Signing Up for Peer Review Will Test Both Obiang and the AU

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17th Ordinary AU Summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. Photo: Embassy of Equatorial Guinea/flickr.

When Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Mbasogo stepped up to the podium at the African Union (AU) this week to sign up to the AU’s African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), it was not clear whether this was a high point or a low point for the initiative.

Was it a great triumph for the 11-year-long effort by the APRM to reform the political, economic and social governance of Africa that it had managed to entice one of the continent’s most notorious autocrats into its democratic embrace? After all, when the APRM was launched in 2003, it was strongly criticised for being a voluntary mechanism that would leave the least democratic African leaders untouched. And yet, here was one of them joining.

Or was Obiang’s signing onto APRM a Groucho Marx moment instead: as one journalist quipped, a case of ‘who would want to join any organisation that would have Obiang as a member?’

Obiang, Africa’s longest-serving leader (if we clearly understand ‘serving’ to denote a career of dedicated service to himself and his family) certainly betrayed no sense of irony or embarrassment when he signed the pledge. He did so in front of South African President Jacob Zuma and other leaders at the summit of the African Peer Review Forum, the body that oversees the mechanism. He thereby consented to Equatorial Guinea becoming the 34th country to have its political, economic and social governance scrutinised by his fellow leaders.

Obiang boldly declared that his signing onto the APRM was a reaffirmation of Equatorial Guinea’s ‘commitment to the democratic principle … to good governance.’ He insisted that his government had in recent years taken important measures on democracy, good governance, economic management and social development.

It is true that having consolidated himself so solidly in power, Obiang has in recent years begun to soften repression in an effort to improve his poor continental and international reputation. Yet he has managed to maintain a firm grip on power; tolerating no dissent.

So was this a low point or a high point for the APRM?

Many observers of Obiang’s move were likely to be appalled, seeing it as yet further proof that the AU does not take its own high values seriously. They would have equated it to the AU’s decision to elect Obiang himself, or the likes of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, as its chairperson during recent years – seemingly oblivious to the impression that conveyed.

Paul-Simon Handy, head of the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis division at the Institute for Security Studies, and a seasoned AU watcher, sees it rather differently. ‘Obiang may not realise what he has let himself in for,’ he says, noting that the peer review process is objective and critical and would not spare him.

A South African APRM official agreed, saying that once the peer review process had been unleashed Obiang would be unable to stop it, even though he might very well not like where it goes.

Steve Gruzd who heads the Governance and APRM Programme at the SA Institute of International Affairs, agrees with both of them, saying that ‘once you let the genie out of the bottle, you can’t put it back in again.’Both Handy and Gruzd note that the 17 country peer reviews that have been conducted so far had been frank and robust in their criticism of the flaws in governance they had discovered.

They also recall how peer review reports had sometimes detected critical, looming problems for countries, such as the election violence in Kenya and the xenophobic violence in South Africa. In both cases these warnings had been ignored, but that was not the fault of the peer review mechanism.

Yet Handy also puts his finger on a significant problem around the APRM, explaining that although its reports are good, ‘what the AU does about them is another matter.’ The mechanism’s means of correction is no more than naming and shaming. The reports are published and the leader of the state that has been reviewed has to face questioning in summits of the African Peer Review Forum, such as the one where Obiang had signed up to it.

When the APRM produced its first report on South Africa, identifying among other problems xenophobia and a failure to properly tackle the AIDS pandemic, then-president Thabo Mbeki was grilled by his fellow leaders. He fobbed off those two criticisms, with rather dire consequences.

Zuma evidently did better this week. His government is sometimes still denialist about xenophobia – preferring to see it as ‘competition for scarce resources’ that sometimes becomes violent, affecting foreigners and locals alike.

But this week – after presenting South Africa’s third progress report on its implementation of the national action plan, which was derived from its original peer review nearly ten years ago – Zuma acknowledged ‘some of the challenges still faced in consolidating democracy and political governance, which included service delivery challenges, instances of xenophobia and violence against women and children.’

In general, though, the report presented a rather rosy picture of ‘extensive progress’ that South Africa had made in many aspects, including economic development, governance, social security, health and infrastructure development. Zuma said South Africa had been praised for such things as its efforts to fight xenophobia and racism, its progress in fighting AIDS and the adoption of the National Development Plan.

Officials said the rollout of the APRM national action plan would be integrated with the implementation of the National Development Plan.

In fact, one can see the fingerprints of the former on the latter – suggesting that peer review has genuinely shaped the approach to governance in South Africa.

Yet, for a leader with far more doubtful governance credentials like Obiang, the meaning and value of peer review is less clear. Though it names and shames, the naming and shaming are pretty muted. A report is published but how many will read it? In fact, would Obiang even allow it to be circulated in Equatorial Guinea if it were unfavourable?

The cross-examination by his peers will happen behind closed doors, whereas on the plus side for Obiang, he can very publicly boast that he has volunteered for critical scrutiny by his peers, sticking another apparent feather of good governance in his cap.

Whether, on balance, the corrective effects of peer review scrutiny ever balance the publicity gains for a particular leader under review, is a moot point. But at least one can say, hypocrisy being the compliment that vice pays to virtue, that the fact that Obiang felt he had to join the APRM to impress his peers, is a sign that good governance has now become at least a widely held aspiration on the continent.

This article was originally published by ISS Africa on 30 January 2014.

Peter Fabricius is foreign editor of the Independent Newspapers group in South Africa, reporting and commenting on South African foreign policy, foreign relations and foreign affairs.

For additional reading on this topic please see:

The Future of the AU
The OAU/AU and an Africa at Peace with Itself
Journal of Conflictology Vol 4, No 2 (2013)

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.

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