What would an authoritarian Africa look like?

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 www.democracyinafrica.org. Co-producer of Resistance Bureau.

Posted on Monday, 28 February 2022 11:19, updated on Thursday, 19 January 2023 14:10

President of Rwanda Paul Kagame, left, is welcomed by European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during an EU Africa summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP)/

Yesterday a journalist asked me whether it was possible for an African leader to be a good democrat and an effective leader at the same time. It wasn’t the first time, and won’t be the last.

There is a growing sense following the rise of China and Rwanda that authoritarian leaders are better able to get things done. This includes people that might surprise you, like some representatives of international development organisations.

The logic behind this trend is intuitive – the claim that you need a strong government to push through tough reforms sounds right. It is also easy to believe that only a strong leader can whip people into line and so control corruption. These points also have a theoretical foundation.

After all, many advocating the “developmental state” model have argued that a strong government freed up to focus on long-term goals is more likely to deliver real progress.

Depending on how generous you want to be, there are between one and eight high-quality democracies in sub-Saharan Africa, if we take this to mean that the government respects a wide range of civil liberties and political rights.

So this is a good time to ask what an authoritarian Africa would look like. What would happen if every country aspired to be Rwanda? If every President won with 98% of the vote and every media was state-controlled? Would we see higher levels of development? Less corruption?

Reviewing what has happened under authoritarian rule, both in the past and in the present, suggests that it would actually make things much worse.

Isn’t Africa already authoritarian?

I can already hear readers questioning the premise of this column by asking “Isn’t Africa already authoritarian?”, so let’s start with that.

It is true that most of the continent is not fully democratic. Depending on how generous you want to be, there are between one and eight high-quality democracies in sub-Saharan Africa, if we take this to mean that the government respects a wide range of civil liberties and political rights. That’s less than 18% of all countries and – because most of these states are on the smaller side – less than 10% of the total population.

In countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, the opposition regularly wins more than 35% of the vote, even though the government rarely – if ever – loses.

But this doesn’t mean that the continent is wholly authoritarian. There are relatively few countries in which leaders have the kind of top-down control this implies. With the exception of Eritrea and eSwatini, multiparty elections are held, and although one-party dominance was common in the 1990s, it has fallen over the last decade. In countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, the opposition regularly wins more than 35% of the vote, even though the government rarely – if ever – loses.

In other words, many African countries are not full democracies or full autocracies but sit somewhere in-between. This is more important than it may sound because governments in this middle-ground face many of the same pressures and incentives as their more democratic counterparts. Manipulating elections is harder the smaller support base you start off with, and so leaders have good reason to compete with opposition parties for popularity.

In this way, countries with a disappointing quality of democracy may still benefit from political competition, giving leaders at least some electoral incentive to deliver. Reintroducing one-party states or military rule, or holding stage-managed elections where the opposition receive almost no votes, would significantly change this picture.

The lessons of the past

The big question is therefore whether the efficiency gains from getting rid of democratic structures would outweigh the loss of pressure on leaders to listen to citizens and critical voices.

One useful indicator of what an authoritarian Africa would look like is what happened when one-party states and military regimes dominated in the 1980s. This was peak authoritarianism, with most democratic institutions either eradicated or eroded to the point of having little traction. Governments employed increasingly repressive strategies, opposition parties were banned, and leaders faced limited institutional constraints. So what did these governments achieve?

The odds were stacked against countries whose whole infrastructure had been set up to facilitate the exploitation of natural resources rather than the development of value-added industries.

The answer is not very much where development was concerned. Few leaders delivered economic growth. Fewer still built effective national infrastructure. On average, GDP growth per worker was just 0.19% in sub-Saharan Africa between 1975 and 1979 and actually fell by 1.7% between 1980 and 1984.

Some countries such as Kenya fared better and enjoyed modest growth, but even this failed to create sufficient jobs for a growing population. Tanzania initially had success in expanding education, but in the long term, the economy flatlined. Despite its vast oil wealth, Nigeria stagnated. Zambia experienced as many years of economic contraction as it did growth.

There were a number of reasons for this. One was that African economies continues to suffer from colonial-era underdevelopment and operated in an unfair economic order. The odds were stacked against countries whose whole infrastructure had been set up to facilitate the exploitation of natural resources rather than the development of value-added industries.

But while the impact of (neo)colonialism was profound, development was possible. Both Botswana and Mauritius enjoyed consistently high growth, graduating from lower-income to upper-middle (Botswana) and high (Mauritius) income status. That they were pretty much the only countries to do this and were also two of the only African states to remain democracies, suggests that the failure of other countries was in part rooted in their authoritarian political structures.

Indeed, another factor underpinning poor development outcomes was widespread corruption and waste. Rather than creating more efficient and dynamic governments, the absence of democratic checks and balances facilitated self-serving and complacent regimes. A remarkable proportion of state resources were diverted, undermining both the provision of public services and efforts to build national infrastructure. Disconnected from the lives of ordinary citizens, out of touch governments failed to provide either jobs or security.

These regimes also consistently failed to pick the right investments. Nigerian military leaders became infamous for their white elephant projects. Others distorted the economy to reduce the threat of political unrest, for example by suppressing food prices, harming both domestic businesses and economic growth in the process.

In other words, as the constraints on leaders got weaker, corruption and economic mismanagement got worse. There were vanishingly few cases in which governments used their great power to “get things done”. Instead, authoritarianism and economic crisis went hand-in-hand.

Authoritarianism 2.0

The adherents of authoritarianism will naturally respond that the 1980s are not a reliable guide when it comes to the present. Paul Kagame’s Rwanda certainly presents a very different picture. Politics is carefully stage-managed so that it is rarely chaotic. The government is clear about the importance of reducing poverty and long-term planning. Technical expertise is highly valued and is used to present an attractive offer to foreign investors.

Authoritarianism 2.0 certainly looks very different to the 1980s from Kigali. But the most authoritarian states in Africa today are nothing like Rwanda, and instead are repeating the pathologies of the past. The proceeds of natural resources are diverted away from productive investments into personal consumption, undermining any focus on national infrastructure and economic transformation.

The evidence of this is so strong it makes you wonder how authoritarianism still has any supporters in Africa. The ten most corrupt countries in Africa are all among the continent’s most authoritarian states. By contrast, Rwanda is the only authoritarian country to feature in the ten least corrupt countries.

More authoritarian states also experience lower economic growth and greater conflict, while nine of the ten states with the most acute food insecurity are “autocratic or semi-authoritarian”.

There will be isolated cases, of course, where autocrats achieve impressive outcomes, but these are the exceptions. If you want a government that will “get something done” in Africa, you want democracy.

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