Is there a retreat from democracy? Ask Africans.

29 Nov 2018

  By Prof. E. Gyimah-Boadi, executive director and co-founder, Afrobarometer; Founder and former executive director, Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana).

The rise of ‘strong’ leaders breaking norms and weakening institutions to deliver results has gained a certain allure among voters around the world and spawned enough copycats for scholars and media analysts to warn of a retreat from democracy. Not quite so in Africa. At least that’s what average Africans tell us.

For more than a decade and across many indicators, ordinary Africans have consistently expressed support for democracy and accountable governance in Afrobarometer surveys. The latest wave of the survey (2016-18), covering 34 countries in all regions of the continent, bears this fact out. More than two-thirds (68%) of Africans prefer democracy – down slightly from 72% in 2012. Support for multiparty competition is at 63%, for high-quality elections at 75%, and for presidential term limits, 75%. Indeed, the proportion of Africans who think it’s more important to have an accountable government than an efficient one increased between 2015 and 2018, from 53% to 62%. In short, demand for democratic governance is still strong.

Supply of democracy, on the other hand – always lagging behind demand – continues its slow downward trend. Only a minority (42%) of Africans say they’re at least ‘fairly satisfied’ with the way democracy works in their country. Other indicators of the supply of democracy, such as perceptions that the prior election was largely free and fair, remain reassuring. Still, overall, supply trails demand when it comes to democratic goods by about 9 percentage points. At best, popular ambitions for democratic governance are only being partially fulfilled.

On balance, the picture that emerges is an Africa that wants to have what the West, at its best, is having: democratic, transparent, accountable, time-limited governments and economic opportunities. And they want it in Africa!

The data tell us Africans today are unsatisfied by but not dissatisfied with democracy. They just want more dividends from democracy. They want less corruption, more transparency, less impunity, more economic opportunity. African governments would do well to supply these goods, and it’s in the interest of external partners to push for and to support this quest – lest non-liberal democratic models of national development become more alluring.

Originally posted on the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System website.