An exciting new data set offers fresh insights into leadership in Africa, and an opportunity to develop and test new theories. Giovanni Carbone explains why you everyone is talking about the Africa Leadership Change project.
Political leaders – the way they rule and how they come to power – can tell you a lot about a country’s present and future. This is especially true for Africa, a continent in which personal rule, authoritarianism, and underdevelopment have historically gone hand in hand. Not surprisingly, leadership handovers in Africa often catalyse extraordinary attention. Just consider the past twelve months or so, during which the region witnessed some dramatic succession processes. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, one of the continent’s most despised power-holders, was replaced by his former vice president after years of increasingly authoritarian rule and disappointing development performances. South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, who had been accused of 783 counts of corruption, was forced to step down by his own party, the ruling African National Congress, handing power to Cyril Ramaphosa. In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn voluntarily resigned to smooth the path for a new political opening, leading to the surprise rise of the first ethnic Oromo leader in the country’s modern history. José Eduardo Dos Santos left office in Angola after almost four decades in power, having become one of the continent’s longest-serving presidents. Are these heralds of democratic progress? Will they trigger more meaningful political, social and economic developments?
The Africa Leadership Change (ALC) Project is a truly unique interactive data visualization tool offering answers to these questions and insights on many of Africa’s past and present political dynamics, with a particular focus on national leaders. Hosted on the website of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), and conceived by Giovanni Carbone (ISPI and Università degli Studi di Milano) and Alessandro Pellegata (Università degli Studi di Milano), the ALC Project is based on an original collection of data covering all leadership changes that have taken place on the continent from 1960 to the present day. The ALC dataset tracks the political history of each individual African country through the lenses of leadership transfers, with complete information on their timing, frequencies and types. It records whether such handovers occurred through violent transitions, coups d’état or armed insurgencies, or rather through elections, and whether electoral changeovers took place in a framework of party continuity or else they marked the advent to power of opposition forces.
One added value of the ALC Project rests in its interactive design, which makes it easily accessible to both scholars and a wider audience of journalists, policy-makers and stakeholders with an interest in African affairs. The different types of information featured by ALC can be visually represented through four main interactive tabs. By engaging with the map of the African continent located in the first tab (“Current African Leaders”), the user can look up which leader is currently in office and the level of democracy in each of Africa’s 54 sovereign states. A chart on African leaders’ duration in office also reveals who are today’s longest-serving leaders and who are the newcomers. The evolution of these and other political dynamics, for all the countries of the region, can be visualized in a second screen, called the “Dynamic Map”.
Besides data on leadership changes, the ALC project provides time-series recording a country’s progress in a wider range of political and socioeconomic indicators, from economic growth to human development, from demographic expansion to average life expectancy. These can be visualized in the “Dynamic Map” tab. Most importantly, through the “Charts” tools, the user can create personalized line graphs which complement information on leadership changes with information on a country’s economic and social trends over time. Countries can be compared with each other, or contrasted with regional average values. Finally, using the “How Leaders Change” tab, those interested in how leadership transitions have taken place in African countries and in how modes of leadership change have evolved through history can easily track the relative or absolute numbers of violent, peaceful but non-electoral, or electoral changes, and the different forms each of these can take.
Leaders and leadership transfers shaped Africa’s modern political history and will contribute to shaping the continent’s future. We shall follow these and related developments with regular updates of the ALC dataset – which will remain open to all and free to use.
Giovanni Carbone is Head of the ISPI Africa Programme and Professor of Political Science at the Università degli Studi di Milano