Some fear petty crime. Others are worried about insurgent groups and government forces. Others still are worried about popular protests and the government’s heavy handed response.
Women, in particular, are afraid of gender-based violence. The cumulative effect of these overlapping trends is an epidemic of fear. According to the Afrobarometer, for the first time since it began conducting nationally representative surveys across the continent, a majority of citizens (52%) reported feeling unsafe walking around their own neighbourhoods in 2022.
This is worrying news because personal safety is critical to individual happiness, community development and national democracy.
Talking to friends in Nigeria over the last few years has really brought home how debilitating feeling unsafe can be.
One friend has stopped his regular trips to the family home because of an upsurge of insurgent activity, and misses his elderly parents. Another now flies between cities because some of the roads are too dangerous to drive, and feels like a tourist in his own country.
Meanwhile, a general sense that the government is incapable of protecting its citizens pervades everyday conversations and social media.
Government “performing badly”
It wasn’t always like this. Just 10 years ago, when the Afrobarometer first started asking about personal safety, 60% of respondents said they had “never” felt unsafe walking in their neighbourhood, while just 27% said that they had felt unsafe on a number of occasions. Today, this gap has shrunk: just 48% of people always feel safe, and feeling unsafe ha[s] become a regular occurrence for 37% of citizens.
This reflects a broader rise in popular and international concern over insecurity and government performance on law and order over the last decade. Overall, 59% of respondents say that their government is performing “very badly” or “fairly badly” when it comes to reducing crime – up from 50% from 2004.
Some readers may be wondering whether this actually means that there is an epidemic of criminality, or just an increase in fear. Could it be the case that citizens are worrying for no reason? Are they simply being scared by what they read on social media, which is often a warped and misleading reflection of reality?
The evidence strongly suggests that this is not what is happening.
Instead, popular opinion and expert evaluations come to remarkably similar conclusions. Take the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG), for example, which has ranked every African country on various pillars of statehood from 2012 to the present day. According to the IIAG, while African states have made some progress towards “human development” and “foundations for economic opportunity”, the situation has deteriorated when it comes to “participation, rights and inclusion” and “security and the rule of law”.
Somewhat remarkably, all of the decline in the rule of law has come in just one category: the security and safety of citizens.
The ability of states to ensure the absence of armed conflict, violence against civilians, and crime, has not just deteriorated – it has fallen more than almost any other component of the Index. Some of the most striking examples of this decline are spectacular. On a 0-100 scale in which 100 is the best possible score, South Sudan’s performance has fallen by 36 points in just 10 years. Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, and Mali have also experienced dramatic declines.
Negative media headlines about civil war and election violence give the impression that Africa is a chronically unsafe and unstable region
While this trend is alarming, it is important not to exaggerate how widely it is being felt. Negative media headlines about civil war and election violence give the impression that Africa is a chronically unsafe and unstable region; but anyone who spends any time on the continent knows how jaundiced and misleading this interpretation is. Many countries have never had civil conflict, and many neighbourhoods have low levels of crime. I feel far safer spending time in Lilongwe than I do in London or Washington.
It is therefore important to disaggregate the data. There has been no significant fall in how safe the public feels in Mauritius and Tunisia, for example, and the situation has actually improved in a small number of countries including Tanzania. The IIAG also finds that security and safety has improved in some places, such as Gambia and Zambia.
This raises the question of where we have seen the biggest deterioration and why.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the biggest changes have occurred in countries where multiple forms of insecurity – criminality, banditry, insurgency – overlap. This includes Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria, and Sudan.
In Burkina Faso, for example, the proportion of people who feel safe walking in their neighbourhood fell from 64% in 2016 to 38% in 2021. In Nigeria, meanwhile, the share of respondents who believe the government is doing a bad job on crime increased from 35% in 2000 to a remarkable 79% in 2022.
Fear and crime and insecurity is not limited to these most challenging contexts, however. Even in Benin and Ghana, historically thought of as leading democratic lights on the continent, a minority of people now feel safe walking around their neighbourhoods.
Link between insecurity and democracy
The importance of these trends is hard to overestimate. Rising insecurity and growing public concern over safety causes harm to human beings, creates barriers to development and risks undermining support for democracy.
It creates economic harm because, as Professor Etannibi Alemika has argued, people who do not feel safe are less likely to invest in new business ventures, and more likely to hold on to their money in case they need it to flee. Petty crime, theft and harassment can also push small companies under – especially in hard economic times like these.
The harm insecurity does to democracy occurs in a very different way. According to the Afrobarometer, those who say they “always” feel unsafe in their neighbourhood are 4% less likely to believe that democracy is the best political system for their country and 7% more likely to approve of military rule. These numbers are not massive, but the[y] are significant and they hold up to rigorous investigation.
In a comparative study of Africa and Latin America, Kenneth E. Fernandez and Michele Kuenzi find that “a citizen’s perception of public safety is as important a factor as any socio-economic variable in predicting support for and satisfaction with democracy”.
This helps to explain why there was considerable popular support for recent coups in countries, such as Burkina Faso and Mali, where ongoing insurgencies have contributed to widespread hardship and population displacement. As well as hoping that the military would preside over a transition to a more genuine form of democratic government, those who celebrated the soldiers in the streets were also hoping that leaders who know how to use heavy artillery would do a better job of restoring law and order.
That hope has already faded, as citizens increasingly realise they have swapped a dysfunctional multiparty government for a dysfunctional military one that may prove considerably harder to get out of power.
Nothing could be a better illustration of the importance of restoring citizens’ sense of safety than the predicament these countries now face. There will be no more important challenge for African governments, and their partners, in 2023.
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