females to live in Africa by its residents.

In Malawi, too, President Banda notes that her gender has influenced her policy decisions. “I saw it as a calling where as a mother, as a grandmother, and as the first woman president in Sadc [the Southern African Development Community], I had a duty not to fail, otherwise I would have failed all the women,” she explains. “I saw myself as a pioneer and a role model who should set the pace for good governance, poverty eradication, the fight against waste and corruption, and bringing issues of gender equality, girl child education and maternal health to the forefront of the development agenda.”

Limits of technocrats

While better governance requires a more diverse demographic in government, one thing is clear: in a nation’s early days, or its most troubled hours, the head of state position remains critical. The qualities of those leaders go further than technical skill or a stint at Citibank.

“There has been a certain generation of leadership which began to have very specific visions of where they wanted to lead their countries,” says the Nigerian central bank’s Mr Moghalu. “You have people like Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia and Paul Kagame in Rwanda. Everyone may not agree with their style of leadership and their actions, but there is no question when you study them closely that these are leaders who have something that Africa needs: a world view. You absolutely need to have a very conscious world view.”

There is an inconvenient truth here; those two countries heralded as the most ‘developmental’ in contemporary Africa both receive criticism for their weaker democratic credentials, at least as measured by the political space and the competitiveness of elections. Even Africa’s best-governed state, Botswana, has never seen a transfer of party power.

Mr Kagame is under fire by those who say Rwanda’s politics are highly authoritarian and without strong and free opposition, but many Rwandans support him because they don’t think another leader would bring the same reforms. Is he vital to Rwanda’s development trajectory, or could the changes continue without him? Asked how long is too long to retain power, the president doesn’t give a firm answer. “I can’t effectively answer that, in a sense of saying: ‘At what point’. It is a bit complicated. Is five years enough? Is it 10, 20?” he responds.

Mr Kagame says countries have a range of democratic settlements, from those enforcing term limits on incumbents, such as the US, to those who do not, such as the UK. Either way, the noise around his position in government has become a distraction, he claims. “I think the debate has been too simplified and we run the danger of saying: ‘No, the stroke of a pen matters more than the circumstances or even what people want or say’,” he says. “In my mind, let’s grapple with the problems and with these questions that we must answer. Are we sticking to the democratic principles of accountability, of transparency and, at the end of it, of delivery?”

There is no doubt that Mr Kagame has been a driver of Rwanda’s accelerated development. But in the end, he acknowledges that institutions are more important than people and that a reform programme can only be deemed a success when its momentum outpaces its original architects. China’s key reformer, Deng Xiaoping, left government just as his changes were taking effect. George Washington, the founding leader of the US, refused to run for a third term – thereby setting a two-term limit only once broken, by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Africa has its own example in Ghana. Many pleaded with Jerry Rawlings not to leave government back in the early 1990s, fearing his reforms would fall apart, returning the country to its dismal state. Mr Rawlings was not worried; he assumed his vice president, John Atta Mills, would win. But as it happened, he lost to John Kufuor, leaving nascent reforms in the hands of the opposition. Yet, far from falling apart, Ghana was strengthened, and has enjoyed six peaceful elections since to become one of the strongest democracies, and best governed countries, in Africa.  “You need to move from power invested in a person into creating the institutions,” says Liberia’s Mr Radelet. “That transition is really critical.”

This article is based on research and interviews carried out by This is Africa, a publication from the Financial Times, for its November project Africa’s Reformers, supported by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative.