How safe is African Democracy?

Ultimately, who will defend existing levels of democracy, let alone push for more of it, if not these same citizens who currently have limited confidence in it?

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Afrobarometer is now in its 20th year as a pre-eminent, independent, non-partisan network of African research institutes in several African countries, specialising in in-depth scientific measurement of African public opinion in more than 30 countries where political space is sufficient for it to conduct its surveys.  Afrobarometer’s motto is to “let the people have a say.”  

In a just issued report, two Michigan State University scholars who are also affiliated with Afrobarometer have examined Afro-Barometer data on how African citizens in 34 countries assess the meaning for them of the quality of democracy in their respective countries. Overall, the survey results reveal substantial citizen scepticism about the reliability of democracy. At the same time, the survey results show no significant correlation between expert opinion on the democratic quality in their countries and how citizens view its dependability.

Nothing is closer to the heart of democracy than the ability of citizens to cast a reliably secret vote for the political leaders of their choice, free from suspicion or fear that somehow the authorities or their neighbours will somehow know how they have voted. The study, whose title is “Are African Freedom’s Slipping Away?” acknowledges widespread findings that democracy has been slipping for noticeably since about 2005 both worldwide and within Africa. It’s most arresting finding, however, is that across the continent African citizens feel they need to exercise caution in determining how to vote. The specific question in the Afrobarometer survey, conducted over two years from 2016 to 2018 was “In your opinion, how often in [your] country do people have to be careful about how they vote in an election?”  

Granted, there can be a variety of reasons to exercise caution in voting, not least voting based on a careful assessment of candidate qualities and governing intentions. In the context of the study’s overall findings of citizen scepticism about the quality of democracy, the authors took this finding to mean that “caution” refers to uncertainty about whether one’s vote will be and remain known to them and them alone. 

The survey, conducted over two years, 2016-2018, found that 68 percent of citizens in these countries believed that “often” or “always” they needed to be careful how they voted. For Kenya, the number was 80 percent, seventh highest among the 34 countries, trailed closely by Tanzania at 79 percent.  Senegal led, with 89 percent followed by Niger at 87 percent, Gabon at 85 percent, and Liberia at 84 percent. 

At the other end of the scale, in Sierra Leone, Madagascar, and Namibia, only 41 percent expressed a need for particular caution in balloting.  The disparity among the countries is striking, but at a minimum, the survey’s implied standard that in really free and fair elections one should be able vote one’s preferences uninhibited is not yet happening for most still newly enfranchised African citizens.

Strikingly, expert assessments, overall and for most countries, are markedly more sanguine about the quality of democracy than is citizen confidence in being able to vote freely rather than cautiously. The Freedom House average for 2018 was 55 for these countries on a scale of 0-100 while the Afrobarometer average was 32 (100 minus the score of 68 above). 

In two cases, the citizens recorded markedly more confidence in the secrecy of their vote than the experts thought merited, i.e., Sudan (41 percent Afrobarometer versus 8 percent Freedom House) and eSwatini (Swaziland) with 32 percent and 16 percent respectively. But in the majority cases, the Freedom House scores on the quality of democracy were notably higher than Afrobarometer assessments of citizen confidence in democracy, at least with respect to the vote. 

Freedom House score for Kenya was 48 while only 20 percent of Kenyans sampled in the survey felt completely free to vote exactly as they choose.  For Tanzania the respective scores were 52 and 21. This same contrast was particularly noteworthy in the cases of the countries routinely scoring highest in Freedom House assessments:   Mauritius 89 for Freedom House versus 29 on Afrobarometer, Ghana 83 and 35, and Cape Verde 90 and 18

Juxtaposing in this way citizens’ perceptions of how safe it is to practice democracy in their circumstances deepens the problem of democratic retreat that students of democracy have noted for more than a decade. On the one hand, the comparison demonstrates that post-Cold War democracy in Africa has yet to establish deep roots in African societies, however much African citizens may still clearly prefer democracy to the alternatives. On the other hand, ultimately, who will defend existing levels of democracy, let alone push for more of it, if not these same citizens who currently have limited confidence in it? 

If it is also the case that Africa’s mostly fragile states can only be strengthened beginning with active citizen participation at the grassroots, from whence will come the requisite energy and leadership?  (

—John Harbeson is currently Professor of Political Science Emeritus as well as a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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