What’s Happening to Democracy in Africa?
from Africa Program

What’s Happening to Democracy in Africa?

A police officer sits on a car at the headquarters of the National Unity Platform in Kampala, Uganda, in January 2021.
A police officer sits on a car at the headquarters of the National Unity Platform in Kampala, Uganda, in January 2021. Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

The pandemic is exacerbating a decline of democracy across sub-Saharan Africa. To combat the trend, the United States and other partners should commit to the painstaking work of bolstering democratic institutions.

May 26, 2021 9:51 am (EST)

A police officer sits on a car at the headquarters of the National Unity Platform in Kampala, Uganda, in January 2021.
A police officer sits on a car at the headquarters of the National Unity Platform in Kampala, Uganda, in January 2021. Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

A democratic decline, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is underway in sub-Saharan Africa. More Africans live under fully or partially authoritarian states today than at most points in the last two decades.

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Even before the pandemic, an increasing number of African heads of state had moved to undermine term limits or rig elections to remain in power. But COVID-19 has given them greater leverage, providing further pretext for postponing elections in Somalia and Ethiopia, muzzling opposition figures in Uganda and Tanzania, and imposing restrictions [PDF] on media across the continent. The enforcement of pandemic restrictions by security services has often been brutal, provoking demonstrations in Kenya and even in more advanced democracies such as South Africa.

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As governments across the continent become, with some exceptions, more authoritarian, Africans will be increasingly alienated from those claiming to represent them. Political instability can manifest itself in severe episodes of violence, as is already being seen in Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Nigeria. Such turmoil will grow as elites compete for power and citizens resist oppressive regimes, and will, in turn, inhibit social and economic development, to the disadvantage of the continent’s rapidly growing population. Taken together, these forces also drive internal displacement and outward migration—both to other African countries and to Europe. Addressing these issues will require grappling with long-standing grievances left untreated and often exacerbated by the poor, sometimes brutal governance that is all too common across the African continent.

Unmet Expectations

When the “third wave” of democratization swept across much of Africa in the wake of the Cold War, hopes were high that Africans would begin to enjoy the freedoms afforded to citizens living in the former colonial powers. Initial progress was remarkable: In 1989, two-thirds of African states were “not free,” as measured by Freedom House. By 2009, two-thirds were considered “free” or “partly free.”

However, foreign as well as domestic expectations for liberal democracy in Africa have often been unrealistic, and Africa’s setbacks are not surprising. For much of the continent, the foundations of a political culture necessary to sustain liberal democracy have been weak for most of the postcolonial era (roughly six decades for most African states). The persistence of religious and ethnic rivalries has been underestimated by African democrats and their friends abroad. Also significant has been the role of the police and the army, often vestiges of colonialism, which have been a cause and consequence of power systems favoring a coterie of elites.

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Authoritarian and semi-authoritarian rulers, mindful of foreign opinion, have dressed their regimes with the forms of democracy, such as regular (if rigged) elections and de jure (not de facto) separation of powers. Presidential term limits, where in place, have been frequently circumvented through so-called constitutional coups. Heads of state have deftly manipulated social cleavages and played up fears of malevolent foreign interference to deflect popular pressure away from their illiberal rule.

A citizen wearing a face mask looks back after casting her ballot in a university classroom during parliamentary elections in April 2021 in Praia, Cape Verde.
A citizen casts her ballot during parliamentary elections in April 2021 in Praia, Cape Verde. Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images

Trends in Africa’s Democratic Trajectory

Where democracy stands in Africa today has myriad influences, including the legacy of colonialism and the emergence of the digital age. Four trends stand out:

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Temporal: Gradual Gains for Authoritarians

In its 2021 report, Freedom House rated only eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa as free. Of these eight, half are small island states: Cape Verde, Mauritius, Sao Tome and Principe, and Seychelles. Others, such as Botswana, enjoy high levels of economic and social development. Strong institutions of government are a common feature, acting as a bulwark against self-interested leaders, such as former South African President Jacob Zuma, who is now on trial for corruption. They also provide added stability around elections. In Ghana’s 2020 election, former President John Mahama, running as the opposition candidate, rejected his defeat. But when the country’s Supreme Court upheld incumbent President Nana Akufo-Addo’s victory, Mahama accepted the results, conceding that he was “legally bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court.” Large-scale violence was absent from the electoral process; five people, however, were killed in postelection violence.

Meanwhile, the number of African countries that Freedom House rated “not free” has grown from a low of fourteen in 2006 and 2008 to twenty in 2021. In Africa, authoritarian states are often run by strongmen, geriatric “leaders for life,” some of whom are now looking to anoint their sons as their successors. These countries usually have low levels of social development, underdeveloped civil organizations, and weak institutions of government. Rwanda is an exception: its social development indicators rank higher than its human rights standing, and its president, Paul Kagame, is relatively young at sixty-three years of age. In other countries, such as the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and South Sudan, power has changed hands more frequently, though transfers have come from coups, wars, or deals between elites made behind closed doors.

Despite the decline, a plurality of countries (twenty-two) are considered “partially free,” in line with the sixteen-year average. However, within this category, increasingly populist governments are suppressing opposition groups, postponing elections, eliminating term limits, and abusing human rights to maintain power. This growing trend is driving democratic backsliding on the continent. Yet, a single defining characteristic for these countries is difficult to pin down. Tanzania and Zambia, for example, have largely avoided the ethnic and religious conflicts that afflict Nigeria and Mozambique. Kenya and the Ivory Coast, both with gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of around $2,000, are significantly richer than Malawi and the breakaway territory of Somaliland (rated separately from Somalia by Freedom House), each with income per person at around $400.

Regional: Following One’s Neighbors

Geography is not quite destiny, but similarly rated countries do tend to form clusters. West Africa and East Africa both have mostly partially free regimes. Ghana is the most notable, positive exception in West Africa. In southern Africa, the triumvirate of Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa are all considered free. However, in Central Africa and the Horn, almost all states are authoritarian. Small island nations make up an outsize share of “free” African countries, and they are freer on average than similarly sized countries on the mainland, such as Djibouti and Eswatini. Littoral states are also, on average, freer than landlocked ones, likely benefitting from increased interactions with foreigners from democratic societies—a factor more important prior to the advent of the digital age. Economic prosperity, also concentrated on the coasts [PDF], likely has also influenced a positive democratic trajectory.

Most African regional organizations have a stated vocation of promoting democracy. Yet, only the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has devoted serious energy and resources to defending democracy: it has played a major role in rolling back military dictatorships in West Africa and opposing military coups, though it has been less effective in preventing third-term bids by incumbents. By contrast, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has been paralyzed by its inability or unwillingness to address the excesses of Zimbabwe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), because of its origins as a liberation movement. The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) is stocked with autocrats, while the East African Community (EAC) has been but a weak presence to the point of risking irrelevance.

Digital: The Information Generation

The internet and social media are increasingly empowering Africa’s youthful population to become politically active. This has been seen in Nigeria, where #EndSARS protesters organized online to demand police reforms; in Uganda, where presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known as Bobi Wine, used social media to catalyze his People Power movement; and in Ghana, where Twitter users instigated a national discussion on illegal small-scale mining.

Yet, these movements have frequently been met with an equal and opposite reaction: Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni cracked down on activists and implemented a social media ban; in Nigeria, protesters were massacred by army and police forces. More broadly, digital repression has become commonplace—especially around elections—as leaders seek to throttle the opposition and influence popular discourse, frequently through disinformation. As in other parts of the world, it thus remains unclear whether the increasing prevalence and importance of the internet and social media, in their totality, will have a beneficial, deleterious, or ambiguous effect on democracy.

COVID-19: Pandemic Politics

Earlier this year, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that “using the pandemic as a pretext, authorities in some countries have deployed heavy-handed security responses and emergency measures to crush dissent, criminalize basic freedoms, silence independent reporting, and curtail the activities of nongovernmental organizations.” Freedom House reported in late 2020 that democracy in eighty countries was worse off due to the pandemic. Examples can be found across Africa: from Guinea to Somalia to South Africa, democracy ratings slid amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Tanzania offers a stark example. President John Magufuli repeatedly downplayed the threat posed by COVID-19, claiming that prayer had defeated the disease in his country. The government criminalized the sharing of “unofficial” data and used the law to restrict news coverage of the outbreak and other matters in the run-up to the October 2020 presidential election, which Magufuli won through intimidation and fraud. In March 2021, Magufuli died—his death was attributed to heart disease but was likely brought on by COVID-19. During the president’s weekslong public absence prior, at least one man was arrested for questioning his health.

Initial signs following Magufuli’s death are promising for Tanzanian democracy: Samia Suluhu Hassan, the vice president under Magufuli, was sworn in as president as prescribed by the constitution. President Hassan has shifted the country toward a more evidence-based approach to COVID-19 and reached out to the opposition. But some critics remain unconvinced. After signaling an intention to lift all media bans in the country, Hassan walked back the decision. Opposition figures including Tundu Lissu and Freeman Mbowe have called for a new constitution that limits presidential powers.

COVID-19 has also dramatically redirected Ethiopia’s political landscape deeper into authoritarianism. After the central government used the pandemic to postpone parliamentary elections scheduled for August 2020, leaders from the Tigray region held local elections in defiance of the order. Now, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for earlier reconciliation efforts with neighboring Eritrea, is waging war in the north of his country. Eritrean troops—overtly or tacitly supported by the Ethiopian government—have reportedly committed a range of atrocities, while Abiy’s government stands accused of attempting to starve large swathes of the Tigrayan population into submission.

An observer signs a paper marking the closing of the polls in a dark room of a polling station in Mekele during Tigray’s regional elections in September 2020.
An observer signs a paper marking the closing of the polls at a polling station in Mekele during Tigray’s regional elections in September 2020. Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images

Yet, Malawi offers a bright spot amid the pandemic. According to Freedom House, Malawi was the sole country globally whose democracy strengthened during COVID-19 lockdowns, after it became the first African country to overturn a fraudulent election through legal means and conduct a free and fair follow-up election. The Economist declared it country of the year. At his swearing-in, Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera said he would lead “a government that serves, not a government that rules.” Many Africans, it seems, stand ready to push for the same from their own leaders and governments.

Outside Influences

Public support for democracy in Africa is still high, according to Afrobarometer surveys. However, China’s model of developmental authoritarianism remains attractive to those who see democracy as an impediment to development. As vaccination campaigns continue around the globe, “vaccine diplomacy” by China could deepen its ties to the continent and potentially further erode African confidence in democracy.

Additionally, the inabilities of many governments—democratic in form and partially so in substance—to respond to the security challenges they face undermine popular support for a democratic trajectory. Personal security in many parts of Africa has declined dramatically, in some places because of a jihadi onslaught, in others from criminal gangs, and in still others from ethnic and religious conflicts often exacerbated by self-serving politicians.

Failing to counter crime and insurgency, some African leaders are seeking greater security involvement from the United States. In their first meeting, in April 2021, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari proposed to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the headquarters of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) be moved from Stuttgart, Germany, to an African country. Until recently, successive Nigerian governments had opposed an AFRICOM headquarters on the continent, as had Nigeria’s political class. Buhari’s remarkable reversal is an indication of the security threat posed by groups such as Boko Haram that draw on the alienation of many Africans from their governments, in part the result of stalling or declining democracy.

The Project of Promoting Good Governance

What can Africa’s foreign friends do to encourage a democratic trajectory? There is a consensus among UN and development agencies, international financial institutions, and many Africans that good governance is critical. Nobel Laureate Chinua Achebe’s words about his own country apply just as well to many other African countries: “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else.”  

Poor leadership has been facilitated and enabled by weak institutions of government. During a 2009 visit to Ghana, U.S. President Barack Obama famously said in an address to the parliament, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” But institution-building requires time and patience. Components such as an independent press, fair and transparent systems of taxation, and civic education and participation in governance take time to develop. Even so, continuing to build institutional infrastructure is the unglamorous way to promote a democratic trajectory in Africa. Resilient institutions offer the best tonic to unscrupulous elites—present everywhere, but a particular scourge in sub-Saharan Africa, where institutions have been deliberately weakened during the colonial period and subsequently by “big men” and their associated militaries.

In 2011, the Obama White House launched the Open Government Partnership, an initiative in which member governments—over a dozen of them African—made concrete commitments to promote transparency, empower citizens, and fight corruption. The same administration’s Young African Leaders Initiative, which has been reinvigorated by the Joe Biden administration, seeks to groom future leaders in a democratic context. Other U.S. assistance programs support judicial independence, a critical component of functional democracy that is lacking in much of Africa. The United Nations [PDF] and advanced democracies including France, Japan, and the United Kingdom have similarly linked foreign aid to good-governance reforms.

Such measures are buttressed by the work on the ground by nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and active citizens, who ultimately are the catalyst for democratization and democratic consolidation. But the United States and other partners can—and should—do their part to create the conditions under which those fighting for democracy and good governance can feel safe to pursue their work.

The dilemma remains that Africa is buffeted by immediate security challenges that will not wait for a democratic culture to develop. COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity: were the United States to launch a vast vaccination assistance program, it would affirm to many Africans that democracy and good governance can address their ills. Conceptually, security assistance programs that engage military and police forces are a greater challenge, especially given the alienation of many Africans from their governments. Yet, if a witch’s brew of jihadi terrorists, criminal networks, and the disaffected destroy sitting governments, the human rights consequences certainly will be worse than the status quo. The challenge facing American and other policy makers is to support African governments in taking meaningful steps toward democracy while at the same time acknowledging the legitimate grievances that underpin so much of the insecurity.

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy. Will Merrow created the graphics for this article.

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Author’s Note: Comparing and Quantifying Democracy

Democracy is defined differently—by the United Nations [PDF], academics [PDF], and politicians—and comes in various forms. To compare levels of democracy across different countries, Freedom House, a well-regarded nongovernmental organization, publishes an index that measures by standard criteria the degree of freedom enjoyed by people in countries and some territories and assigns to each a numerical score. Those criteria, and their application to a specific locale, are always subject to debate; the score can only be indicative, not definitive. Nonetheless, the index provides an objective standard and vocabulary with which to assess and compare personal freedoms across Africa.

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