Africa in 2021: The end of democracy?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Political Capital
Nic Cheeseman
By Nic Cheeseman

Every month 'Political Capital' tracks which leaders' political stock is rising, who is on the slide, and what this means for democracy and development. Focusing on the trends behind the headlines, Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) highlights the political power plays and events that will shape the future of Africa. He is Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham and Author of 'How to Rig an Election'. Founder of Co-producer of Resistance Bureau.

Posted on Monday, 20 December 2021 12:32, updated on Thursday, 19 January 2023 14:12
Protest against prospect of military rule in Khartoum
A person wearing a Sudan's flag stand in front of a burning pile of tyres during a protest against prospect of military rule in Khartoum, Sudan October 21, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

The headlines suggest it has been a worrying year for politics in sub-Saharan Africa. But from #EndSARS to the election victory of Hakainde Hichilema in Zambia, Africans are pushing more democracy - not less - argues Nic Cheeseman.

Coups in Chad, Sudan, Guinea and Mali. Damaging and destabilising civil conflict in Ethiopia and Mozambique. Growing criminality and insecurity in Nigeria. The continuation of the Sahel crisis, which is impacting political violence in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali. Flawed elections in Chad, Ethiopia, Uganda and even one of the continent’s former democratic leading lights, Benin.

The outbreak of violence and looting that followed ex-President Jacob Zuma’s arrest in South Africa, described by some as the country’s “darkest hour” since the end of apartheid. A drawn out political crisis in eSwatini, where the continent’s last absolute monarchy is resorting to increasingly desperate and brutal strategies to retain power. And, most recently, the return of long term dictator Yahya Jammeh’s political party to government – if via a coalition – in Gambia.

Off the back of these developments it would be easy to paint 2021 as the year that the dream of democracy died in Africa – especially as it was not a one off. Afropessimists and those who argue that democracy is completely unsuited to the African context certainly interpreted the combination of political instability and rising authoritarianism in this way. But there is another story to tell about Africa in 2021 which focusses less on democratic decline and more on democratic resilience.

Despite growing public concern about the direction of political travel, there is no evidence of widespread support for one-party states, which have often been claimed to represent a form of government more suited to African societies. Instead, citizens dissatisfaction with the way democracy is working has led to stronger demands for accountable and representative government. In turn, this helps to explain why 2021 saw opposition victories in Sao Tome and Principe and Zambia, as well as protests against corrupt and abusive rule in a wide range of countries from Benin to Zimbabwe.

Democracy is under threat, but has also proved to be remarkable resilient. This is not simply because it is supported by Western governments from thousands of miles away. A much more important factor is that it is deeply rooted in the hopes and aspirations that people have for their own countries.

African people are not giving up on democracy

It is true that the poor performance of many governments over the last few years, and consistent controversy over electoral manipulation, has led to falling public satisfaction with how democracy is working. The Afrobarometer has just dropped the results of its latest round of nationally representative surveys conducted in 34 countries between 1999 and 2021. As ever, their data – which is freely available here – has an amazing amount to tell us about public attitudes and perceptions. The latest findings reveal that a majority of citizens are “dissatisfied” with democracy in 26 (76%) of the 34 countries included in the sample. In some countries, “satisfaction” is so low that it is almost non-existent: just 11% in Gabon and 17% in Angola.

Along with the fact that some of the coups that took place over the last two years were celebrated in the streets, it would be easy to interpret this as evidence that people have given up on democracy and want authoritarian “strong men” who can deliver order and discipline. But a closer look at these coups and the Afrobarometer suggests a very different conclusion.

Many of those who initially celebrated coups in Guinea and Mali did so because they removed leaders who had themselves undermined democracy. In Guinea, President Alpha Conde has manufactured an unpopular third term in office. In Mali, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was widely accused of having both delayed and manipulated the March 2020 legislative elections.

Strong public support for democracy (77% in Guinea, 62% in Mali) was one reason that the juntas now in power felt the need to justify their interventions, at least in part, on the basis of the need to restore democratic government.

High levels of popular support for democracy are also evident elsewhere. According to the Afrobarometer, more than 70% of citizens prefer democracy to any other form of government in 20 (58%) out of 34 countries. Sceptics sometimes respond to the findings of the Afrobarometer by arguing that people may not really know what democracy means, or that support for democracy doesn’t imply a desire to impose checks and balances on leaders.

The latest Afrobarometer data shows that this is not true. Instead, at a time of democratic crisis there is growing support for the principle of political accountability. The proportion of citizens agreeing that governments should be held accountable “even if that means it makes decisions more slowly” increased from 52% to 62% between 2011 and 2021. In line with this, public support for the president always obeying the courts, “even if s/he thinks they are wrong” increased from 67% to 77%.

A year of democratic resilience?

Perhaps the best evidence of the impressive resilience of democratic norms and values is the fact that support for democracy is often highest in countries where it is under threat. In 2021, this includes Benin (81%), Ethiopia (90%), Zimbabwe (78%) and Zambia (84%) – where the survey was conducted before authoritarian President Edgar Lungu was defeated at the ballot box.

In other words, dissatisfaction with the way democracy is working doesn’t indicate that people have given up on it, but rather that they want more. In countries such as Zimbabwe, low satisfaction with democracy (41%) has driven a rejection not of democratic government but rather of the authoritarianism that people experience on a daily basis. Fully 84% of Zimbabweans reject military rule, as do 87% of Ugandans and 89% of Kenyans – and an average of 74% of the tens of thousands of people interviewed by the Afrobarometer.

It is this democratic resilience that helps to explain some of the bright spots in 2021.

In Zambia, citizens ignored threats, a bias media and bribery to boot out President Edgar Lungu’s increasingly authoritarian government – even though the election was far from free and fair. In Sao Tome and Principe, public desire for change resulted in another victory for the opposition.

In Nigeria, protestors organized memorials online and in person to commemorate those who died in the #endSARS protests of 2020 and to demand justice for fallen comrades. In eSwatini, protestors continue to risk arrest, torture and death despite the great odds stacked against them. And in Sudan, the coup of October 2021 was contested by a remarkable citizen uprising in which thousands of people – once again – risked their lives to demand civilian and democratic government.

Public support alone is not, of course, enough to protect or advance democracy, and it is clear that the institutions designed to safeguard democratic principles have eroded in many countries. Zimbabweans do not want to live under a “strong man” but they have little choice in the mater at present.

What it does mean, however, is that the more governments abuse democratic norms and values, the harder they will find it to legitimise and hence sustain their rule. The juntas have taken recently taken power in countries like Guinea, Mali and Sudan will soon learn this lesson to their cost if they renege on their promise to restore democratic rule.

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