In Africa and among Africa’s foreign friends, elections are the lodestone of democratic progress. Hence the intense focus on the mechanics of elections, rather than other aspects of democracy, such as the extent to which an African voter is actually independent rather than subject to myriad forms of coercion by “big men” or others. Afrobarometer, Africa’s widely-respected polling organization, found [PDF] that 68 percent of Africans feel that they "often" or "always" "have to be careful about how they vote." In other words, a majority of Africans are skeptical about a fundamental element in elections: being free to vote your conscience. As Afrobarometer points out, that skepticism is surprisingly high in relatively established democracies, such as Senegal (89 percent), Kenya (80 percent), and South Africa (68 percent).
These poll results seem to reflect accurately the reality, at least as relayed by anecdotes. All over Africa, there are numerous ways for those who wish to do so to apply pressure to individuals and communities when they vote. Even in South Africa, where the quality of elections is high and where voter secrecy is generally maintained, "big men" in various forms can unduly influence voting behavior. The Afrobarometer data on South Africa also likely reflects general feelings of marginalization in the townships and in rural areas.
The distinguished South African newspaper, Mail and Guardian, puts these poll results in the right context: Africans believe that “the space for civil and political rights in Africa is shrinking.” The newspaper notes that other polling data shows that 67 percent of polled Africans, a 7 percent decline from the 2012/13 survey, think they are “somewhat” or “completely” free to say what they think. Such polling is a cautionary note to the international optimism about developments in Algeria and Sudan, which may be premature, given the negative examples of Egypt and Zimbabwe.