When a citizen in Ghana gives a thumbs up to a politician, it doesn’t mean “OK” or “good job.” It means “I’m watching how you govern.” The gesture derives from the ink put on voters’ thumbs after they cast a ballot in an election. As one of the few countries in Africa with a healthy democracy, Ghanaians use their thumbs year-round to hold their leaders accountable.
This bit of political trivia is important in light of the wave of Africans fleeing to Europe, many of them perishing in boats on the Mediterranean Sea. An estimated half-million Africans are waiting in Libya to make the dangerous crossing. The European Union is scrambling to solve this crisis, and the one solution with the most staying power is to improve governance and prosperity in those African countries sending the most migrants.
In April, for example, the EU helped Ghana launch a “national migration policy.” One aim is to improve job prospects for youth who might be tempted to migrate. Last year, about 4,500 Ghanaians made it by sea to Italy. Some are refugees fleeing forced labor. The Global Slavery Index estimates about 100,000 people in Ghana are in some form of modern slavery. Others just seek work.
Democracy, in other words, does not necessarily guarantee that an African country can keep its people at home. Nigeria had its first peaceful transfer of power to a different party in 2015. But it is also the largest source of migrants to Italy so far this year. The other big sources are Gambia, Somalia, Ivory Coast, and Eritrea. In many cases, people are fleeing repression or violence. But also, as Africa’s overall economy has outpaced the rest of the world’s in recent decades, a rising middle class simply has more money to spend on smugglers – about $2,000 a trip – to get to Europe.
Last year, the EU set up an “Emergency Trust Fund” to help African nations prevent this mass migration. The EU and its member states are spending about $20 billion a year on the continent. As the Legatum Institute in London points out in a new report on Africa, the best indicator of a country’s prosperity is good governance, such as the promotion of civil liberties, a strong rule of law, effective institutions, and a diversified economy. Africa needs more models along those lines.
Ghana ranks high on the institute’s “prosperity index,” with a gross domestic product per capita of $4,143. It has had six elections since 1992. Two of those saw the peaceful transfer of power to the party out of power. Fewer than half of African nations can claim that kind of democratic progress. Because of its better governance, Ghana is at least willing to work with the EU to deal with its many migration issues.
Over the past quarter century, Africa has made gains in both its economy and democracy. The EU is now trying to speed up that good news – despite setbacks in many countries, such as when elected leaders extend their stay in office by coercive means. If more Africans could freely give a thumbs up to their leaders, they might not dream of boarding a smuggler’s boat to Europe.