The State of Democracy in Africa

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DiA’s Nic Cheeseman is taking the day off to celebrate his 40th birthday, so to mark the occasion we thought we would re-post one of his most popular pieces. First published in August 2015, this analysis of the balance sheet of democracy in Africa is one of the most read pieces we have ever shared …

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.

One thought on “The State of Democracy in Africa

  1. I totally agree that, “It is too soon to give up on African democracy.” One way we can ensure ‘democratic values’ are effectually embedded in Africa is to invest in ‘sound education.’ And by ‘sound education’ I do not mean the so-called ‘Universal free primary and secondary education’ where teachers are rarely seen, and whose only claim to fame is the mass standardisation of mediocrity. But rather, we should invest in the kind of education, which “Equip[s] a pupil with the critical skills necessary to climb the steep of life’s challenges. It is essential we teach our children critical problem solving skills, compassion or emotional intelligence, and interpersonal communication skills.” See,’Please sir, do not belittle teachers; esteem them – 2018 Edition.’

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