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Are Africa’s leading democracies in trouble?

The sixth in Afrobarometer’s special democracy summit series on Africa

- November 25, 2021

Earlier in this pre-Summit for Democracy series, we reported that across 34 African countries recently surveyed by Afrobarometer, demand for democracy is strong and resilient. The same can’t be said for Africans’ confidence that they actually live in well-functioning democracies, leaving a “democratic disappointment” gap. Today we dig deeper into those continentwide public opinion averages to uncover a surprise: Some of the most negative trends — both in how much democracy people say they are getting and how much they want — are happening in the continent’s up-to-now leading democracies.

Washington-based think tank Freedom House identifies nine African countries as “free” on its Global Freedom Index. Afrobarometer has tracked trends over the past decade in seven of these: Botswana, Cabo Verde, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, South Africa and Tunisia. (The other two are São Tomé and Príncipe and the Seychelles.) Almost all show increasing public dissatisfaction and declining support for democracy as the best system of government.

Afrobarometer findings from 48,084 face-to-face interviews in 2019-2021 make it clear that country context matters a lot, and that these democratic leaders warrant particular attention.

The southern African triad

The trends are most striking in the three countries that have anchored democracy in southern Africa for three decades. Botswana is one of the only African countries that remained democratic throughout the 1970s and ’80s. In the early 1990s, Namibia and South Africa joined it as those countries’ White minority rule gave way to new constitutions and new leadership.

All three have encountered democratic challenges. Most notably, despite regular and free elections, each has been ruled by a single dominant political party throughout the democratic period. The lack of a viable opposition is a fundamental weakness in their political systems, although South Africa’s recent election — in which the ruling African National Congress (ANC) won only 46 percent of the vote nationwide — suggests that ANC dominance may be waning.

Southern Africa has also had a reputation as the least corrupt region on the continent. But that’s been shaken by Namibia’s “Fishrot” scandal, in which senior government officials stand accused of accepting bribes in exchange for lucrative fishing quotas, and proliferating corruption scandals under Jacob Zuma in South Africa. Even in Botswana, rising perceptions of corruption have been in the spotlight. All this has sharply affected public attitudes.

To understand this better, we focus on four key indicators: preference for democracy, satisfaction with democracy, the perception that there is little or no corruption in the office of the presidency, and the belief that the country is going in the right direction.

As you can see in the two figures below, over the past decade, all of these indicators have sagged substantially in all three countries.

Trends in three southern African democracies, 2011-2021.

Botswana started with the most positive perceptions, and has had the smallest declines. But even here perceptions of the presidency’s honesty dropped by 21 percentage points, while the other indicators declined by more than 10 points.

Namibia’s declines include a 14-point loss of confidence in the integrity of the presidency and a remarkable 54-point collapse in the perception that the country is going in the right direction to just 18 percent, one of the lowest levels recorded across 34 countries.

In South Africa, meanwhile, indicators have dropped by 20 to 32 points, a decline that has continued since Zuma left office. Citizens’ attitudes suggest potential democratic disaster, with support for democracy among the lowest levels recorded across 34 countries.

Island trouble

Africa’s five small island states have achieved notable levels of democracy. Freedom House rates Cabo Verde, Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe and the Seychelles as “free,” and Comoros as “partly free.”

But the trends in Cabo Verde and Mauritius, though less pronounced than in South Africa, are also mostly negative, as you can see in the figure below. Cabo Verdeans are relatively constant in their preference for democracy and confidence in their leaders’ honesty. But their satisfaction with democracy has dropped 22 points, and just 38 percent now believe the country is headed in the right direction, down 28 points over the decade.

Changes in key indicators, 7 African democracies, 2011-2021 (in percentage points).
Changes in key indicators, 7 African democracies, 2011-2021 (in percentage points).

Analysts have cited Mauritius both as one of the world’s most democratic countries and one of those most rapidly heading toward autocracy. Here again, we see declines of 9 to 21 points across all four indicators, including a 21-point drop in satisfaction with democracy and a 15-point fall in perceptions of honesty in the presidency.

The Northern tier

Finally, we turn to two countries further north, Ghana and Tunisia. Ghana has in many respects become the continent’s democratic leader, in part because, unlike their southern African counterparts, citizens have voted the ruling party out of office several times.

Although the trends here are also downward, the declines are considerably smaller, and the overall pattern is modest volatility rather than substantial long-term decline. With support for democracy at 77 percent and one of the highest levels of satisfaction recorded at 66 percent, Ghana’s democracy seems to be on somewhat more solid footing.

Tunisia, meanwhile, had appeared to be the only Arab Spring country set to maintain a democratic path. As the country has struggled to realize hoped-for economic and political gains, support for democracy dropped by 13 points over the decade — even while satisfaction ticked up by a similar margin.

However, Tunisia’s democratic credentials are in question after the president’s decision in July to disband parliament and seize almost total power.

Halting democratic decline?

There is no single diagnosis — or antidote — for what ails these African democracies. In Mauritius, a flawed election in 2019 eroded citizens’ confidence in the health of their democracy. Corruption has fueled deepening dissatisfaction in South Africa and elsewhere. Ghana’s aggressive steps to tackle corruption, on the other hand, show that governments needn’t accept democratic decline as inevitable or irreversible.

Carolyn Logan (@carolynjlogan) is director of analysis for Afrobarometer and associate professor in the department of political science at Michigan State University.

Brian Howard (@TwitBH1) is head of publications for Afrobarometer.

Read more in this special series:

Do Africans want democracy — and do they think they’re getting it?

China has invested deeply in Africa. We checked to see whether that is undermining democracy.

Long-serving African presidents say the people want them to stay on. Is that true?

Some Africans — but not all — are happy with the quality of their elections.

Why are Africans dissatisfied with democracy? Think corruption.