The state of democracy in Africa

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In his regular column for the Daily Nation, our co-editor Nic Cheeseman asks how we should define, measure, and systematically understand democracy across the diverse continent of Africa, and beyond. 

The state of democracy in Africa is one of the most controversial and difficult questions facing the continent today. Is Africa getting more or less democratic? Why have so many countries become stuck in a murky middle ground between democracy and authoritarianism? How can we design democracy so that it better fits African realities? Academic, researchers and media commentators all give different answers to these questions. Some would give up on democracy in Africa, seeing it as a dangerous experiment that too often goes wrong. Others believe that the early signs are promising and that if we keep up the struggle for another generation, democracy will become entrenched within African societies. My take on the subject can be found in my new book, Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures, and the Struggle for Political Reform, which was published last month by Cambridge University Press.

 What makes democracy work?

The book starts by placing democracy in Africa in historical perspective, demonstrating how the experiences of the 1960s, 70s and 80s shaped the kinds of political systems that we see today. In doing so, it reveals an often overlooked fact: African democracies are distinctive not because they face so many challenges, but because they have managed to make so much progress despite the absence of many of the supposed ‘pre-conditions’ of democratic consolidation. Political scientists have identified a long ‘wish list’ of factors that make it easier to establish and consolidate a democracy. Towards the top of the list are a coherent national identity, strong and autonomous political institutions, a developed and autonomous civil society, the rule of law, and a strong and well performing economy.

Adam Przeworski, for example, has famously shown that countries that enjoy a GDP per capita of over $6,000 when they introduced democracy almost always succeed, while those with a GDP per capita of less than $1,000 almost always fail. Both in the 1960s and in the 1990s, few African countries fulfilled this – or any other – ‘wishlist’ criteria.  Yet many of them have nonetheless made significant progress towards establishing stable and accountable multiparty systems. This set of countries is bigger than you might think: roughly a quarter of African states are now ‘free’, including Benin, Botswana, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, Senegal, and South Africa. In other words, a significant proportion of the continent is democratizing against the odds. Given this, Africa should not be thought of solely as a place in which to analyse the fragility of democracy. Rather, it is a continent that has much to teach us about the different pathways through which even the poorest and most unstable countries can break free from authoritarian rule.

How to design democracy

But while it is very important to recognize achievements of the continent’s success stories, it is also important to recognise the way in which elections have encouraged corruption and exacerbated ethnic tensions. In Kenya, for example, it was the onset of multiparty politics, and the threat that this posed to the government of President Daniel arap Moi, that led to the rapid escalation of graft and, ultimately, the Goldenberg scandal. Similarly, it was the threat of losing power in the 1992 elections, when the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) opposition had so much momentum that led to the instigation of ethnic clashes in order to displace and intimidate the supporters of rival parties. That violence, we now know, was the forerunner of the post-electoral crisis of 2007/8.

We therefore need to think really hard about how to design political systems in such a way that they minimise the risks of democratic disasters. One of the core arguments of the book is that Africa has suffered from unbalanced political systems that have been poorly designed to foster sustainable multi-party politics. History tells us that while elements of competition and inclusion strengthen multiparty systems, too much of either can be fatal to the process of democratization.

Let us start with competition. In Cote d’Ivoire and Kenya, where winner-takes-all politics and the concentration of power around the president meant that losing parties could expect to be excluded from access to state resources, elections encouraged ethnic conflict and the collapse of political order. The experience of these countries was so harrowing that it is tempting to conclude that countries should try and be as inclusive as possible, for example by forming a permanent power sharing government. But maximising the level of inclusion is also problematic because doing so inevitably stifles political competition, which is the lifeblood of representative democracy. It is by kicking out bad leaders that voters can hold their governments to account. In Ghana and Senegal, for example, democratic reform was driven by opposition parties, who campaigned for freer and fairer elections to improve their own chances of winning power. Because power sharing systems guarantee all parties representation in government, they threaten to undermine the very mechanism through which elections can drive democratization. Excessive inclusion is therefore just as bad for democracy as excessive competition.

The task facing those who draft or adapt state constitutions is thus to decide on the appropriate balance between competition and inclusion; one that allows for sufficient accommodation that all parties feel they have a stake in the system, while maintaining as much competition as possible in order to promote accountability. Unfortunately, there is no ideal constitutional template that can be deployed across the continent to achieve this goal, because different countries may require different degrees of inclusion in order to achieve political stability. Judging whether a given political system can bear the strains associated with higher levels of competition requires an intimate knowledge of a country’s demography, geography, and political history of a given polity.

Given this, it is remarkable – and worrying – just how few African countries feature inclusive political mechanisms that prevent certain communities from losing out systematically. For example, very few states feature meaningful decentralization. In this regard, the new Kenyan constitution of 2010 is very much a step in the right direction because it locates the country in a reasonable middle-ground between majoritarian competition and forced inclusion. Although the presidency continues to wield great power, the capacity of opposition parties to check the executive within the legislature has been increased – at least in theory. And while there is no provision to ensure representative government, many communities who feel that they are excluded from power nationally have been able to wield it locally by electing their choice of Senators and Governors at the county level.

Devolution is no a panacea, however. In countries such as Nigeria, the creation of sub-national governments led to heated contestation and often violence as different communities campaigned for the right to be given their own state. Similar tensions are likely to emerge in the run up to the next Kenyan general elections, especially if the Jubilee Alliance Party fails to build an effective political machine. But although Nigerian federalism may have exacerbated tensions at the local level, it has eased them at the national level, reducing the prospects for a second civil war, which is surely a trade-off worth making. Given this, there are good reasons to think that Kenya’s new constitution will significantly improve the prospects for political stability – so long as it is respected.

So what is the state of democracy in Africa?  

The findings of my book suggest that African politics is likely to take a number of directions, rather than cohering on a common experience. To put this another way, there is not one Africa, but three (or four, or five) Africa’s. If we leave out those states with no effective government, such as Somalia, a very simple breakdown might go as follows. In the first group, there are the states that have established open and competitive democracies: Botswana, Benin, Ghana, Mauritius, Senegal, South Africa, and so on. These countries are likely to continue to make democratic gains and consolidate over time. However, it is important to remember that while many of these states enjoy vibrant political competition, some remain institutionally weak. We should therefore not be surprised if one of the countries in this category suffers an abrupt authoritarian interruption, as Mali did in 2014.

Second, there is a group of countries in which leaders with authoritarian inclinations are still attempting to hold out against increasingly confident and popular opposition parties: Burundi, the DRC, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and so on. My research, suggests that these countries are likely to oscillate between opposition gains and authoritarian repression until the government of the day is willing to accept defeat. If sufficient trust can be built up between rival parties so that governments are willing to hand over power, these countries will start to democratize and move towards the first group. But it is equally likely that distrust and the considerable benefits of office will encourage leaders to stay in power at all costs. The trajectory of countries in this group therefore needs to be thought through on a case-by-case basis. It may take a number of instances of authoritarian repression before a democratic breakthrough is made – and there is nothing inevitable about this process.

Finally, there are the states in which authoritarian governments have established strong control over their political systems and so have had little to fear from holding elections: Cameroon, Chad, Rwanda, and so on. The great authority wielded by presidents in these countries makes it tempting to think of this group as a stable authoritarian category. However, as with the first group of states it is important not to interpret the surface appearance of stability as implying that a political system has deep roots. Quietude should not be mistaken for approval. Many of the most significant regime changes in history – the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring – were unheralded. It is far too soon to conclude that countries such as Cameroon and Rwanda will not be subject to similar upheavals in the future, especially given the recent collapse of Blaise Compaoré’s 27 year old personal dictatorship in Burkina Faso.

One obvious implication of this analysis is that Africa is likely to witness a growing divergence over the next ten years. The leading democratic lights will continue to make gains, moving further away from the continent’s authoritarian laggards. Only time will tell whether the growing divide that this will create will result in undermine the hold on power of Africa’s autocrats, or limit progress of its democracies. One thing is for sure, though: it is too soon to give up on African democracy.

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  1. Posted 22 September 2015 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I am a Kenyan active in running a political party with only 2 MPs. My observation is that as long as the office benefits remain outstandingly the only viable short term platform to gain wealth, and with a president who is the richest man in the country, then we shall continue to lose democratic space since the Parliamentarians will look after their own interests which is remaining in power for the perks and will dance to the president’s tune who is able to pay bribes to them to influence retrogressive laws.

  2. Posted 20 December 2015 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    I am a political science student at Kisii university at master’s level.I would like to share that the state of democracy in kenya is not the real democracy people expect.our leaders and our people have lost truck on exercising the required democratic rights.our leaders nowadays are chosen by how much influence in terms of wealth the person has.our societal mortals have beenwashed away.the real meaning of choosing representation has been lost since we now chose leaders for self gain.

  3. Posted 13 June 2016 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    I am a University Lecturer in Cameroon. If we agree that democracy is the government of the people for the and by the people, then in my humble opinion, I will categorically conclude that there is no democracy in Africa. Africa needs to develop strong institutions to be occupied by weak individuals and not strong individuals to occupy weak institutions (executive, legislative and judicial systems). There can be no democracy if strong individuals remain in power with weaker institutions.

    • njoamo bertin sevidzem
      Posted 8 June 2018 at 4:17 am | Permalink

      TRUELY Prof the long stay in power through political manipulation of the constitution shows that aspect of clientilism in African politics explain reasons for strikes and vandalism .hence impoverishment of Africa .

    Posted 15 November 2016 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    i am a Kisii University student taking Bachelors of Education.The state of democracy in Africa is worsening every time the constitutional review and amendments too is done.The reviewers seek to have constitution that favor them.I mean they are corrupt thus greatly hindering the establishment and practice of democracy.Involvement of a country in another country politics and election do affect democracy negatively.In my opinion therefore,the three pillars of democracy;legislature,executive and judiciary be fully equipped and also democratic arm be introduced in all countries

  5. lucien sulloway
    Posted 21 January 2017 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    I Am always amazed at the parallel ınstıtutıons Lıke the church or OR Charıtıes or relıgıon ın so many countrıes whıch are often run very effıcıently and very well. The strıvıng ıs lıterally to get people to practıcewhat ıs preached,in whıch they ın turn preach to theır fellow man.
    The message ıs absolutely ınspıratıonal. whether sung or spoken or by deeds whıch speak for themselves .There ıs enough magıc ın thıs potent mıxture to change peoples lıves for the better . Polıtıcs also has ıts messages
    to uplıft people, so the trıck seems to be to have all these ınstıtutıons consolıdate theır potentıal for the common good,, rather then one beıng a solace for the faılıngs of the other.

  6. Thon Chagai
    Posted 19 January 2018 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    I am a University Lecturer in South Sudan. My view on African democracy is all about wealth. Our politicians have completely failed to differentiate their personal interest with political interest. The three branches of government such as Executive , Judiciary and Legislature do not exercise their institutional rights and as a result, one branch (Executive) dominate the rest by imposing their individual policies over Judiciary and Legislature. Periodic elections minus being free and fair do not necessarily mean democracy unless the principles of good governance are met such as freedom of expression, freedom of movement, security of person and property and above all provision of services to masses rather than individuals.

  7. tourism mgt
    Posted 2 February 2018 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    democracy is one of the back bone for the one country.any body who should be follow and give respect for the democracy.democracy means people and any body body who should be give respect for the every body

  8. Kelly Ngeti
    Posted 20 June 2018 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for such an informative and interesting peace. I absolutely love it! Iam a student at Mount Kenya University Mombasa pursuing a degree in development studies.
    I totally agree that we dnt have democracy in Africa since we are yet to see its full implementation. The leaders want to hold on to power between themselves and rule us rather than lead
    However as Cheesman has rightly put it, where is the balance between competition and inclucivity? How can thus balance be achieved . because the problem we have with our leaders is witchunting and sabotage.. Those who loose when invited in they would want for most boart of their time sabotage the government to show that its not working so as to create an avenue for themselves. My conclusion is we as the people are yet to understand the inner meaning of democracy and that’s why when its not our people in power then its democracy but when its our family or friends we sit quiet and enjoy

  9. Peris jeptoo lakilau
    Posted 8 July 2018 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    I’m a student at Maseno university taking political science,, I think democracy in Kenya is just a story because in the case of elections, citizens are allowed to vote yes but their leader of choice is will not be given that chance, so our democracy is still wanting

  10. Henry
    Posted 17 July 2018 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    I am a graduate from the University of Yaounde 2 Soa Cameroon with a BS in English Common Law. I must commend the interest of other friends in contributing to this focal concept of Democracy. Democracy I must say has not been felt in Africa and in Cameroon in particular because it’s just been preached and it’s not practiced. I say this because meritocracy no longer exists as jobs and public exams are barred by gold but open to golden keys. Making it difficult for the poor man who has no god father to have what can rightly befit him or her with lots of expertise. Democracy is a sharm because the idea of leaders tempering with the constitution by amending it time an again just to give them way for many more years in power kills democracy in Africa and can’t be practiced. His close aids will always take his foot steps because he’s not just and so too they will do same with lots of corrupt tendencies. You see Africa growing with a very high level of terror attacks is because of the frustration of the massa for observing long term or office of our leaders with very authoritarian beliefs to silence and put a cracked down to groups with meaning ideas to express grievances calling for reforms and good governance.

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