Across Africa, recent years have been marked by both encouraging democratic highs and troubling anti-democratic lows. Notable advances from last year include the Gambia’s successful presidential election, a ruling-party transition in Zambia and the first democratic transfer of power in Niger. In the lead up to this, add Malawi’s retake of its flawed presidential election in 2020 and an earlier succession of oustings of long-serving autocrats in Sudan, Zimbabwe and the Gambia.
Contrast these gains, though, with setbacks elsewhere, including increasing restrictions on opposition parties in Benin, Senegal and Tanzania; the use of violence and intimidation during elections in Côte d’Ivoire and Uganda; and military coups, with the latest in Burkina Faso this year and last year in Chad, Mali, Sudan and Guinea.
These contradictory developments join dire warnings from experts that democracy is losing ground on the continent. But what can we learn about the state of democracy on the continent from Africans themselves?
Afrobarometer, a pan-African, non-partisan research network, has been surveying people about their views on democracy, governance and quality of life for more than 20 years. After interviewing nearly 50,000 citizens across 34 countries during Afrobarometer Round 8, which spans 2019-2021, we find that despite the efforts of some leaders to undermine democratic norms, Africans remain committed to democracy and democratic institutions.
They believe that the military should stay out of politics, that political parties should freely compete for power, that elections are an imperfect but essential tool for choosing their leaders, and that it is time for the old men who cling to power to step aside.
But their political reality falls short of these expectations. The perception of widespread and worsening corruption is particularly corrosive, leaving people increasingly dissatisfied with political systems that are yet to deliver on their aspirations to live in societies that are democratically and accountably governed. And although citizens find myriad ways to voice their concerns, they feel that their governments are not listening.
Simply put, Africans want more democratic and accountable governance than they think they are getting.
Africans’ democratic aspirations
Over the past decade, democracy watchers have been alarmed by declining trends in Africa. Concerns have been exacerbated in the past two years as some governments have taken advantage of the Covid pandemic to limit freedoms, restrict fair campaigning or postpone elections. Activists fear that supposedly temporary rollbacks in hard-won governance reforms could become permanent.
But for the most part, African citizens remain committed to democracy and democratic institutions. Across 30 countries that Afrobarometer has surveyed consistently since Round 5 (2011–2013), most indicators are strong and quite steady.
For example, seven in 10 Africans say that ‘democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’. While this is down modestly from 73 per cent a decade ago, more specific indicators seem to affirm popular commitment to democracy. Large and steady majorities consistently reject authoritarian alternatives, including one-person or ‘strongman’ rule (82 per cent), one-party rule (77 per cent) and military rule (75 per cent), which is clearly rejected even in many of the countries rocked by recent military coups.
Africans also express strong support for a limit to presidential terms, a feature of democratic governance that researchers and activists argue nurtures political participation, demonstrates that change via the ballot box is possible, and reduces the risk of personality cults, authoritarianism, corruption and coups. Across 34 countries, an average of 76 per cent favour limiting their presidents to two terms, including a majority (54 per cent) who ‘strongly’ support this rule. Term limits enjoy majority support in every surveyed country.
The public’s democratic commitment is undergirded by strong and in some cases growing support for core democratic institutions. Support for multiparty competition and parliamentary oversight of leaders remains steady, while expectations that governments should be accountable to the courts have increased significantly over the past decade.
In addition, growing numbers of people say it is more important to have a government that is accountable to the people rather than one that just ‘gets things done’, an especially strong indicator of deepening commitment to democratic norms among citizens.
Trouble at the polling booth
Elections remain a central, though controversial, institution of democracy for Africans. They have served as the foundation for real change, as in Zambia last year. But in other cases, such as Uganda’s January 2021 poll, they have been marred by violence and human rights abuses, as well as the weaponization of Covid to justify restrictions on campaigning.
The public is also sceptical about the capacity of elections to bring about real change: fully 50 per cent say they do not think elections are effective in enabling voters ‘to remove from office leaders who do not do what the people want’.
At the same time, large majorities report positively on their country’s election environment. Asked about their most recent election, at least eight in 10 say they did not observe intimidation (87 per cent) or interference (81 per cent) by security forces and did not fear violence (80 per cent).
We must keep in mind that these encouraging averages can obscure deep problems in some countries. For example, while only 3 per cent of Namibians say votes are ‘often’ not counted fairly, between a quarter and one-third cite inaccurate counts as a frequent problem in Zimbabwe, Sudan and Gabon.
In addition, confidence in the fairness of the media environment is drastically lower, on average just 36 per cent.
But perhaps most importantly, almost nine in 10 Africans (87 per cent) say they are free to vote as they choose, including sizeable majorities in every surveyed country. And a solid majority of 63 per cent rate their most recent election as completely or mostly free and fair.
All of this may help to explain still-strong support for competitive elections as the best system for selecting leaders. A robust three-quarters confirm their commitment to elections, though this has fallen slightly over the past decade, probably reflecting disillusionment with electoral processes that are too often torn by violence and produce contested results.
A growing number of people may also be recognizing that elections, especially poor-quality ones, are not enough to guarantee democracy and better governance, and that a healthy democracy must include such other features as government accountability, respect for the rule of law, responsiveness and citizen participation.
The ‘democratic disappointment’ gap
To what extent does political reality align with Africans’ democratic aspirations? Our findings suggest that it is falling well short of expectations.
While a slim majority has steadily reported that their country is a ‘full democracy’ or one ‘with minor problems’ over the past decade, satisfaction, however, has dropped to 43 per cent in that time.
What explains this growing dissatisfaction? Other indicators of democratic supply offer some clues. While ratings of election quality have held steady, favourable public assessments of presidential accountability to parliament and to the courts have both declined.
The rising scourge of corruption
But one of the most significant driving factors may be burgeoning corruption, a trend that appears to parallel declining democratic satisfaction. On average across 34 countries, around six in 10 say both that corruption in their country increased over the past year, and that their government is doing a poor job of controlling it.
These perceptions matter. Over time, when perceptions of corruption rise or fall, levels of dissatisfaction with democracy tend to follow suit.
In South Africa, dissatisfaction with democracy grew steadily alongside scandals involving President Jacob Zuma, and has continued to rise under his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, whose office has been tainted by ‘Farmgate’ and a major Covid-relief scandal. The ‘Fishrot’ scandal in Namibia has had similar consequences.
Are governments listening?
African citizens are raising their voices, calling on their governments to fulfil their democratic aspirations. Since April 2017, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has recorded more than 70 episodes in 35 African countries of protests focused on issues ranging from demands for democracy in eSwatini to resisting police brutality, presidential third-term attempts and Covid restrictions.
Citizen participation and government responsiveness are cornerstones of democracy. But are governments listening?
Voting is the most obvious and popular way for citizens to express themselves, and Africans take advantage of this opportunity. Two-thirds said they voted in their most recent national election. But elections occur only occasionally, and they force individuals to compress a wide array of views into very few choices. How do Africans find their voice during the long intervals between elections?
Many invest in personal efforts to act as agents of change. In fact, nearly half say they joined with others to raise an issue at least once in the past year, and a third contacted a political leader. A quarter report they acted with others to request government action. Less common but still important modes of engagement include asking for help from or lodging a complaint with government, contacting the media, and joining a demonstration.
These robust levels of citizen engagement suggest that people feel they can make a difference. Unfortunately, decision-makers aren’t always receptive or responsive to citizen voices. Less than a quarter of people think local government officials listen to them – and even fewer think their members of parliament do.
What is more troubling is that fully two-thirds say they are at risk of retaliation or some form of negative consequences if they take action by reporting incidents of corruption.
Lack of government responsiveness and respect for popular voices may have direct implications for both citizen engagement and citizen satisfaction. For example, we find that people are more likely to contact leaders or take other actions to solve problems if they believe that government officials respect and listen to them; that they will get a response if they raise an issue; and if they do not need to fear retaliation.
Similarly, when we compare country averages for government responsiveness to the percentage of citizens who are satisfied with democracy, we again find positive associations.
When governments are responsive, citizens are more likely to engage in addressing community needs and to be satisfied with their political system and optimistic about the future. Respectful and responsive governance has the potential to spur citizen action to solve critical development challenges – and may be the cure for what ails democracy.