The Day was inspired by the independence movements, as well as a desire to develop and commemorate African unity, identity and cooperation. This day in 1963 saw 32 newly-independent African countries gather in Addis Ababa, with the intention to encourage independence of countries still under colonial rule and begin the process of developing a Charter to improve the lot of African brethren.

When the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) became the African Union (AU) in 2002, the commemoration of Africa Day continued and is widely celebrated as a cultural event in most parts of Africa and elsewhere.

Each year a theme is decided and for 2018, the Continent has coalesced around the theme of “African Union Agenda 2063”, which promotes “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena”.

The component parts of Agenda 2063 include the following:

For many on the Continent, the theme and its aspirations are just that, aspirations and like a headline, not always relevant to lived experiences in towns, villages and rural compounds where the reach of government is distant and public services are more privilege than right. For millions, the social contract between government and citizen is frayed and save for election years, absent. Many people do not understand that which they are entitled to and that which needs to be delivered by a public service that is responsive, transparent and accountable to citizens.

The imperative to focus and understand the nature of the public service in Africa was the theme for discussion at a recent Mo Ibrahim Governance Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, on 28 April 2018. The motivation for the day-long proceeding was: “Public Service in 21st Century Africa: their key relation to good governance and effective leadership, new challenges and current shortcomings, the ways and means to strengthen them and make them appealing to the next generation. Without strong public services and committed civil servants, at local, national, regional and continental levels, there will be no efficient delivery of expected public good and services, nor implementation of any commitment, however strongly voiced”.

This quote from the programme above sums up a multitude of concerns that were discussed in detail by an international panel of experts, including former Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel, on the topic of “Assessing the Current Supply of Public Services”, and former Telecoms Minister, Jay Naidoo, on the issue of “Building a Sound Contract between Citizens and Public Service Providers”. Both spoke scathingly of South Africa’s recent experiences and of the impact of state capture and corruption, aided and abetted by some public servants, and the detrimental impact it continues to wreak on the country. Speaker after speaker echoed similar sentiments from other parts of the Continent. Interestingly, a request from a speaker to elicit interest from the audience – by a show of hands – in joining the public service was insipid to say the least, which bodes the question, who will occupy these positions in the future and why such a cynical response.

Grandiose themes and commitments will come to naught, until governments on the Continent take seriously the imperative to be responsible and responsive to citizens’ needs at national and crucially at local levels. Here, the dividends of democracy, accountability and transparency are most likely to be felt.  These principles often translate in how people receive and enjoy public goods and services delivered by employees of the State. These public servants are often the vital connection between citizens and State. When they fail to do their jobs, schools, health systems, water provision and sanitation services, amongst a myriad of needs, are compromised and neglected – with citizens paying a heavy price.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation based many of the themes for the Governance Forum on a seminal research report, Public Service in Africa, undertaken by the Foundation. The Report traverses key themes including the following;

The content of the Report provides grist that must be digested and acted on lest citizens tire of the fight and turn away or turn against governments, and organisations like the AU become hollow entities celebrating once symbolic days like Africa Day.

Africa Day and its representations of unity, identity and cooperation per its intentions in 1963 must reverberate in word and deed five and a half decades later. The 54 members of the AU must hold themselves and each other to account to ensure that citizens of the Continent enjoy peace, stability, prosperity, quality education and a range of services, delivered efficiently and effectively. This – more than a commemoration of a day – will bring meaning and succour to Africa’s populations.

By Ms Zohra Dawood, Director

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