Ten years ago, African countries decided to run regular checks on each other’s governance. A small band of idealists now try to save this process from corruption and nepotism.

Addis Ababa, 5h20 on 30 January 2014. There are only a few vehicles on the city’s central Bole road. On the sidewalk some girls in short skirts look like they are on their way home from clubbing. Security guards can already be seen in front of the shop windows with colourful jackets, dresses, jeans and skirts.  The artificial palm trees shimmer in the biting cold.

The whistle blower in the hooded jacket, waiting near the roundabout on this road, is fully awake and alert, her eyes bright and piercing. "I hope that no one will recognize me," she says with a soft Southern African accent. With her hood over her head, she tells me not to look at her face. "Walk with me. People will think we are returning party goers.”

Opaque payments and shoddy work

She fears for her job by talking to me. "But that is nothing compared to the fate of the continent.”  It may sound rather dramatic, but I have heard phrasing like this before. In its ten years of existence, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) has inspired hope among many in politics and civic activism. The brainchild of former African presidents Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Abdoulaye Wade, Thabo Mbeki and Olesogun Obasanjo, it was to be a continental structure that would conduct checks on economic, political and social governance in member countries and detail these in country reports. It would predict risks, such as outbreaks of violence, and reward good management of such risks with technical and financial assistance.

Most importantly, this was to be done not by a former colonial power with its own agenda, but by an institution owned by Africans, guided by eminent persons, free from political manipulation. During my months of research in political circles in Ethiopia, West Africa and South Africa, I have met many people who are passionate about the APRM, and worried about the corruption and nepotism that threaten to destroy it today.

The woman on Bole Road puts her hands deeper in the pockets of her sweater, as if to protect herself.  We must have met the day before yesterday, when I visited the former headquarters of the African Union to speak to the APRM’s Ethiopian acting director Assefa Shifa. I had meant to ask him about the serious accusations of embezzlement, inefficiency, and shoddy performance, raised in two internal reports and also, quite openly, by the chairman of the moral authority of the APRM, the Panel of Eminent Persons. But Shifa, neatly dressed in a black jacket, had said that he was busy, even though he was sitting alone and there didn’t seem to be any emergency. His communications officer, Selela Liziwe, to whom he referred me, has said she was busy too.

"I saw they snubbed you", says the woman on Bole Road. She proceeds to tell me about the use of the APRM’s Trust Fund for unclear ‘missions’, ‘opaque’ payments to consultants, an illegal huge salary for Shifa, and private expenses for his good friend, Liberian Amos Sawyer, a former Chair of the Panel. About the APRM’s 2012 annual report that Shifa produced and that is so riddled with inaccuracies –it features the Congolese president Sassou Nguesso as the President of Uganda, says that Tanzania is a francophone country and attributes the Mauritius flag to Mauritania and Mozambique- that, in the words of the new Chair of the Panel, Akere Muna, ‘is not worth the paper it is written on’.

The whistle blower on Bole Road tells me that Assefa Shifa has destroyed all evidence regarding the procurement of services for the 2012 Annual APRM Report and its printing of 500 copies.

A fake job, mounted for greed

Amos Sawyer’s successor, new APRM Panel Chairman, Akere Muna, is of a different make. The lawyer from Cameroon and vice-chair of Transparency International has called the 2012 annual report a ‘fake job, mounted for greed, full of errors and inaccuracies,” and has placed an embargo on it. “Its release, publishing as it is, would be a disgrace to the APRM.” Later, in a blasting report to the APRM, Muna will denounce many such ‘procurement driven’ projects by the secretariat: jobs only undertaken to provide payments to individuals who are doing fictitious, unnecessary or very bad work.

Muna and his fellow APRM Panel member, Mauritian Joseph Tsang Mang Kin have objected to the tenure of former data manager Shifa, whose mismanagement and shoddy work were already common knowledge in 2012. An internal investigation, the report of which was presented to the APRM Panel in November that year, had expressed concern about the big salary Shifa pays himself, his irregular payments to friendly consultants, unclear ‘missions’ and arbitrary hiring and firing. The report however was shelved after ‘only being presented once, with no follow up’, says Muna. Another report had investigated a dinner hosted in South Africa at a cost of US$ 506, 000 which, mysteriously, was paid for twice.

More than a greedy director

In spite of this, Shifa seemed to benefit from the protection of erstwhile APRM Heads of State Forum President, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi. After the latter’s death in August 2012, his elected successor Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, in charge of the APRM Forum during the damning investigations, didn’t act against him either. Several sources say that she has been ‘protecting’ Shifa because of his friendship with fellow Liberian and former Panel Chair Amos Sawyer, who is also a good friend of Sirleaf. During his time as Panel Chair, from January 2012 to May 2013 Sawyer had also –irregularly, says Akere Muna- extended Shifa’s contract again.

Muna and Tsang Mang Kin point fingers at the current new management authority. In 2012, just before his death, then APRM Chairman Meles Zenawi the Ethiopian, had taken the management responsibility away from the Panel and given it to a new structure, called the Committee of Focal Points (CFP). The CFP had been established just a year before, in 2011. It consists of ministers or highly placed officials, delegated to the APRM by member countries.

And that is precisely its problem. Since all its members are trusted delegates of the leaders of individual member states, they all defend the interests of their own presidents. Furthermore, the chair of the Committee comes from the same country as the Chair of the APRM Forum, which is now Liberia. “This makes accountability to other members of the CFP almost impossible,” says Akere Muna, adding that the body was meant to be a technical committee of politicians and "not a management authority.” Mauritian Panel member Joseph Tsang Mang Kin adds in turn that the Committee cannot be the oversight authority as well as a structure of assessed countries. “It (now) functions as both judge and party”, he says.

Skeletons in the closet

I try many times to get Committee of Focal Points members to comment, but in vain. Some don’t answer the phone; some agree and then change their minds; one minister, of whom I happen to have a direct phone number, answers and then pretends to be someone else. In the words of a Cameroonian minister who begs to remain anonymous: “Every country has its own skeletons in the closet.”

Throughout his tenure as Chairman of the APRM Panel from May 2013 to January 2014, Akere Muna has felt frustrated with the institution being used as a treasure trove, instead of a tool to accomplish countries’ evaluation in Africa. Particularly the lack of country reviews being done irked: ‘none throughout last year’, he will write in his 2014 report. He was therefore happy to see that the UNDP office, which previously had seconded Shifa to the APRM as ‘acting director’, but had become aware of the complaints as well as the earlier irregular extension of Shifa’s contract, withdrew him from the APRM management position in December 2013.

But corruption fought back, as they call it. The Liberian chairman of the Committee of Focal Points, Amara Konneh, unilaterally re-appointed Shifa as the CEO of the APRM and also promised Shifa a new contract.

Murmurs at AU headquarters

At the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Abeba, on January 30, 2014, the war in the APRM is the hottest thing going on. Even Nkosazana  Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, has to shorten a talk in order to attend the APRM discussions. Later that day during her speech in front of all the member states and the APRM organs, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf confirms Shifa’s return to his post as Acting Director and the renewal for four months of the contracts for him and his staff.

After her talk, those present murmur in small groups. "Africa will never take off with this type of management," says a voice. "Who appointed the Acting Director and what is the procedure?" another asks. But the Heads of State meeting that day does not address the scandal. Sirleaf has ordered Akere Muna to only present the APRM ‘activities report’.

"No mention was to be made about this. I had to follow orders,” he says with a sad smile, when we meet afterwards on the third floor of AU headquarters. Tsang Mang Kin, whom I meet as well, is also upset. “I agreed to be part of the APRM because I wanted the best for the continent and its people,” he says, shaking his head. The next day of the summit meeting, following an interview that Sirleaf is giving to South African journalists, I take the opportunity to ask her about the APRM issues but she brushes away my request and quickly disappears. Then I get scolded by an aide. "What you did there is unethical!” she cries. "I say this in the name of freedom of expression!"

The Ethiopian connection

In March 2014, my colleague Othello Garblah of the Liberian paper The New Dawn succeeds in asking Ellen Johnson Sirleaf directly if she is shielding Shifa and her friend Amos Sawyer. Sirleaf denies, saying that it was impossible to fire Shifa last December. "We had three weeks away from the summit. If you don’t have a CEO and there is no time to recruit a new CEO how will you have a successful summit?" She also denies shielding Amos Sawyer, saying: "Dr. Sawyer was head of the Panel of the APRM, elected by them.” When told about this, Akere Muna chuckles. “That is actually not true. Sawyer was never elected. He was appointed directly by Meles Zenawi. Now you understand the Ethiopian connection.”

Johnson Sirleaf did eventually oversee the dismissal of Shifa on 15 March 2014 by the Committee of Focal Points. But the reality, says a local office source, is something else. "Shifa is there at the Secretariat, authorising payments, hiring people, and moving around with the diplomatic vehicle he is no longer entitled to."

A new dawn?

Nevertheless, Akere Muna and Joseph Tsang Mang Kin still have their hopes set on the appointment, hopefully soon, of a new director, a forensic audit of the APRM Trust Fund and proper management rules. In the report that he releases at the end of March, Muna emphasises a host of formal checks and balances that should be put in place to revive the institution. He quotes former Senegalese President Macky Sall, who has said that the APRM, ‘whose main purpose is the promotion of good governance’, must ‘reflect what it requires of others, or else pay the heavy price of losing credibility’. He ends the executive summary of his report with a stanza from Michael Jackson’s ‘Man in the Mirror’ song:

I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change

Whether the report will lead to increasing humming of the song in the African corridors of power remains to be seen.

After ten years at the biweekly L’Evenement in Burkina Faso, Ramata Soré now reports for the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.  She has won CNN Multichoice and Reuters IUCN Media awards.