Few would discount the assertion that Africa is one of the most ranked, scored and measured of regions. The past two weeks alone have brought a flurry of reports and indices measuring the performance of African countries on aspects ranging from good governance to openness to business, from organisations as diverse as Transparency International, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) and the United Nations. Relatively new to the list is the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which recently released the 2008 edition of its governance index.
On the credit side, the index assesses governance in a large number of African countries - 48 in all - based on a rigorous data-collection methodology. Where possible, it incorporates year-on-year data to track the progress of countries. Most impressively, the index is remarkably comprehensive - measuring governance on 57 criteria. Whereas many assessments of governance tend to focus on a few specific areas - corruption, gender equality and so forth - the Ibrahim index explores governance across a broad set of indicators ranging from safety and security to government performance in assisting citizens achieve health, wealth and wisdom.
Unsurprisingly, Mauritius tops the index, with Cape Verde, Botswana, the Seychelles and South Africa making up the rest of a predictable top five. Liberia receives special mention for improving the most, while Zimbabwe snatches 33rd position out of 48 based on data collected in 2006. The rest of the extremely well-thought out index offers few surprises.
Yet, for all its strengths, the index fails to poll African people on their opinion of the quality of governance in their respective countries. This is an unfortunate oversight - given that strictly formal measurements of government performance can at best give a limited diagnosis of the true state of governance in any given country.
The challenge of attaining good governance is often at its core a struggle to win over the minds and hearts of disaffected but influential population groups - be they ethnic, religious or otherwise. Some of the index's poorest performers - the Central African Republic, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (CAR) and Somalia - demonstrate that some of the most formidable challenges that African governments face in trying to deliver good governance cannot be sufficiently measured by a set of formal indices and indicators.
The CAR - ranked five places from last - has battled to create conditions for good governance, as is evidenced by a string of violent riots and a noteworthy 11 coup attempts in the last decade alone. This is in large part due to extremely fragmented public political opinion and deep fissures among the CAR's 80 ethnic groups; while various French governments as well as economic and other factors have played a role in bringing about persistently poor governance in the country, perceptions and other informal dynamics have been equally potent forces in maintaining a remarkably high level of political volatility in the CAR.
Similarly, Somalia - unflatteringly dubbed the "world's most utterly failed state" in a recent edition of The Economist - owes its unwelcome status largely to deep-seated hostilities among Somalia's complex social system of clans and sub-clans and the absence of a common vision of the nation's future direction.
In the same vein, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) remain frequently cited governance trouble spots due to irreconcilable public opinion and perceptions regarding politics, ethnicity and race. In Sudan's case, precarious race relations and an extremely dim view of the Sudanese government have arguably fuelled the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region that has claimed close to 200,000 lives and displaced 250,000 people in the past five years.
Likewise, the DRC, which hosted noteworthy democratic elections in 2006 and 2007 and pieced together new democratic institutions after protracted conflict, has struggled to win the allegiance of disaffected and armed segments of the population who perceive the new order as exclusionary and unjust.
Granted, perceptions may be an unscientific means of assessing governance, as they can be at odds with reality on the ground. Developers of the index, a team of Harvard professors, point out that while 83 percent of Ivoirians are optimistic that their upcoming elections will be free and fair, according to a New York Times/Pew Global Attitudes Poll such optimism is hardly justifiable.
Yet an argument can be made that an important ingredient to the success of the index's top country performers is that public perceptions about politics and governance in these countries are remarkably coherent and compatible. South Africa certainly benefits from the fact that most of its people share similar views on politics and governance. The same can be said of Mauritius, where the population's political views are represented by two broad coalition parties, and Botswana, where a pacifistic political culture prevails and public opinion is almost homogenous.
Perceptions remain an extremely powerful force in the day-to-day workings of African politics and the overall quality of governance in Africa. By excluding them from its otherwise noteworthy assessment, the Ibrahim index misses an opportunity to set itself apart from a growing pool of peers.
George Katito is a researcher on the Governance and African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs based in Johannesburg.