AD45: African democracy update: Democratic satisfaction remains elusive for many

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Thomas Bentley, Kangwook Han, and Peter Halley Penar

Image credit: Courtesy of UN Photos on Flickr

For democracy advocates around the world, International Day of Democracy highlights the contributions of citizens to making decisions for their countries and ensuring that governments are accountable to their people. On International Day of Democracy 2015 (September 15), Afrobarometer examines how African citizens perceive the quality of their democracies. Many African countries have signed or ratified the African Union Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which clearly expresses governments’ commitments to “human rights and democratic principles,” a representative system of government (Chapter 4 and Chapter 5), and free and fair elections (Chapter 7). New Afrobarometer data from 28 countries suggest that the extent to which African countries put democratic ideals into practice varies widely across countries.

On average, barely half of surveyed citizens consider their country a “full democracy” or “a democracy with minor problems,” and less than half (46%) are “fairly” or “very” satisfied with how democracy is working in their country, a decrease from the previous survey round. Levels of satisfaction range from highs of 72% in Namibia and 68% in Botswana to lows of 26% in Togo and 11% in Madagascar.

Regular, free, and fair elections, a cornerstone of democracy, are not yet a universal reality, the survey data indicate. While large majorities in Mauritius (91%) and Senegal (87%) consider their most recent national elections either “completely free and fair” or “free and fair but with minor problems,” only 46% share this opinion in Ghana.

Other important elements of democracy, such as freedom of speech and association, also show substantial differences among countries. In several countries, such as Swaziland, Togo, and Zimbabwe, citizens perceive high barriers to speaking freely, whereas most Malawians and Ghanaians believe they can say what they think. Differences across the 28 countries are smaller with regard to the freedom to join political organisations and the freedom to vote for candidates of their choice, although a majority of Swazis register a lack of freedom of association and vote choice.

As the African Union and international community work to support African countries to fulfil their commitments to democracy, the perceptions of ordinary citizens provide an important window on progress and remaining challenges.