Sub-Saharan African Democracy at Risk

Sub-Saharan African Democracy at Risk

with Prof John Harbeson

The best that can be said for the status of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa is that African citizens have sustained support for democracy at relatively high levels, at least in principle, even though for many, it has remained elusive in practice, and satisfaction with its performance has sagged notably. Indeed, the persistence of African belief in the merits of democracy over the ready alternatives for the thirty years since the end of the Cold War should, itself, be counted a victory for democracy, notwithstanding citizen as well professional democracy specialists’ recognition of widespread significant, serious shortcomings in its practice.

To date, it has appeared that African commitment to democracy has not been tentative or conditioned on the kind of steady, sustained progress that occurred following the end of the Cold War from 1990 into the first years of this century, but rather it has been strong enough to weather the democratic declines of the last two decades and perhaps for the foreseeable future. Indeed, a January 2023 Afrobarometer policy paper based on its 2019-2021 survey of African opinion in 34 countries has observed that “despite the many efforts to undermine democratic norms and freedoms, citizens continue to adhere to them.”

However, this finding begs important follow-on questions that have rarely, if ever, been entertained: what has sustained African citizens’ embrace of democracy in the face of its continuing overall decline, and what are the prospects that commitment is likely to remain at high levels, if declining practice continues unabated, absent more explicit countervailing momentum to reverse those declines?

The Afrobarometer report has tacitly issued a stark warning that democratic decline may be deepening, potentially putting at significant risk continued high levels of citizen democratic commitment.  The report’s newest and most salient finding is that “Africans invest considerable efforts in making themselves heard —  whether through voting, contacting leaders, or joining with others to express their concerns, but few think their governments are actually listening.” 

The report suggests that the problem of democratic retreat may be becoming far more serious than simply a declining propensity of still young democratic institutions to perform to expectations.  Rather, it suggests an underlying breakdown of civil society itself, diminishing a basic social contract between elected and unelected leaders and their citizens to even engage with each other on the terms of their relationship, i.e., democratic engagement at its most fundamental level.  For example, countries may have democratic constitutions on the books but elected leaders not only find ways to subvert and work around their terms but turn deaf ears to their constituents when they may protest practices and seek reform.  For how long can these fractured social contracts remain unhealed before citizens give up on democratic advocacy or turn to non-democratic alternatives. Indeed, even now, Afrobarometer surveys over the last decade have suggested citizens’ declining identification with their nation-states and their correspondingly strengthened residual identification with their residual ethnic communities.

These concerns overshadow the important findings of this most recent Afrobarometer report.  On the one hand, citizen commitment to democracy has remained fairly strong at 68% in the 34 countries where in-depth surveys were conducted between 2019 and 2021. Note that Afrobarometer requires sufficiently grounded freedom of expression to conduct its surveys, and many of the 15 sub-Saharan countries not included in its surveys would fail that test. Opposition to the alternatives of military, one-party, and one-person rule registered higher than support for democracy at 74%, 77%, and 82%, respectively.

On the other hand, while support for democracy remains strong and opposition to autocratic alternatives even stronger, citizen satisfaction with the practice of democracy in their countries remains decidedly mixed. Across the 34 surveyed countries, only 51% of citizens believed they live in a democracy afflicted with only minor problems (Kenya 68%), and only 41% expressed satisfaction with the performance of democracy in their countries(Kenya 59%).

Underlying, at best uneven satisfaction with the status of democracy, lurked evidence of basic social contracts under significant distress.  The Report noted continuing support for elections but a decline of, on average, 9 percent in that support among 29 countries over the last decade. Only 44% of respondents in the recent survey of 34 countries believed that elections enable voters to remove non-performing leaders. Moreover, the Report found significant citizen dissatisfaction with their elected leaders’ performance as social contract partners. 58% claimed corruption increased in their countries in the year prior to the survey, and 70% reported fearing retaliation if they reported corruption. Over the past decade, perceptions of corruption increased even in leading democracies, 20% in South Africa, and 21% in Botswana—15% in Mauritius, and 9% in Ghana.

Citizens’ perceived inability to engage leaders they experience as deaf to their entreaties puts at risk not only the practice of democracy but the very possibility of democratic engagement itself. ( 

— 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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