Democracy in Kenya and Africa: A pre-election audit

Democracy in Kenya and Africa: A pre-election audit

New momentum is clearly needed if democracy’s decline in Africa and across the globe is to be reversed

By Prof John Harbeson

Afrobarometer has recently released a comprehensive 2021 survey of African political opinion in more than thirty countries, its eighth since its founding in 1999. With Kenya conducting its seventh national elections in its post-Cold War democratic era this month, it is a timely occasion, with the benefit of these as well as Freedom House data, to query the status of Kenyan democracy. It is useful also to discern how Kenyans’ experience has compared to that of citizens of other African countries.  

At the same time, sub-Saharan Africa’s democratic experience over the past three decades of the post-Cold War era raises a much larger and more fundamental question: what has been the impact of democratization on the pervasive, continuing fragility of most African states, including Kenya. To what extent has democratization liberated African peoples from previous post-independence decades of authoritarian, corrupt and profoundly ineffectual rule?   

On balance, the data suggest that a gradual but relentless democratic decline since about 2005 for Kenya, the continent, and the world has resulted from inattention to the fully systemic nature of democracy and its implications for the viability of developing country states in the post-Cold War era. 

With a more systemic approach to democratization, less than democratically inclined political leaders might have found fewer democratic weaknesses to exploit, thereby to undermine its viability to blunt its capacity to strengthen as well as reform states. The data suggest that while Kenya remains a stronger state than many throughout the continent, its democratic decline in some respects over the last decade and a half has been among the steepest.

On the one hand, as centrally important as free and fair elections are to the meaning of democracy, their integrity and efficaciousness in empowering capable leaders depends also on synchronous establishment of parliamentary strength, judicial independence and authority, constitutional entrenchment of basic human rights and the rule of law, effective civil society checks on governmental over-reach, media freedom and diffusion of democratic norms and practices in educational institutions and throughout society at large. 

I would hypothesize that, with respect at least to Africa, the sudden fall of authoritarian rules with the conclusion of the Cold War, multiparty elections and with the encouragement of international institutions, electoral dimensions of democratization, not surprisingly, claimed an urgency and priority that in retrospect outpaced other systemic dimensions of democracy, whose greater progress might have left less maneuvering room for less undemocratic leaders  to exploit in all the ways they have. 

On the other hand, equally important is the larger matter of the bearing of democracy on the political health of the state itself in an African continent of chronically fragile states, which hinges on one’s working definition of the state. As central as is the definition of the state to the study and practice of politics, it is remarkable how infrequently the definition is directly addressed. Routinely, the state is tacitly reduced to being synonymous with government instead of as the overarching association that governments are created by democrats to manage by, for and on behalf of their citizens.

While Kenya remains a stronger state than many throughout the continent, its democratic decline in some respects over the last decade and a half has been among the steepest

Similarly, there has appeared to be a pervasive tendency to presume that when a country has established democratic elections and a constitution enfranchising its citizens, it has by definition simultaneously established a democratic state. However, the evident, continuing fragility even of states that are at least partially democratically governed, like Kenya, has established that the problem of state strengthening and reform is not synonymous with and does not yield easily even to systemic democratic initiatives.

These tendencies to reduce the state to being a synonymous, silent partner with something else become glaringly problematic – when the nature of the state is contemplated, there has been widespread resort to tacit reliance on early 20th Century German philosopher Max Weber’s definition of the state as a monopoly of legitimate coercive power within a compulsory territorially defined association. 

However, the Weberian definition seems to beg the question of how that legitimate monopoly and that compulsory association are to be acquired. The logical alternative to brute authoritarian force is some form of consent not just to elections to determine who is to rule that association or even to constitution-making that can become an empty exercise. Rather, state-strengthening and reform, properly understood, appears to entail, more fundamentally, finding terms on which it is possible for individual citizens and groups to consent to membership in that association itself.           

The key question, thus, becomes to what extent have three decades of post-Cold War democratic practice across the continent, and in Kenya in particular, advanced or weakened this larger objective or been weakened by the very state fragility it is intended to ameliorate?  The results of insufficient attention to the systemic dimensions of democracy and to reexamining the meaning of the state in the midst of profound state weakness can usefully be reviewed both by experts and specialists, and citizens who, by definition, are to be democracy’ principal beneficiaries. 

The former have documented the failure of democratization to ameliorate state fragility significantly. Meanwhile, African citizens, though retaining have a belief in democracy as the best form of government but have registered skepticism about the viability of partial democratization adversely impacted by non-democratic leaders.  Their skepticism has appeared to some extent to have weakened their approval of core democratic institutions and, possibly, even in their identification with the nation-states in which they have found themselves.

Expert opinion on democracy

On the one hand, expert opinion by Freedom House and other well-regarded democracy-measuring agencies, including Mo Ibrahim and V-Dem, has been near unanimous that democracy has receded gradually but clearly since about 2005 after a preceding fifteen years of strong progress. Freedom House, for example, scores all countries on 25 key democratic indicators, on scale of 0 to 4, for a maximum score of 100.

The 25 Freedom House indicators cover seven categories: elections, political pluralism and participation, accountable and transparent governance, freedom of expression and belief, associational freedom, rule of law, and personal autonomy and individual rights. Kenya’s strongest democratic performance has been and remains upholding freedom of expression and belief but it has declined over this fifteen-year period from a very strong 88 in 2006 to 63 in 2021, but at the same time, the country’s biggest decline over this period has been in freedom to participate fully, fairly, and equitably in political party and other political groupings, declining from 78 to 50, followed by a 25-point decline to 50 in electoral performance. Kenya’s worst scores throughout this period have been in transparent governance, 42, and rule of law, 31 both in 2021.

In addition, since 2013, each year, Freedom House has also released the scores on all 25 questions for all countries. Grouping these scores under the headings of the seven Freedom House categories affords granular insight into general governmental weakening of both core democratic liberties and structural foundations supporting democratic states. Translating scores of zero to four into percentages (e.g., a score of 1=25%) between 2013 and 2021, scores have fallen in overall by about 8% overall, including for 12 of 14 structural criteria and 8 of 11 democratic liberties

The weakened structural foundations fall into four categories. First, scores for election systems include presidential elections that have fallen from 44 in 2013 to 40 in 2021, parliamentary elections (47 to 46), and fair and impartial election laws (an 11% decline from 47 to 42). Second scores on procedures enabling political parties to organize freely (no change at 50), enable opposition parties to organize realistically (down 45 to 42), enable parties to organize free of external interference (44 to 39) and enable all groups, and treat all groups impartially (49 to 47).

Third, scores for accountable governance have declined 10% from 43 to 39 for governmental effectiveness in upholding this requirement, 10% from 37 to 33 in the degree of transparency and remain at a very low 33% for the existence of effective corruption safeguards. Fourth, scores the rule of law remain the lowest of the seven categories. Specifically, judiciary independence has declined from 39 to 37, overall practice of due process almost 20% from 39 to 32, governing structures unchallenged by illegitimate forces and insurgencies down over 40% from 36 to 31, and general observance of equality under law down 37 to 34.

The scores on upholding democratic liberties have remained somewhat higher than those for structural democratic state support, notwithstanding some of the sharpest declines in specific areas. Upholding of freedom religion and academic freedom have declined only modestly, from 64 to 61 and 68 to 66 respectively. But general freedom of expression has declined precipitously, nearly 20% from 64 to 53.  Freedom of association and freedom of assembly have each declined over 10% from 52 to 47 and 43 to 38 respectively.  Freedom of organization for unions and professional associations has remained relatively stronger at 52. Freedom of movement, to travel and to choose one’s residence declined from 51 to 48. Economic freedoms remained essentially stable at 44 though freedom from economic exploitation remained essentially stable at a very low 33.

Citizen opinion of democracy

On the other hand, Afrobarometer’s findings from surveys of random samples of ordinary citizens has revealed, continentally and in Kenya, both reassuring popular support for democracy and perceptions that weak democratic performance has failed to strengthen state institutions as intended. 69 percent of Africans prefer democracy to all the authoritarian alternatives, including 75 percent of Kenyans. Only 42 percent felt they are free to say what they think in 2021 down from 49 percent in 2013.  48 percent of Kenyans, by contrast to 65 percent of Africans overall– feel free to join any organization. In 2021, 63% of all Africans and 58% of Kenyan retained a belief in media freedom. All Africans retain a strong belief in competitive elections but only 45 percent believe them effective in dismissing failed leaders, Kenyans 46 percent.

The foregoing mixed record of support for democratic performance in practice has not been strong enough to sustain democratic state institutions, let alone strengthen them. Only 34 percent of Africans – Kenyans 31 percent – approve of governmental performance in reducing corruption. However, Kenyans retain more trust in presidential institutions than Africans generally by a wide margin, 66 to 51 percent, and in parliament, 49 to 42 percent respectively

Perhaps most telling, colonially created African states joined ethnic communities with little overarching rationale. Nationalist movements and post-independence governments, have sought to weld meaningful states out of these multi-ethnic aggregations. After six decades of independence, Africans aligning totally or mostly with their nation-states rather than residual ethnic communities have declined over the past decade from only 48 percent to 40 percent.  

The momentum driving democratization spurred by the dramatic end of the Cold War and sustained by a unipolar decade of international support powered African democratization for more than a decade. That momentum has run its course, helping to explain democratic decline since about 2005. International support for continued democratization has been sapped by the distractions of combatting global terrorism, the rise of China and other surging economies—India, Brazil, and others, and climate change and humanitarian and other exigencies.

New momentum is clearly needed if democracy’s decline in Africa and across the globe is to be reversed. That new momentum can only be generated by democrats and democratic organizations themselves — national and international political leaders, civil society groups, political and economic organizations that see democracy as in their interests, and grassroots movements of citizens themselves. (

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