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The state of democracy in Africa

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Yoweri Museveni of Uganda amended the country’s constitution to allow for unlimited presidential incumbency. Image credit: Flickr

The state of democracy in Africa

Since the beginning of the 1990s democracy has been the dominant form of governance in most African regions, writes Leon Louw, founder and editor of WhyAfrica.  

This trend is encouraging and a vast improvement on the turbulent years soon after African countries gained independence in the late 1950s and throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s.

However, democracy is still not entrenched in its purest form in all African countries. Some are still ruled by monarchies, despots, and dictators, while coup détats are fashionable again, especially in West Africa.

According to Jakkie Cilliers, Head of African Futures & Innovation at the Institute of Security Studies, the quality of democracy in African countries is often weak. “Democratic procedures are regularly flaunted as incumbents cook the books to stay in power and use any of a host of legal tricks to undermine competitive politics,” says Cilliers.

“Benin is an example of an African country where democracy has deteriorated significantly in recent years. When the country voted for a new parliament in April 2019, not a single opposition candidate could take part after electoral authorities ruled that only two parties, both loyal to President Patrice Talon, met the requirement to participate – and a new electoral law required that parties pay USD424,000 to field a list for the 83-member parliament.”

Meanwhile, pro-democracy demonstrators have been calling for change in Eswatini where King Mswati’s powers remain unchecked. Members of the Eswatini parliament who suggested constitutional reform, have been charged with terrorism.

Students around the country, at the university and high-school levels, have been organising walkouts and continuing to call for a transition to democratic governance all year, without any success.

Cilliers notes in his authoritative book, Challenges and Opportunities: The future of Africa, that democracy in Africa can be measured by classifying countries as:

  • Authoritarian (or non-democratic);
  • Electoral (or thin) democracies; or
  • Liberal (or substantive) democracies.

“Freedom House adopted this approach when it classified 10 African states as ‘free’ (roughly equating to liberal democracy), 22 as ‘party free’ (roughly equating to electoral democracy) and the remaining 22 as ‘not free’ in its most recent data release for 2018.

“The 10 free countries are Benin, Botswana, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia, in total home to only 133 million people, or 10% of Africa’s population.

“The 22 ‘partly free’ countries that meet the minimum criteria to be classified as electoral democracies represent an additional 47% of Africa’s population.

“The remainder, roughly 42%, of Africa’s total population live in countries that Freedom House consider to be ‘not free’.

Based on this analysis, 58% of Africans live in countries that could be considered democratic, even if the quality of that democracy is uneven. This finding is the basis of the introductory statement that democracy today is the dominant form of government in Africa, both in terms of the number of countries (32 out of 54) and the portion of total population (58%).

Cilliers adds that if Nigeria, with its 195 million people, moves from being ‘partly free’ to ‘free’, the scales would tilt even more decisively in favour of democracy in Africa.

He notes in Challenges and Opportunities: The future of Africa that “while regular elections in Africa are becoming increasingly frequent, the number of incumbents who cling to power and block executive rotation or replacement presents a worrying trend”.

President Dennis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda all amended their constitutions to allow for unlimited presidential incumbency.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, outgoing president Joseph Kabila and his party simply ignored the actual results of the December 2018 elections, which Martin Fayulu of the Lamuka coalition had clearly won. Kabila instead installed his own choice in the form of Felix Tshisekedi who was duly inaugurated as president on 24 January 2019.

As in other regions, democratisation in Africa is turbulent and progress seldom linear. Levels of democracy in Africa have however improved over time, despite the absence of many of the supposed preconditions for democratic consolidation.

This will be the last WhyAfrica newsletter for 2021. We will appear again in your inbox on Thursday the 6th of January 2022. Have a great and joyful festive season and all the best for the new year.

Leon Louw is the founder and editor of WhyAfrica. He specialises in natural resources and African affairs.        

WhyAfrica provides you with business intelligence that matters. Africa is our business, and we want it to be yours too. To subscribe to WhyAfrica’s free newsletter or digital magazine, and for more news on Africa, visit the website at www.whyafrica.co.za or send a direct message. WhyAfrica will launch its first ever digital magazine in November. If you are interested in contributing or advertising, please contact me at leon@whyafrica.co.za. To coincide with the first launch, we have a range of different packages and combo deals to give your company the greatest exposure to a rapidly growing, African readership.       


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