Originally published on the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, where our biweekly Afrobarometer Friday series explores Africans’ views on democracy, governance, quality of life, and other critical topics.
For the watching world, one key takeaway from the U.S. election in 2020 is just how fragile even a long-established democracy can be if people lose faith in elections. Well-wishers hope that its corollary will be just how effective resilient institutions can be in rebuilding that faith.
While Africans followed the U.S. election debacle with intense interest, they certainly have case studies of their own when it comes to allegations of election fraud and disputed results. The most recent is Uganda, where the challenger in January’s election blasted “the most fraudulent election in this country’s history” even as security forces imprisoned him in his home. Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire saw blood in the streets in 2020 as presidents manipulated constitutional provisions to extend their rule. Kenya and Malawi tested their democratic institutions with high court decisions to annul hotly disputed presidential victories and order new elections — resulting in a change of leadership in Malawi.
In each case — regardless of whether they blame government repression, fraud, opposition violence, sour grapes, or all of the above — citizens find their faith in elections and democracy put to the test.
While that faith remains strong across Africa, it is weaker than a decade ago, with underpinnings that appear less than sturdy. In Afrobarometer surveys in 18 African countries in late 2019 and early 2020, most Africans say they want elections. But far fewer think elections ensure that voters’ views are represented, enable voters to remove leaders they don’t want, or even produce accurate results.
Do elections work?
Only four in 10 Africans (42 percent) say that elections in their country are effective in ensuring that representatives to parliament reflect the views of voters. The same proportion think elections enable voters to remove leaders who don’t do what the people want.
Countries vary widely in their views of how well elections work (see Figure 1). In Ghana (70 percent) and Sierra Leone (65 percent) — two countries where challengers defeated incumbent presidents in 2016 and 2018, respectively — large majorities say elections do enable voters to get rid of non-performing leaders. Curiously, even in Uganda, which has had the same president for 35 years, a majority (58 percent) agrees. But in Gabon, where two generations of the Bongo family have been in power since 1967, only 15 percent think elections serve this function well (see Figure 1).
On average, across 11 countries surveyed regularly since 2008/2009, faith in this accountability function of elections has dropped by 11 percentage points, from 56 percent to 45 percent.
Figure 1: Do elections enable voters to remove non-performing leaders? | 18 countries | 2019/2020
Respondents were asked: Think about how elections work in practice in this country. How well do elections enable voters to remove from office leaders who do not do what the people want? Source: Afrobarometer.
Africans want elections nonetheless
Even if they don’t place great faith in elections as a way to ensure good representation and leadership, almost three-quarters (73 percent) of Africans want regular, open, and honest elections to choose their leaders. Among 18 surveyed countries, only Lesotho records less than majority support (40 percent) for elections.
In addition, more than 6 out of 10 Africans (62 percent) endorse multiparty competition as necessary to give voters real choices.
But here again we see some slippage. On average, across 15 countries surveyed regularly since 2011/2013, the belief that elections are the best way to choose leaders has declined by 8 percentage points. Lesotho records the largest decline (-23 percentage points), followed by Tunisia (-21 points) and Malawi (-19 points in data collected after the disputed May 2019 election and before the June 2020 rerun). Only Sierra Leone shows stronger support for elections than a decade ago (+11 points) (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Change in support for elections | 15 countries | 2011-2020
Figure shows change, in percentage points, between survey rounds in 2011/2013 and 2019/2020 in the proportion of respondents who “agree” or “agree very strongly” that leaders should be chosen through elections. Source: Afrobarometer.
What about the quality of elections?
Despite frequent allegations of electoral abuses, almost two-thirds (64 percent) of Africans rate their country’s most recent national elections as free and fair (either “completely” or “with minor problems”), an assessment that has varied little across 15 countries tracked since 2011/2013.
Overwhelming majorities hold this view in Burkina Faso (86 percent), Ghana (81 percent), Botswana (80 percent), Sierra Leone (80 percent), and Namibia (78 percent). But only minorities agree in two countries where recent elections were heavily disputed: Malawi (41 percent, referring to the May 2019 contest) and Gabon (30 percent) (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: The most recent election was free and fair | 18 countries | 2019/2020
Respondents were asked: On the whole, how would you rate the freeness and fairness of the last national election, held in [20XX]? (percentage who say “completely free and fair” or “free and fair with minor problems”) Source: Afrobarometer.
Assessments of other aspects of election quality are less positive. Nearly half (49 percent) of respondents say the media “never” or only “sometimes” provided fair coverage of all candidates in their last election, and 35 percent say that votes were not accurately counted. About one in five say that people voted more than once (20 percent) and that they themselves were offered food, a gift, or money in exchange for their vote (18 percent). One in four respondents (24 percent) think that powerful people can find out how they voted.
Will people keep voting?
Despite these reservations, most Africans vote: Excluding those who were too young to participate, 73 percent say they voted in their country’s most recent election. And almost 9 out of 10 (87 percent) — including a majority in every surveyed country — say they feel “somewhat” or “completely” free to vote for candidates of their choice without feeling pressured.
Still, declining support for elections is a trend that bears watching as the future of democracy in Africa unfolds. Other analysts have observed that popular support for elections gets a boost from the experience of high-quality elections, especially ones that produce a change in leadership. Our findings agree; support for elections is 11 percentage points higher if respondents believe that their country’s last election was free and fair.
In that regard, evidence from the recent U.S. election may be in the eye of the beholder. But from Uganda’s violent repression to Ghana’s “boringly” peaceful 2020 presidential contest, from Malawi’s judicial resolution to Guinea’s bloody business as usual, Africans — including generations of future voters or non-voters — are drawing lessons of their own.
Fredline M'Cormack-Hale is associate professor at Seton Hall University and Afrobarometer co-principal investigator for the Institute for Governance Reform (IGR) in Sierra Leone. Find her on Twitter at @fredlinemh.
Mavis Zupork Dome is a research analyst at the Ghana Center for Democratic Development and national investigator for Afrobarometer in Ghana. Find her on Twitter at @zupork.