Resilient Democracy?

Resilient Democracy?

Surveys indicate that Africans have become skeptical of the condition of democracy in their respective countries

By Prof John Harbeson

This year’s national elections in Kenya will mark the thirtieth anniversary of Kenya’s first multi-party elections in the country’s and sub-Saharan Africa’s post-Cold War democratic era. As Kenya prepares for national elections scheduled for August 2022, a publication written by Kenya’s Institute for Development Studies (IDS) has summarized the results for Kenya of Afrobarometer’s eighth-round interviews with citizens about their experience of democracy in well over 30 countries between
2019 and 2021. 

This year also marks the 50th year of annual assessments by Freedom House of democracy’s status throughout all countries worldwide. This is an appropriate occasion to query both what democracy specialists at a respected institution like Freedom House and what citizens in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa think about democracy.

Overall, after 15 years of rapidly expanding democratic practice throughout the continent between roughly 1990 to 2005, democracy has been in steady retreat over the last decade and a half in the opinion of analysts in other major surveys, including Mo Ibrahim, V-Dem, and others, as well as Freedom House. 

At the same time, recent Afrobarometer surveys indicate that, while African citizens still prefer democracy to the alternatives, they have also become skeptical, at a minimum, of the condition of democracy in their respective countries. 

A central but difficult question to address authoritatively has become who and what bears most responsibility for democratic recession? To what extent have less than democratic leaders soured citizens on democracy, and/or to what extent have democracy skeptical citizens seemed to entitle leaders to stray from democratic pathways?

Democratic declines since 2005 have not yet extinguished all progress in the preceding fifteen years, according to Freedom House. Still, it is one of the more detailed estimates of African democratic performance, based on 25 specific indicators, scored 0 to 4 points each, covering parties and elections, transparency, freedoms of expression and association, and the rule of law show a score of 49 on a scale of 0-100 in 2006 declining to 42 in 2020 for all African countries. 

The declines, since 2013, extend across all 25 categories, especially on freedom of political expression. Kenya has experienced one of the steepest declines over this period, from 66 to 48, with a fifteen-year average of 54. 

How do African citizens view this trajectory? 

The IDS report on the 2019-21 Afrobarometer survey suggests Kenyan multi-faceted democratic resilience notwithstanding Freedom House assessments of democratic decline in Kenya, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere. 

This reported resilience seems to stand in contrast to earlier declining Kenya and sub-Saharan African confidence in democracy, to continued clear-eyed recognition of democracy’s continued shortcomings that appear to weaken trust in democratic institutions and perhaps even to Kenyan national as distinct from residual ethnic political identity. 

Afrobarometer’s seventh-round survey from 2013 to 2018 reveals that African citizens continent-wide retained a 68.3 percent preference for democracy over all the main alternatives, military, one party or one-man rule, down just a bit from 71.3 percent five years earlier, Kenyans’ preference declining from 73 percent to 66.7 percent over the same period. 

However, the recent IDS report shows a significantly increased Kenya preference for democracy over all the alternatives at 75.5 percent. At that same time, 68.3 percent of Kenyans believe they enjoy either full democracy or democracy with only minor problems, 59.5 percent express at least a fair degree of satisfaction with democracy in their country. 

Similarly, citizens reported a precipitous decline in freedom to say what they think, from 50.1 percent in 2018 to 36.3 percent in 2013, bringing Kenya down the most of any country in the survey from 54.9 percent to 23 percent. 

But the IDS survey reported that 48.3 percent of Kenyans now believed they could do so. Only 46 percent of Kenyans believed that they had full freedom to join any association they chose in both the earlier surveys, that number increasing to 57.9 percent in the 2021 IDS report.

These indicators of Kenyan resurgent democratic resilience nonetheless confront IDS findings that Kenyans find political corruption pervasive and increasing. The IDS report found that Kenyans believed less than ten percent of key public officials to be free of corruption: only 8.6 percent of presidential office officials, 4.6 percent of parliamentary representatives, 5.6 percent of civil servants, 8.9 percent of judges and magistrates, and 4.6 percent of police. 44.7 percent believed corruption had increased “lots” over the preceding year. And 80.7 percent believed they risked retaliation if they attempted to report corrupt behavior.

A potential mortal danger for Kenyan democracy is that indications of resilient belief in the viability of democratic practice will not prove sufficient to mobilize combat against corrosive and expanding corruption and its impact on the legitimacy of core democratic institutions, i.e., the 34 percent who profess only “some” trust in the presidency and the 31.3 percent only “some” in parliament. 

More serious still is the danger of disaffection from the idea of Kenya as a nation-state when, after 60 years of independence, only 38.2 percent identify wholly or mostly as Kenyans rather than with their component ethnic
communities. ( 

— Prof Harbeson is a professor of Political Science Emeritus and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University.

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