Why are Africa’s small countries more democratic?

Mauritius; Small democracies/Sofitel So Mauritius
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Why do small African states often rank highly in comparative measures of democracy?Jack Corbett and Wouter Veenendaal outline how their research into states with populations under one million challenges existing theories of why democracies can persist or fail.

While Africa presently remains one of the least democratic continents in the world, the five small African island states with less than 1,5 million inhabitants form a striking exception to this pattern. Mauritius is broadly regarded as one of Africa’s most consolidated democracies, and since their political transitions in the early 1990s Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe are among the most liberal and democratic countries on the continent. Comoros and Seychelles still grapple with legacies of authoritarian rule and political instability, but recent developments regarding alternation in office and the quality of elections point to a substantial expansion of democratic governance in these archipelagos. And in fact, with the exception of South Africa, most mainland African democracies (like Benin, Botswana, Ghana Namibia, and Senegal) are also relatively small. All these examples indicate that smaller African countries are much more likely to have democratic regimes than large ones. But how can this pattern be explained?

Does size matter?

For at least half a century, scholars have grappled with the complex and dynamic process that we commonly call democratisation. Over this period, numerous theories have been advanced to explain why democratic transitions occur and persist in some countries but not in others. Collectively, political science has found that democratic transition and consolidation is more likely to succeed in wealthy countries, with homogenous populations,  stable and strongly institutionalised party systems, and those with particular geographical features (being an island and the presence of democratic neighbours).

Despite the considerable resources and intellectual effort expended in pursuit of this scholarly and practical endeavour, small states, which account for roughly 20% of the world’s countries, have been routinely overlooked. We know that small states are more likely than large ones to score well in Freedom House rankings. But, aside from Freedom House, the other major democracy datasets – Polity IV and The Economist’s Democracy Index – exclude many of them. As a result, virtually all scholars in the field of comparative politics and democratisation have overlooked these cases and so almost everything that we think we know about democratic transition and consolidation suffers from an unstated gigantism. Addressing this gap in order to bring small states into conversation with democratisation theory for the first time was the task we set ourselves in our new book Democracy in Small States: Persisting Against All Odds.

We set out to study the group of 39 states with populations of less than one million that are commonly excluded, but statistically much more likely to be democratic than larger states. Freedom House ranks the majority as democratic, but small states are also home to some of the world’s last remaining monarchies. They vary substantially along all factors commonly employed by scholars to explain why regimes rise and fall: they can be both very rich and very poor; have either the most ethnically homogenous or diverse populations; and can have extremely polarised party systems, or no parties at all. Colonial legacy looms large in our story but some small states were never colonised. Many are located near powerful neighbours that influence their politics while others are among the most isolated countries on earth. Formal institutions are similarly varied. Westminster is the most common parliamentary setup but small states host the full spectrum of institutional designs, and some of them have political systems that have never been trialled elsewhere. As a result, despite their essential ‘smallness’ it is difficult to conceive of a more ‘different’ group of countries than those we cover here.

These observations apply in particular to the group of African small states. Comoros and São Tomé and Príncipe organize free and fair elections despite belonging to the poorest countries in the world. Notwithstanding its deep ethnic and religious social divisions, Mauritius is arguably Africa’s most successful democracy. Whereas a French or Portuguese colonial legacy bodes ill for democratic development in larger African states, this pattern cannot be seen in Cape Verde, Comoros, and São Tomé and Príncipe.  Reflecting these diverse colonial histories, African small island states have strongly dissimilar political structures, ranging from parliamentarian (Mauritius) to semi-presidential (Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe) to fully presidential (Seychelles) systems. Finally, while Cape Verde and Seychelles both have a stable and institutionalized party system, the party systems of Comoros and São Tomé and Príncipe are volatile and weakly institutionalized. Yet despite all the differences between them, as a group, African small states are unquestionably much more democratic than their larger counterparts.

In sum, all the factors that are commonly highlighted as explanations of why democracy can be successful or not do not apply to have much (or any) explanatory power for the African small states. Contra received wisdom, we find that the standard theoretical explanations of democratic transition and consolidation – economic growth; cultural fragmentation; colonial legacy and institutional design; the presence of an institutionalised party system; or geographic location – do not appear to have explanatory power in small states. That is, they explain neither the democratic successes nor failures. By illustrating that existing theory does not explain such a large number of (small) cases, we offer a powerful challenge to received wisdom on the causes of democratisation

Why does it matter?

The implications of our theory testing are of immense importance to questions about regime stability and democratic consolidation in particular. Our analysis shows that decades of research that underpin a series of painstakingly compiled law-like generalisations about when democracy can survive, fail the most basic empirical examination. This point is of immediate practical relevance to anybody interested in democracy promotion in Africa or around the globe. By prescribing a series of necessary and sufficient preconditions that must be in place before democratisation will succeed, existing theory has inadvertently served to limit the possibilities we assign to democracy. Our research shows that democratic government is actually far more resilient than is commonly presumed. At the same time, we also show that democracy in small states works quite differently than in large ones, underscoring the adaptability of this regime form. Our analysis therefore offers a distinctly optimistic message for all of those who believe in the promise of representative government at a time when liberal institutions appear to be under considerable threat.

The payoff from including small states is therefore a much more nuanced and clear-eyed assessment of the promises and limitations of different regime types. For democratisation scholars, this analysis deepens our understanding of one of the field’s long-standing puzzles – why small states do so well in the Freedom House rankings. Given that democracy appears to be at the crossroads, we need to better understand its persistence in a range of settings, not just a few large and rich states. Moreover, to meet the standard conventions of case selection – representativeness and variation – we argue that comparative researchers need to pay closer attention to small states, and especially those in Africa which are among the least studied countries in the world. By studying small states, we gain a more holistic view of democratic practices, appreciate democracy’s great diversity and capacity to adapt, but also recognise its limitations and the reasons that underpin when and how it survives or fails.


Democracy in Small States: Persisting Against All Odds is published by Oxford University Press.

Jack Corbett is professor of Politics at the University of Southampton.

Wouter Veenendaal is Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of Leiden. 

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