JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — While most African economies are improving, the continent's democracies are not.

In addition to scoring healthy economic growth, averaging 5 percent in 2010, African citizens are generally healthier than they were five years ago.

But these gains are at risk because of a slide in the quality of governance across Africa, particularly in the areas of security and rule of law, warned the 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance.

The annual index, which scores countries on a scale of 0 to 100, is published by the foundation of Sudan-born British telecommunications billionaire Mo Ibrahim. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation also awards an annual African leadership prize, worth $5 million, that has not been given the last two years because of a lack of a suitable candidate.

Mauritius again tops the list as the best-governed of Africa’s 53 countries, with a score of 82 out of 100. Seychelles, Botswana, Cape Verde and South Africa also remain in the top five of best governed countries. Rounding out the top 10 are Namibia, Ghana, Tunisia, Lesotho and Egypt.

At the bottom are Eritrea, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and Somalia, which scored just 8 of 100.

The annual index takes into account the areas of safety and rule of law, participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunity and human development. But it warned that the “patchiness” and “paucity of data” on Africa remains a serious concern and a challenge for researchers in compiling the index.

More than 40 of Africa’s 53 countries made improvements in the areas of human and economic development, but there are notable declines in equal rights, human safety and rule of law, described as a “democratic recession” for the continent.

“We must ensure that the political side of governance in Africa is not neglected,” Salim Ahmed Salim, an Ibrahim foundation board member, said in a statement. “We have seen from evidence and experience across the world that discrepancies between political governance and economic management are unsustainable in the longterm.”

Overall governance quality has changed little from previous years, with the index again reporting a continental average score of 49. “However, this average masks large variation in performance across countries,” the report's authors caution.

Angola, Liberia and Togo all saw significant improvements in overall government quality. Liberia, in particular, was singled out for its all-around gains under the direction of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

But there were “serious setbacks” in Eritrea, Guinea, Madagascar, Mauritania and Somalia, which all saw declines in safety and rule of law, according to the index. Eritrea, one of the world’s most repressive countries, and Madagascar, which was roiled by a military coup in 2008, saw the biggest drops in quality of governance.

Senegal was highlighted as a country that has shown significant economic development, but under President Abdoulaye Wade has worsened according to a variety of measures, including rule of law.

Mamphela Ramphele, a former managing director of the World Bank Group and a board member at the Ibrahim foundation, called for a greater focus on developing a broad base of African professionals and the private sector, not just on creating high-profile government leaders.

“Africa will continue to underperform until we put enormous investment into developing human capital,” she said at a press conference to launch this year’s index.

Ramphele also said that Africans need to be more active in “rewarding and punishing leaders at the polls,” saying that a disengaged citizenry can lead to a slide towards authoritarianism. She hoped the Ibrahim index would be “a tool for African citizens to check the development of their country.”

“The decisive factor is the extent to which citizens are actively holding their governments accountable,” she said.

Better-governed countries have a more rapid drop in child mortality, according to Paul Collier, professor of economics at Oxford University, who compared child mortality figures to governance as measured by the Ibrahim index.

“The effect is big,” he wrote in an article accompanying the report. “The difference between a governance score of 40 and one of 70 is associated with an extra decline in under-5 child mortality of 23 per 1,000.”

Collier concluded: “Statistical associations of this type cannot ‘prove’ a causal connection, but the sensible working hypothesis is that the struggle for better governance translates into a struggle for children’s lives.”

Read more GlobalPost coverage about Africa's rapidly growing middle class.

Related Stories