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

The first in Afrobarometer’s special African democracy summit series.

- October 21, 2021

In December, the Biden administration will gather government, private-sector and society leaders in a global Summit for Democracy. The summit will be a forum at which institutions and countries will discuss democratic aspirations, confront threats faced by democracies around the world, and establish “an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal.”

Afrobarometer will participate in the summit, bringing the perspectives of ordinary Africans to the table. The quality of democracy and governance across the continent are Afrobarometer’s core themes, so we have a lot to say, especially since we just completed 48,084 face-to-face interviews in 34 countries in our eighth survey round (2019-2021). In anticipation of the summit, we are launching a special African democracy summit series to report some of our most important new findings.

Today we start with the basics: Do Africans (still) want democracy? Do they think they’re getting it?

In the coming weeks we will follow with posts on corruption and democratic commitment, term limits, China’s influence, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and related topics. We will also examine several case studies, highlighting countries that have been gaining or losing ground, democratically speaking.

Africans’ resilient democratic aspirations

Over the past decade, democracy watchers have been alarmed by declining trends in the status of democracy in Africa. Some govern­ments have taken advantage of the pandemic to limit freedoms, restrict fair campaigning or postpone elections. Activists are particularly wary of the possibility that supposedly temporary rollbacks in hard-won governance reforms could become permanent.

But for the most part, African citizens are committed to democracy and democratic institutions. Across 30 countries that Afrobarometer has surveyed consistently since Round 5 (2011-2013), most indicators remain strong and quite steady.

Seven in 10 Africans (69 percent) say that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.” While this is down modestly from 73 percent a decade ago, as you can see in the figure below, more specific indicators seem to affirm popular commitment to democracy. Large and steady majorities consistently reject authoritarian alternatives, including military rule (75 percent), one-party rule (77 percent), and one-person rule (82 percent).

Preference for democracy and rejection of authoritarian alternatives | 30 countries | 2011-2021
Preference for democracy and rejection of authoritarian alternatives | 30 countries | 2011-2021

Support for core democratic institutions, such as multiparty competition (63 percent), parliamentary oversight of the president (67 percent) and presidential term limits (77 percent), is also strong and consistent, as you can see in the next figure.

Support for democratic norms and institutions | 30 countries | 2011-2021
Support for democratic norms and institutions | 30 countries | 2011-2021

Commitment to multiparty elections as the best system for selecting leaders, while still strong at 75 percent, has fallen by eight percentage points over the past decade. This decline may reflect real disillusionment with electoral processes that are often torn by violence and produce contested results. A growing number of people may also be recognizing that elections, especially poor-quality ones, are not enough to guarantee democracy and better gov­ernance, and that a healthy democracy must include such other features as government accountability and responsiveness and citizen participation.

That’s what we can conclude from increases in popular de­mand for accountability and the rule of law. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of Africans now agree that their president “must always obey the laws and courts” even if s/he “thinks they are wrong,” up 10 points over the past decade. And nearly two-thirds (62 percent) say it is more impor­tant for a government to be accountable to the people than to ‘’get things done,” up from 52 percent in 2011/2013. Considering the scope of needs that people want their governments to address, this finding, more than any other, suggests an important deepening of popular democratic commitment.

The reality: A “democratic disappointment” gap

To what extent does political reality align with Africans’ aspirations? Afrobarometer findings suggest that it is falling short of expectations.

Across the continent, recent years have been marked by democratic highs — such as Malawi’s rerunning of its flawed 2019 presidential election, a recent ruling-party transition in Zambia, and the oust­er of long-serving autocrats in the Gambia, Sudan and Zimbabwe — alongside such lows as coups in Mali and Guinea and attempted coups in Gabon and Niger. But on average, as we have seen in the past, we continue to find that Africans want more democratic and accountable governance than they feel they are getting.

We begin by asking respondents “how much of a democracy” their country is and how satisfied they are with “the way democracy works.” Across 30 countries tracked for the past decade, a slim majority of 52 percent report that their country is “a full democracy” or “a democracy with minor problems.” That’s roughly the same as the 54 percent recorded in 2011/2013. But satisfaction is lower, and dropping substantially, from 50 percent a decade ago to 43 percent now, as you can see in the figure below.

Supply of democracy | 30 countries | 2011-2021
Supply of democracy | 30 countries | 2011-2021

Although ratings of election quality have held steady, a majority of Africans say corruption is getting worse. Just 32 percent think their government is doing fairly or very well on countering corruption, down from 36 percent a decade ago. And while we saw that support for the rule of law and presidential accountability to legislatures and the courts is increasing, public confidence that presidents actually obey the laws and courts and submit to parliamentary oversight has declined from 60 and 62 percent, respectively, to 56 and 57 percent

In sum, when we compare indicators of democratic demand and supply, we see that African governments are not meeting their citizens’ aspirations to live in democratic, ef­fective and accountable societies.

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Joseph Asunka (@joeasunka) is chief executive officer of Afrobarometer.

E. Gyimah-Boadi (@gyimahboadi) is board chair of 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.