Africans Want Democracy But Are They Getting It?

A Nigerian goes to the polls.
23 April 2014

Cape Town — Popular support for democracy and against one-party rule in Africa has risen substantially in the past decade, but most Africans don't think they are actually experiencing democracy.

These are among the conclusions which can be drawn from the latest analysis of the results of the 34-country public opinion survey conducted by Afrobarometer.

"Seven out of 10 Africans prefer democracy to other political regimes, and the proportion of deeply committed democrats – that is, those who also reject authoritarian alternatives – has risen steadily over the past decade," Afrobarometer says in a report released from Bamako, Mali today.

But, it adds, "People don't always think they are getting democracy... While ordinary Africans clamour for high-quality elections and leadership accountability, too many political leaders continue to manipulate the polls, challenge term limits, and even seize power by coup.

"In the most common pattern across African countries, popular demand for democracy exceeds the available supply, producing a deficit of democracy. "

The report also raises questions about the depth of Africans' support for democracy, suggesting that levels of support depend on whether citizens are experiencing democracy and whether they feel they are benefitting from it. And it finds military rule still has "a lingering appeal" among some Africans.

The report was authored by Professor Michael Bratton of Michigan State University in the United States and Richard Houessou of the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy (IREEP) in Benin.

It says that in 16 countries surveyed regularly since 2002, support for democracy has risen from 63 percent to 75 percent of adults. But only 43 percent both believe that their country is a democracy and say they are satisfied with the way democracy works.

Rejection of one-party rule has risen from 67 percent to 77 percent. Military rule is rejected by a high proportion of adults – 79 percent – but this figure is only two percent higher than in 2002.

Afrobarometer links the depth of survey respondents' commitment to democracy to whether they reject all forms of autocracy, whether one-party rule, military rule or a one-man dictatorship. Almost all – 93 percent – reject at least one of these forms, but only 58 percent reject all three.

"Most importantly," it adds, "less than half of all Africans interviewed (46 percent) consistently identify democracy as the only form of government they would ever wish to have. So far... a deeply rooted demand for democracy apparently remains a minority public sentiment."

A country-by-country analysis shows the demand for democracy to be high in countries which have recently or regularly held successful elections or where government has changed peacefully through elections – notably Ghana, Mauritius, Senegal and Zambia.

But the demand for or commitment to democracy is much lower in countries where democracy is disputed or elections are not held – such as Algeria, Egypt, Madagascar and Swaziland.

In Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Cote d'Ivoire, the popular demand for democracy far exceeds what the countries' rulers are supplying, the report adds.

The report also enables a nuanced reading of Africans' views on democracy. For example, it notes that Tanzanians would appear to be the citizens in Africa who are most satisfied with the way democracy works in their country. But it adds, "since Tanzanians are below average in rejecting one party-rule... they may well use a much less exacting democratic standard than Ghanaians".

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