Do Africans support regional efforts to defend democracy, and why?

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Democracy is under threat in Africa. Since 2020, there have been 10 successful coups d’état. Some of these unconstitutional changes of government have taken place following deterioration of human rights and democratic norms in the affected countries. These coup events have been followed by responses from the international community led by the African Union and relevant regional economic communities (RECs).

In the aftermath of the July 2023 coup in Niger, for example, the African Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended Niger’s participation in both organizations and imposed targeted sanctions to motivate the coup perpetrators to restore civilian rule. Actions by the African Union (AU), ECOWAS and other actors can be seen as demonstrating the continent’s commitment to civilian and democratic rule. However, little is known about how the supposed beneficiaries of such international democracy promotion intervention, African citizens, feel about the responses of these external actors.

In my recent contribution to the journal Democratization, I tackle this gap in the literature. Specifically, I identify and explain factors that influence Africans’ attitudes toward democracy promotion by their neighbors and other regional actors. Along with recent democratic erosion witnessed in Africa, this study was also motivated by the need to understand the popular legitimacy of the actions taken by international organizations. In particular, several studies have noted the importance of using public opinion data to more accurately identify the factors that shape individual perceptions of the legitimacy of international organizations.

The proliferation of public opinion survey data on Africans’ attitudes has made it possible to systematically investigate how and why Africans hold certain political and economic views including those I explore in my study. In the 2014-2015 Afrobarometer survey round, for example, respondents were asked whether countries in their respective regions “have a duty to try to guarantee free elections and prevent human rights abuses in other countries in the region” through for example “political pressure, economic sanctions or military force” or that these countries “should respect the independence of other countries and allow them to make their own decisions about how their country should be governed.”

Figure 1 presents country averages for responses to this question. The figure demonstrates that there is generally low approval of regional actor intervention to promote democracy among citizens in the 36 African states that were surveyed. Additionally, the figure reveals variations in these attitudes: Close to 50% of Togolese citizens approved of external actor democracy intervention compared to about 20% of Tunisian respondents. My study unravels these variations in order to clarify under what conditions Africans would endorse democracy promotion activities of the AU and regional economic communities (RECs).

Figure 1. Percentage approval of external democracy promotion. Source: Afrobarometer.

One’s attitudes toward external democracy promotion are shaped by their experience with electoral politics, their country’s political history, and the political history of their neighboring countries. Those that evaluate the conduct of elections in their country negatively are more likely to approve of external democracy promotion. This is because a history of electoral malpractice signifies weaknesses in the electoral system and democratic institutions that external actor pressure may assist in strengthening.

Additionally, individuals whose country and neighbors have had a history of unconstitutional changes of government such as coups are more likely to approve external democracy promotion. A history of coups that interrupt civilian and burgeoning democratic norms signals the fragility of democracy and the possibility of future threats to democratic and civilian rule for a given country and its neighbors.

Individuals in countries and neighborhoods with such a political history are therefore more likely to approve of external democracy intervention, since external actors can provide additional pressure and more legitimate means to motivate the institutionalization of democratic reforms in their country and region, complementing domestic reformers.

The study’s findings, based on an analysis of survey data from Afrobarometer, support my arguments and are summarized in Figures 2 and 3. Individuals who stated that elections in their country were frequently marred by malpractices were more likely to approve of regional actors’ democracy promotion activities (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. The effect of electoral malpractices on public approval of external democracy promotion

Additionally, individuals whose country has experienced multiple attempted and successful coups were also more likely to support regional actors’ pro-democracy interventions (see the left graph in Figure 3). Related to this, individuals whose neighboring countries had experienced multiple attempted and successful coups were the ones more likely to endorse regional democracy promotion actions (see the right graph in Figure 3).

Figure 3. The effect of coups on public approval of external democracy promotion.

This study’s arguments and findings offer important and timely implications for regional cooperation and democracy promotion in contemporary Africa. By showing that the public would likely approve of external involvement to advance democratization when their country has faced low quality elections and a history of unconstitutional changes of government, this study’s findings can be seen to endorse AU and other RECs’ efforts to strengthen member-states’ adherence to democratic norms.

AU and RECs have used various means to try and promote democratic norms including observing elections, suspending those countries that have experienced coups, and imposing targeted sanctions on coup perpetrators. These actions, for example ECOWAS mediation and intervention in the Gambia (2016), AU and ECOWAS election observation in Guinea-Bissau (2023), and AU suspensions of coup-afflicted countries like Sudan (2019) and Burkina Faso (2022) has a good chance of being viewed by citizens and civil society as a valuable external attempt to advocate for better quality elections and democracy.

Additionally, this study offers a nuanced means of understanding the popular coup narrative. Recent coups in West Africa since 2020 have been accompanied by mass celebrations welcoming the removal of incumbents. Far from signalling that citizens support military rule, a more plausible explanation may be that the public is frustrated with the poor and undemocratic governance characteristic of some of the regimes that have been overthrown recently.

If the AU and RECs more proactive in sanctioning those actions that precipitated mass dissatisfaction with incumbents – such as constitutional amendments in Gabon that ensured Ali Bongo would not lose future elections or Alpha Conde’s push for a constitutional referendum eliminating term limits in Guinea – the militaries in these countries might not have intervened, or received less public endorsement of their actions if they still moved to overthrow civilian rule. In other words, more Africans would welcome regional actions that would improve incumbent behavior when it comes to issues like human rights and democratic norms.

As Africa grapples with a new wave of coups, it is crucial for the African Union and regional economic communities to consistently convey a strong message to citizens that actions that constitute unconstitutional changes of government will not be condoned. Inconsistency will breed distrust in any external intervention effort, undermining the legitimacy of these organizations. Moreover, these organizations must not reserve their most stringent criticism and interventions for coup cases alone. In many cases, coup attempts signal and have been precipitated by other domestic political problems that have already undermined democratic norms and practices.

It is by responding with equal fervour and strength to flawed elections and efforts to control civil society that the AU and RECs can demonstrate that they take all aspects of democracy backsliding seriously. Only by consistently responding to all threats to democracy and unconstitutional changes of government can these organizations can boost public approval for their activities, and so enhance their capacity to shape the region for the better.

Mwita Chacha (@chacha_republic) is an Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Birmingham.

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