African Democracy’s Trial by Numbers

African Democracy’s Trial by Numbers

By Prof John Harbeson

There is something problematic about presuming to quantify the quality of democracy. Democracy is too fundamentally important, too vital to our existence to subject it to such reductionism, too noble an ideal to be treated in this fashion. Yet, with the arrival of what the late Samuel Huntington memorably termed democracy’s “third wave” in the wake of the Cold War’s end in the late 1980s, democratization, at some level, has spread throughout the globe, and there has seemed to be no other way than through quantifiable indicators systematically and comparatively to gauge the quality of democracy. Thus, a veritable cottage industry of quantitatively expressed democracy measuring protocols has emerged. These protocols have become important in assessing the quality and extent of democracy world-wide, especially now that a consensus has emerged among them that democracy has diminished each year since about 2005, overall, world-wide and in sub-Saharan Africa.

Consensus has emerged that democracy has diminished each year since about 2005, overall, world-wide and in sub-Saharan Africa.

One of the most important of these protocols, Afrobarometer, which has conducted in-depth grass polls of citizen views on the state of democracy throughout most countries, has popularized a further reductionist treatment of democracy, analogizing in economic terms as “supply” of democracy by governments versus civic “demand” for it. 

While I respect the other major democracy measurement protocols, I rely on Freedom House estimates most because, along with Afrobarometer, it is the most transparent in making clear how its numbers are put together. Relying on in-country experts worldwide and reviewing regional specialists, Freedom House scores of 0 to 100 for each country are based on scores of 0 to 4 for each of 25 basic questions. Its questions are organized in seven categories: electoral process, embrace of pluralism and citizen participation, government accountability and transparency, freedom of expression, freedom of association, rule of law and personal liberties (e.g., to marry, travel, own property.) In very general terms, its country scores of 70 to 100 indicate significant democratic performance, 30-70 partial but flawed democracy, and below 30 indicate autocracy and lack of freedom.

The “supply” of democracy for all sub-Saharan African countries collectively, by Freedom House estimates, has declined from 48 in 2005 to 42 in 2020, for a 15-year average of 45, markedly reducing albeit not erasing corresponding gains over the period since the beginning of sub-Saharan Africa’s democratic era. Nine countries have achieved sustainable levels of democracy as of 2020: Cape Verde, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana, Sao Tome, Botswana, Namibia, Senegal and Seychelles (note that most are relatively small countries, except for South Africa). Along with the Central African Republic, Burundi, and Mali, Kenya’s democracy has receded the most of any country in sub-Saharan Africa. from 66 in 2005 to 48 in 2020.

The “supply” of democracy for all sub-Saharan African countries collectively, by Freedom House estimates, has declined from 48 in 2005 to 42 in 2020, for a 15-year average of 45, markedly reducing albeit not erasing corresponding gains over the period since the beginning of sub-Saharan Africa’s democratic era.

Plentiful hypotheses as to the causes of this decline include (1) savvy rulers finding ways to diminish without frontally extinguishing democracy, including pressure on independent media and civil society advocacy; (2) diminished Western support as governments have become preoccupied with; (3) counter-terrorism, Iran, China, climate change and domestic challenges; and (4) the influence of Chinese investment on African governments with little if any concern for democracy.

Concern with the evident diminishing supply of democracy has contributed to overlooking the question of what may have happened to “demand” for democracy over this fifteen-year slide in democratic supply. Afrobarometer has very recently published a survey of 18 predominantly partial democracies, by Freedom House estimates, probing this important issue. The framing question becomes, “to what extent and in what ways have African citizens retained their commitment to democracy, and pushed back in the face of government lapses, and worse, in democratic performance?”

The overall conclusion based on this preliminary exploration is that, in sizable majorities, African citizens continue to retain a commitment to democracy. That said, the survey makes clear that they have noticed the weaknesses and failings of governmental democratic performance. Most concerning is a finding of significant decline in support for electoral democracy over the past decade.

Despite the failings of governmental democratic performance, in sizable majorities, African citizens continue to retain a commitment to democracy.

On the one hand, the survey finds little change in overall electoral performance, with spectacular declines in Mali, Burkina, Gabon and Cote d’Ivoire. On the other hand, less than half of the citizens have found democracy efficacious in holding leaders accountable (42%), Kenya 47%, although 73% still support democratic elections. Only 62% believe in multiparty democratic elections (Kenya 71%). Most alarming is an 8% reduction in support for electoral democracy, including drops in all but three countries in the survey, led by Lesotho (-23%), Tunisia (-21%), Malawi (-19%), Uganda, Ghana, and Sierra Leone (11% each, Botswana, Cabo Verde, and Cote d’Ivoire (10% each), and Kenya only 6%. Meanwhile, reported electoral turnout has been modest at 64%.

This data suggests clearly that demand for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa remains strong but not immutable. Demand and supply both require renewed cultivation and commitment.

— Author is a professor of Political Science Emeritus as well as a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University.

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