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Weak institutional environment causing Africa endless problems

Zero accountability and increased informality is the face and failure of Africa’s systems. No system is perfect or fool proof, but systems are a reflection of the unexamined beliefs of their creators, African governments need to take full responsibility for systems in place. A critical examination of African systems indicates their reactive nature, and reactive institutions define our institutional environment. Our systems react to situations and the institutions are easily affected by the environment, and our governments’ response is to hide behind external sources for their behaviour. A weak institutional environment is a risk to development, economic growth, development, safety and security; successful countries have effective state institutions that establish and enforce rules, collect revenue, and provide public services. 

Defining institution

Renowned American political economist, Elinor Ostrom (2005) defines institutions as ‘rules, norms, or strategies that people derive to coordinate or cooperate more successfully in collective endeavours’.

Weak institutional environment

Failure to plan is planning to fail, at present success in Africa is more accidental than a consequence of planned processes. The weak rule of law and excessive informality make monitoring and enforcement of contractual agreements a difficult, if not an impossible, task. This compromises institutional viability and consistency, thus experts often lack reliable data to make predictions for future planning.

By weak institutional environment, we are referring to a context in which (1) enforcement of the rules is low, or there exists broad de facto discretion with respect to their application; and (2) institutional durability is low, in that formal rules change repeatedly, rarely surviving fluctuations in power and preference.

What is Institutional Weakness? 

Brinks, et al. (eds.) (2020), define institutional weakness as the gap between the actual and intended effects of an institution. Given it is difficult for any institution to not fall short of their intended outcomes, strong institutions come close to achieving that while weak institutions will have a much larger gap. As a direct result of Africa’s institutional weakness, political reform has become irrelevant because often the intended effects fall short of their goals. 

Reasons for Institutional Weakness

As a by-product of human creation, institutions are directly affected by human behaviour, in particular the attitude and behaviour of the political elite; various human factors, deliberate and accidental, will render institutions weak, and these include increased informality which makes institutions insignificant and powerless to affect operations.

Brinks, et al. (2020) identify the three types of institutional weakness: insignificance, noncompliance, and instability. Insignificant institutions are by design weak to affect desirable change because they do not have the authority to make it happen. Noncompliance involves political actors who either weaken or at least reinforce the weakness of existing institutions. Finally, instability emerges when institutions change often. Institutions require time to develop, so frequent changes often lead to institutional weakness. 

The conduct of the political elite is a significant factor in the character of any institutional environment. Africa’s deepest problem and weakness is the unwillingness of the elite to change the institutions because there is no inherent benefit to strong institutions to their selfish activities. It is no surprise as argued by Parks, et al. (2017) that attempts to reform institutions in developing countries either fail during implementation or falter a few years later; their achievements often comprise shallow, cosmetic changes to “institutional forms” (how institutions are organised) rather than improvements in “institutional function” (the ability of public sector institutions to solve public problems).

We have seen in Zimbabwe where the relationship between the regime and Gukurahundi genocide and corruption has affected government intervention. Commissions have been created to investigate human rights abuses and other scandalous activities since independence but with no intention of addressing issues at stake, not identifying perpetrators of crimes or making perpetrators accountable for crimes committed but to give the illusion of a government acting decisively against crime. A commission of inquiry was set up to investigate the Gukurahundi atrocities but up to date the findings have not been made public, in fact there are allegations the reports are now missing.

Addressing institutional weakness

Getting rid of the pervasive corruption, cronyism and tribalism should be the first step to addressing institutional weakness; there also has to be a willingness among the political elite to accept institutional rules in place. It is essential that we avoid creating an environment that establishes norms that weaken the rule of law and expose the constitution to deliberate violations by the elite. We need to focus on the institutional design, and our constitutions should avoid any ambiguity that will require political elites to ignore constitutional law.


To be competitive and a true factor on global matters, Africa needs to be proactive, find itself and create strong institutions that reflect its true and diverse image. Fundamentally, the political elite must be willing to behave according to constitutional provisions. Having institutions founded on reacting to other societies’ institutional provisions and impositions has failed us and will, most likely, fail the next generations. When we are the drivers of our institutions, they will have meaning to us and it is only then that we will be able to manipulate our vast environmental potential and afford all citizens a decent, enduring and dignified existence.


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