Get ‘boring basics’ right

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Many African states since independence from colonialism have ironically been a burden, nuisance and even a threat to law-abiding ordinary citizens, yet, give criminals and the corrupt a free pass.

A key failure of the African state, its agencies and apparatuses, since the end of colonialism, is that beyond providing sheltered employment to the lucky few, it mostly extracts resources from its citizens, but deliver very little public services in return.

In fact, the dilemma of the African state is that it takes from ordinary, law abiding citizens and gives very little in return in terms of quality public services; but have many corrupt, talentless and incompetent, but political, traditionally or ethnically connected, living off the public resources extracted from ordinary Africans.

For ordinary people getting a proper service out of the state is often rarely possible without paying a bribe. The state are rarely trusted by many ordinary Africans to pursue policies which are in the public interest. This means calls for the state in African countries to play a greater role in the economy is in many cases distinctly misplaced, because the state lacks public, market and business credibility.

Many Africans have given up on the state, except for grudgingly trying to get the absolutely essential services, such as registering a birth, applying for or renewing a driver’s licence or registering a property. Many more has even given up on reporting a crime at police stations because the changes of getting the “service” of police investigation is remote.

Those with the private means in Africa, often get their public services from the non-state institutions, such as private hospitals, private security and private education. For another, powerful non-state actors, such as militia leaders, crime leaders and traditional leaders often create their own parallel states, enforcing violence, extracting taxes and setting the rules of behaviour for those ordinary Africans have the misfortune to live under their “jurisdiction”.

Typically in an African country, the national, regional or local state will extract taxes for ordinary hardworking, law-abiding and conscientious citizens. Ordinary citizens would pay for water, electricity or property rates. If they do not pay on time, the state will cut these services very quickly.

These law-abiding citizens, needing the public services to get families going, and having neither the finances to secure alternatives, have no other option, but to pay up. These public services are often of poor quality, intermittent and the public servants performing the services often indifferent; and if these services break down, it takes a considerable amount of wasted time, effort and often pleading by ordinary citizens to fix. However, big business, crime bosses and politicians often get a free pass, either paying for little or nothing in terms of property taxes, for water, electricity or rubbish removal.

Public servants rarely enforce the rules; but uses their offices to extract bribes, unleash violence and intimidate. This often very obvious when one drives around in many African countries. In many failed African states there are often a roadblock every hundred metres. In many occasions the roadblock is not to enforce the rules, but to extract rents. What appears to be law abiding citizens are often specifically targeted while perceived to be delinquent actors are often overlooked from scrutiny.

For example taxis can be disobeying the rules in full view of the public “officers”, they are often impatiently waved passed, in favour of targeting what would look like a law-abiding citizen. In some cases, an accident could happen a few hundred meters away from the public “officer” or there may be a dangerous traffic congestion, but these would be studiously ignored, in favour of the opportunity to extract resources from the law-abiding looking citizen.

Similarly, a drug dealer would sell drugs in the front of a police officer, also in full view of the general public, but with no action taken by the officer. Instead it is very likely that the officer will try to extract a bribe from a law-abiding member of the public in the same vicinity, over say, a supposedly parking infringement.

Similarly, tax authorities in African countries often mostly target the law abiding middle classes. Big business, crime bosses and political leaders are rarely forced to pay their taxes. Yet, the moment that ordinary law abiding citizens fail to pay up, they are likely to get harsh penalties.

Getting a service from the state, whether at national or level, such as getting a licence to operate a small business, register a property or getting a passport is often time consuming. It means taking days off, which is costly not only to the individual, but to the whole economy. In fact, it is never realised by governing party leaders, elected representatives and public servants that a state that only extracts, provides pedestrian services and treat citizens with disdain is costly to economic growth, industrialisation and investment.

It undermines ordinary citizens’ confidence in the state. If locals have no confidence in the state, foreign investors, who often get their cue from locals, are unlikely to want to invest. But it also undermines the state’s credibility to adopt or implement policies that need buy-in from ordinary citizens, who knowing the state as incompetent at the service delivery coalface, won’t trust the state with anything complicated.

African states must instead of trying to implement complicated new projects, must concentrate on the boring stuff getting the basics right. These include getting public servants to execute their duties professionally, cutting waiting times for services and getting law enforcement officers to focus on pursuing the real criminals, not to extract the last drop of blood from ordinary law abiding citizens. Getting the boring basics right will boost public, investor and market confidence in the African state.


William Gumede is Chairman for the Democracy Works Foundation and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg).