Why Democracy is Not Dead in Africa

Adama Barrow banner
Men hang a banner for the inauguration ceremony of Gambian President Adama Barrow prior to his return on January 26 in Banjul, Gambia. The election of Barrow, who defeated longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh, was widely seen as a victory for democracy in Africa. Andrew Renneisen/Getty

This article was originally published by The Conversation.

The questions that I get asked most often by students, policymakers 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 Organization 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 this does not mean that it always will.

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 five.

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 percent 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 legitimize 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.

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-term (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, Republic of Congo (also known as 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 and 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 recognize 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.

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 democratization.

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 geostrategically 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.

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham, U.K.