More than a half-century after the end of colonialism, democracy in Africa is still an enigma. By all counts and international measures African states generally rate poorly when it comes to respect for human rights, election integrity, corruption, and fair and impartial public administration.
While 50 years ago independence looked to have situated much of Africa within what Samuel Huntington called second wave democratization (1991), the ability to stabilize western European style democracy across the continent not only appears to have had mixed success, but organizations such as Freedom House even describe a retreat from it (2010). Additionally, others contend that democracy or one manifestation of it–elections–are merely a facade or shell that mask underlying anti-democratic or authoritarian regimes (Adebanwi and Obadare 2012). The question is why? Why specifically after 50 years has democracy faced such a rough road and what are the future prospects for democracy forming and flourishing across Africa? This is the subject of this article.
Measuring African Democracy
How do the countries of Africa measure up as democracies?
Freedom House has ranked nations of the world since 1973 (2015). They use three composite rankings. The first looks at political rights and the second civil rights. Counties are scaled on a score of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom, 7 the lowest. Freedom House also categorizes countries along three dimensions: free, partially free, and not free. States whose ratings average 1.0 to 2.5 are considered Free, 3.0 to 5.0 Partly Free, and 5.5 to 7.0 Not Free One can compare scores from the 1973 and 2016 rankings. In 1973 (based on 1972 data) the median score for an African state on political rights in 1973 was 5.875, in 2016 (based on 2015 data) it was 4.50. This means in 1973 the 5.875 score ranked African states as generally unfree when it comes to political rights, and partially free in 2016. Using a two-tail T test, the t-value is 3.68101. The p-value is .000194. The result is significant at p < .05.. This means that on average there has been an improvement in respect for political liberties across Africa from 1973 to 2016.
Second, in 1973 the median ranking for civil liberties was 5.125, while in 2016 it was 4.32. Again running a two-tail T test the t-value is 3.18033. The p-value is .001993. The result is significant at p < .05. In general an improvement but African states remained in the unfree category during these time periods. In the 1973 report Freedom House ranked only two states–Gambia and Mauritius–as free, in the 2015 report ten states–Benin, Botswana, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, Sao Tome & Principe, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia–are classified as free. Overall, in 1973 32 states are listed as unfree, in 2016 the number was 22. Democracy has generally improved compared to 1973, but certainly one cannot say that democracy is sweeping the continent. Additionally, comparing 1973 to 2016 misses something crucial–progress made and then regression. As Freedom House points out, democratic gains were made across much of Africa in the 1970s and into the 1980s, only to see overall and specific countries eventually regress or retreat from democracy.
Perhaps another measure or ranking is to look to Transparency International’s corruption index (2015). Corruption is measured on a scale of 0-100, with the higher the score the least corrupt. Using the most recent data from 2014, the median score for all countries ranked in the world was 43.18, for Africa it was 33. Statistically, using a two-tail T-test, the t-value is -3.60972. The p-value is .000377. The result is significant at p < .05. If one compares Africa to all other non-African states, the comparison is 33 to 47.68. Here the t-value is 4.84552. The p-value is < .00001. The result is significant at p < .05. One can conclude that African states are more corrupt than the world average, and the average for all non-African countries. Individually, Botswanna, with a composite score of 63, was the highest ranked African county, coming in at 31st in terms of least corrupt.
As noted above, colonial independence in Africa was part of what Huntington called the second wave of democratization worldwide (1991). Securing independence was a critical step toward forming a democracy. Yet studies by Freedom House, for example (2010) point to backsliding by many African countries, having moved toward democracy they retreated. Or they developed forms of democracy while really not being democratic. For example, across Africa elections were used to legitimize autocratic or anti-democratic rules. Serious opposition was lacking, or there was widespread election corruption or questions about voting integrity. Or many of the states were described as hybrid democracies containing many features or institutions inconsistent with democracy, such as presidencies with strong men who effectively lacked any horizontal checks on their power even though they appeared to be elected into office (Van Cranenburgh 2012: 177)
By one estimate between the years of independence and 2012 there have been at least 200 failed and successful military coups in Africa. (Barka and Ncube 2012). Alone between 1990 and 2001 there were 50 attempted military coups in sub-Saharan Africa (3). Peaceful civilian transfer of power through elections are described as the exception and not the rule across the continent. Additionally, after a burst of activity during the Arab spring, perhaps only Tunisia has moved closer to democracy. Egypt and Libya have either made no net progress or regressed. However, there is some evidence that subsequent to some military intervention produced regime liberalization and that such action and military rules are increasingly seen a illegitimate by many African citizens. Many political elites, including in the AU, also seem to be rejecting coups and preferring multi-party elections (Lynch and Crawford 2012: 23). States with histories of repeated fair and free elections seem to be developing supporting for human freedom and democratic values (Lynch and Crawford 2012: 5).
Assessing the Prospects for Democracy in Africa
So why have African states generally been slow in developing stable democracies? One set of theories is about inequality and poverty.
One standard measure of inequality is the GINI coefficient. This measure is on a scale from zero to 100, with zero representing no economic inequality between the rich and poor, while 100 would represent perfect inequality. Many organizations compute GINI, but for this paper the most decent, December 16, 2015 calculations from the World Bank shall be used. The World Bank data has reference points for most countries, including those in Africa, ranging from the late 1990s through 2013. Using this data one finds a world GINI average of 35.2. For Africa the average is 43.39. Clearly African countries have a greater degree of economic inequality than the rest of the world. On the face this might explain the difficult road to democracy in Africa. Yet a 43 GINI does not necessarily mean that a democracy is impossible. Among major countries of the world with GINI’s approximately this one finds the United States at 41.1. Granted the US has the largest GINI of all democracies and it is still smaller than the African average, but nonetheless the African mean may or may not be beyond the boundary of what is necessary for a democracy, even if individual states in Africa may exceed even this mean.
Perhaps there is some correlation between GINI correlation and a Freedom House classification. By that, is there any correlation between a country label and how economically equal the population is. Running a correlation of countries where both GINI numbers and Freedom House classification are found, the correlation is 0.018. Essentially no correlation between democracies and degrees of economic equality. But if instead a correlation is run between per capita GDP and Freedom House classification as free, the correlation is 0.439–a low to modest but definite relationship. There is some connection between democracies and levels of economic modernization or development. For example, among those states Freedom House classifies as free, partially free, and not free, the mean GDP per capita in US dollars is 14,476, $3,682, and $4,830. There is not a significant difference between the incomes of the not free and partial free but the gap between them and free is significant. In comparison the median GDP per capita for African states is $8034–far less than that for free countries. This lends additional support to the claim that income or poverty (development) is a factor impacting the prospects for African democracy.
Recent elections in the Central African Republic (Benn 2016) and Uganda (Gettleman 2016; Kron 2016) demonstrate that despite elections, challenges remain for the development of more than a formal democracy. So what are some of the reasons for the failure of democracy to firmly root across Africa?
First, nations fail often because of bad institutional design and feed off of poverty and create a vicious circle (Acemoglu and Robinson 2012). Specifically, the formal institutions and structures of democracy do matter. There must be both horizontal and vertical checks and balances or limits on power, especially on executives. Missing across much of Africa are fully developed structures to limit power, especially upon presidents. Additionally, while elections do take place across the continent, they are more contests in form than substance. They are marred by corruption or fraud, often they are not really competitive, with meaningful opposition. Instead, they are more facades to mask authoritarian power. However, these elections are held to please western governments or funders who insist on them as prerequisites for funding (Adebenwi and Obadare 2012).
But perhaps the biggest issues challenging the prospects for democracy in Africa are leadership, cultural, and economic. In terms of economics it is less the gap between the rich and poor and more the relative poverty of countries in Africa. Democracies across the world seem to tolerate some economic inequality, although across Africa it countries push the far limits of what may be possible in terms of a rich-poor gap to sustain democracy. Instead, compared to other free countries of the world, African countries are generally poorer. Thus, there is some evidence that the lack of economic development or modernization is in part a problem impeding democracy (Huntington 1991: 315).
Modernization brings with it changed cultural attitudes toward democracy. It empowers some groups, creates demands for more freedom. Moreover, the practice of democracy reinforces democracy. By that, the lack of successful democratic elections with peaceful transitions, or otherwise the lack of experience with democratic governance in specific countries and across the continent means that there is not a cultural or institutional memory or support built for democracy. Democracy may be a habit of the heart and without a habit of successful democracy it cannot sustain itself. In effect, there is a feedback loop to democratic practice that is missing.
Finally, there is the issue of elite support for democracy. Unlike in the third wave of democratization that swept Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall where political elites supported democracy, this is often missing in the countries across Africa. The commitment of rulers to rule of law, to supporting free and fair elections, civilian rule, and peaceful transitions are missing. Lacking elite support, especially when they are united, creates little opportunity for opposition parties to emerge, or for an independent civil society to flourish. Combine this lack of elite support along with the intense corruption that pervades many countries that prevents state or national resources from being invested in economic development, and the results, not surprisingly, do not lay the groundwork for the emergence or prospects for stable democracies to form or flourish.