Democracy is taking root in Africa. But that doesn’t mean it works all the time

The questions that I get asked most often by students, policy makers and political leaders are: “can democracy work in Africa?” and “is Africa becoming more democratic?”.

As we celebrate Africa Day and reflect on how far the continent has come since the Organisation of African Unity was founded in 1963, it seems like a good time to share my response.

Some people who ask these questions assume that the answer will be “no”, because they are thinking of the rise of authoritarian abuses in places like Burundi and Zambia. Others assume that the answer is “yes” because they remember recent transfers of power in Gambia, Ghana and Nigeria.

Overall trends on the continent can be read in a way that supports both conclusions. On the one hand, the average quality of civil liberties has declined every year for the last decade. On the other, the number of African states in which the government has been defeated at the ballot box has increased from a handful in the mid 1990s to 19.

To explain this discrepancy, I suggest that we need to approach the issue a little differently. Instead of focusing on the last two or three elections, or Africa-wide averages, we need to look at whether democratic institutions such as term-limits and elections are starting to work as intended. This tells us much more about whether democratic procedures are starting to become entrenched, and hence how contemporary struggles for power are likely to play out.

When we approach the issue in this way it becomes clear that democracy can work in Africa – but that this does not mean that it always will.

The rules of the game

Democracies are governed by many different sets of regulations, but two of the most important are presidential term-limits and the need to hold free and fair elections. Because these rules have the capacity to remove presidents and governments from power, they represent a litmus test of the strength of democratic institutions and the commitment of political leaders to democratic principles.

So how are these institutions faring? Let us start with elections. Back in the late 1980s only Botswana, Gambia and Mauritius held relatively open multiparty elections. Today, almost every state bar Eritrea holds elections of some form. However, while this represents a remarkable turn of events, the average quality of these elections is low. According to the National Elections Across Democracy and Autocracy dataset, on a 1-10 scale in which 10 is the best score possible, African elections average just over 5.

As a result, opposition parties have to compete for power with one hand tied behind their backs. This helps to explain why African presidents win 88% of the elections that they contest. On this basis, it doesn’t look like democracy is working very well at all.

If we move away from averages, though, it becomes clear that this finding masks two very different trends. In some countries, such as Rwanda and Sudan, elections are being held to legitimise the government but offer little real choice to voters.

Things look very different if we instead look at Benin and Ghana, which have experienced a number of transfers of power. In countries like these, governments allow voters to have their say and – by and large – respect their decision.

This suggests that when it comes to elections there are at least two Africas: one that has not become much more democratic since the early 1990s, and another in which elections have become entrenched and the quality of the process has improved – though not always consistently – over time.

Constraints on presidential power

When it comes to upholding the presidential term-limits that most African states feature in their constitutions, the picture is also mixed. In many countries, leaders who were never committed to respecting a two- (or in some cases three-term) limit have been able to change or reinterpret the law in a way that allows them to remain in office indefinitely. As a result, term limits have been overturned in Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Djibouti, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, Rwanda, Sudan, Togo and Uganda.

But, as we saw with elections, the picture is not as bleak as it may at first appear. To date, African presidents have come up against term-limits 38 times. In only 18 cases have presidents sought to ignore and amend the constitution, and in only 12 cases were they successful. Put another way, of the 42 countries that feature term-limits, so far they have only been overturned in 13.

This is remarkable. On a continent known for “Big Man” rule and which has often been described as being institutionless, one of the most important democratic institutions of them all is starting to take root in a surprising number of states. So far presidents have accepted – or been forced to accept – the ultimate check on their authority in Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sao Tome & Principe, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Zambia.

Thus, while it is important not to overlook the ability of leaders to subvert the rules of the game in the continent’s more authoritarian states, it is also important to recognise that the constraints on presidential power are greater than at any time in the last 50 years. In contemporary Africa, term limits are more likely to be respected than broken.

Can democracy work in Africa?

This evidence demonstrates that democracy can work in Africa. In those countries in which high quality elections go hand in hand with entrenched term-limits, we are witnessing processes of democratic consolidation. Some of these processes are just starting, and all are vulnerable to reversal, but there is no longer any reason to doubt that democracy can function in a number of African countries.

So what separates the success stories from the rest? What we know is that there are a number of factors that serve to insulate governments from domestic and international pressure to reform, and so undermine the prospects for democratisation.

One is the presence of strong security forces that can be used to put down opposition and civil society protests. Another is the presence of significant oil reserves. With the exception of Ghana and possibly Nigeria, Africa’s petro-states are all authoritarian.

A third is support from foreign governments, which is often given to regimes that are geo-strategically important and willing to support the foreign policy goals of other states, whether they are democratic or not.

These factors do indeed make it harder to break free of old authoritarian logics. But it’s also important to keep in mind that they don’t make it impossible. Nigeria, for example, ticks most of these boxes and yet witnessed a peaceful transfer of power in 2015.

Given this, and the many other positive stories that have come out of the continent, it is seems apt to end by repeating the final line of my 2015 book. Despite all of the negative stories that dominate the headlines

It is far too early to give up on democracy in Africa.

This is of great importance because there is already evidence that on average more democratic states spend more on education and achieve higher levels of economic growth.

We therefore have good reasons to believe that in the long-run living under a democracy will improve the lives of African citizens.

Related Content

Distell CEO: What the sale of alcohol under level 3 means for the industry

South Africans can look forward to popping their favourite bottle of bubbly or sipping on a glass of pinotage to warm up from the cold winter. That’s as alcohol sales, that were banned for over two months under the Covid-19 lock-down, will be lifted. Distell CEO Richard Rushton joins CNBC Africa for more.

This Rwandan publisher is creating buzz with new book App

After realising the challenges that come with publishing fellow African writers, home-grown publishing house, Imagine We Rwanda launched their very own mobile app, dubbed, Imagine Books. Fast forward 2 weeks and hundreds of titles have been purchased worldwide and the numbers are only going up. CNBC Africa spoke to the founder, Dominique Alonga for more.

COVID-19: This virtual concert campaign is bringing together African artists for charity

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected livelihoods across the continent and different initiatives have been instituted to support them. One of them is a campaign dubbed “We are one Africa” which aims to sustain various communities and groups through virtual concerts. Project Manager, Andrew Alovi joins CNBC Africa for more.

Kenya’s tech sector unveils video conferencing system

Kenya has recently launched the first made-in-Africa video conferencing system that will enable users to enjoy better quality calls with unlimited attendees, at more affordable prices. The video conferencing system will also enable African countries to retain the fees in local economies, compared to competition that repatriates it off the continent. Jay Shapiro, CEO and Co-Founder of Usiku Games joins CNBC Africa for more.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up for free newsletters and get more CNBC AFRICA delivered to your inbox

More from CNBC Africa

How COVID-19 impacts the health & well-being of children

Research shows that children have a lower rate of contracting the Coronavirus and bringing infections to the household. This should provide comfort to South African parents that are in two minds about sending their kids back to school next week, when physical teaching is set to resume. Epidemiologist, Dr Boshoff Steenekamp joins CNBC Africa for more.

Rebosis rolls out COVID-19 testing stations outside malls

Property Group Rebosis, has partnered with government to roll out testing stations for Covid-19 outside its shopping malls in Pretoria – South Africa’s capital. However, foot traffic into these malls is expected to have dived due to the virus lock-downs prevented non-essential stores from trading. Rebosis is yet to release its interim results. Rebosis CEO Sisa Ngebulana joins CNBC Africa for more.

Distell CEO: What the sale of alcohol under level 3 means for the industry

South Africans can look forward to popping their favourite bottle of bubbly or sipping on a glass of pinotage to warm up from the cold winter. That’s as alcohol sales, that were banned for over two months under the Covid-19 lock-down, will be lifted. Distell CEO Richard Rushton joins CNBC Africa for more.

This Rwandan publisher is creating buzz with new book App

After realising the challenges that come with publishing fellow African writers, home-grown publishing house, Imagine We Rwanda launched their very own mobile app, dubbed, Imagine Books. Fast forward 2 weeks and hundreds of titles have been purchased worldwide and the numbers are only going up. CNBC Africa spoke to the founder, Dominique Alonga for more.

Partner Content

VIVO CEO is a dynamic leader for this innovative global brand

May 2020 -- Six months ago the vision for vivo in South Africa was just beginning to...

Building Africa’s Biggest Digital Classroom

An enduring lesson learnt throughout our 175-year existence is that, while things rapidly change around us, the things that truly matter don’t!...

Trending Now

What Happens To Frequent Flyer Miles If An Airline Goes Bankrupt?

With U.S. passenger traffic down by 90%, airlines are desperate to fill seats and are offering big incentives to keep their most reliable customers loyal. But what happens to frequent flyer miles when almost no one is flying and can an airline loyalt

How The Medical Device Supply Chain Failed During Covid-19

More than three months into the coronavirus pandemic, health-care workers on the front-lines of the battle against Covid-19 say they still face shortages of personal protective equipment. The personal protective shortage was one of the early flashpoi

Tsogo Sun Hotels FY profits plunge, COVID-19 lock-downs weigh

Hospitality Group Tsogo Sun Hotels reported a 31 per cent plunge in full year headline earnings per share, with Covid-19 resulting in demand from international tourist retracting in the fourth quarter, due to global lock-downs.

Nampak swings into H1 loss, suffers R3bn impairment

Nampak swung to a half year loss of R2.4 billion as revenue plunged and it impaired its Angola and Nigeria assets by R3 billion, which is four times its market value. The also warned that future profits were in South Africa were at risk from the ban on alcohol sales due to Covid-19 lock-downs. Nampak CEO, Erik Smuts joins CNBC Africa for more.
- Advertisement -