Africa can look deceptively democratic. When measured only by the prevalence of elections, the vast majority of African countries are democratic.
But if you define democracy more deeply - as you should - by also taking into account whether the citizens of a country enjoy full political rights and civil liberties and get a real chance to replace their leaders democratically, Africa’s democratic veneer largely evaporates.
Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index does measure democracy by those basic political rights and civil liberties- such as freedoms of expression and association and of media and whether elections are really free and fair.
The general absence of most of those rights and liberties led Freedom House to judge in its latest report, covering 2020, that there were only nine “Free” countries among Africa’s 54 nations (55 if you count Western Sahara aka the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic).
They were Botswana, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, South Africa and Tunisia.
And since then Tunisia has probably dropped off the list after President Kais Saied suspended Parliament, fired the government and begun ruling by decree.
Freedom House classifies another 24 African states as “Not Free” and 22 as “Partly Free.” These states mostly hold elections but those elections are manipulated -- either directly through plain rigging or indirectly through the suppression of the opposition -- to ensure that the incumbent president and/or party always remains in power.
The Sweden-based Varieties of Democracy (“V-Dem”) project explores different types of democracy with liberal democracy, the most developed form, which includes protection for individual and minority rights against the tyranny of the majority, at one end of the spectrum and electoral democracy, the least substantive, at the other.
In his new online book, The Future of Africa,https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-46590-2 Jakkie Cilliers, chairperson and head of the futures programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), observes that according to V-Dem’s classification, Africa does quite well on electoral democracy but significantly worse on liberal democracy.
Average levels of both electoral democracy and liberal democracy were low until about 1989. But then- on a scale where 0 represents the complete absence of democracy and 100% equals full democracy, the average score for liberal democracy rose from about 13% to about 30% by 2015. The score for electoral democracy rose even higher, from about 20% to about 43%.
The surge in electoral democracy partly reflected the rush by African countries to meet the new post-Cold War demand by the international community – and particularly Western donor countries- for multiparty democracy.
But most of these “donor democracies”, as some have dubbed them, were, in one view, designed merely to tick the boxes of conditions for receiving Western development aid, rather than to allow voters real choices.
As Cilliers notes, it’s quite easy to provide your citizens with the trappings of democracy. Real democracy is, of course, much tougher as it presents the real threat to incumbent governments of actually losing power.
Many electoral democracies are classified as “anocracies”, as they are a hybrid of democracy and autocracy They generally rest on shaky socio-economic ground, without the solid foundations of relative prosperity, including good education, which are usually needed to support democracy.
This makes them less stable than either autocracies or full democracies. Elections in anocracies are very often particularly destabilising, not least because they so often tantalisingly dangle the prospect of change before their people but with little real chance of its realization.
Cilliers also contends that while real democracy generally boosts a country’s development, anocracy is generally worse than no democracy at all. And at low levels of development a benevolent autocracy may be better for development.
He cites China’s spectacular economic boom after 1978 and similar experiences of other Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan – all of which democratised, if at all, only after attaining middle-income status.
This is why the Chinese model of autocratic, state-led development has been gaining favour in Africa over the Western, liberal-democratic model, including in authoritarian countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda.
For 12 years until 2015 Ethiopia recorded average growth of almost 11% a year.
Since then its politics have begun to unravel, with uncertain, though probably ominous, implications for economic development. Rwanda has had a lower but still solid and quite steady average annual growth rate of 7,89 over the 12 years until 2015, before sliding to just under 5% annual growth from 2016 until 2020.
Cilliers extracts the rather sobering lesson that good governance and democracy mostly accompany or follow rather than precede development- despite the general demands of donors, policymakers and the general public, that democracy and good governance must come first.
Introducing competitive politics and economic liberalisation too soon, in fragile settings, has often been disastrous, he says, as in the “post-conflict fragile states” of South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Cilliers discerns three broad waves of democracy worldwide; the first from the early 19th century to the start of World War 2 in 1939; the second from the end of World War 2 in 1945 until about 1962, which included the independence of many African colonies.
The third wave began with Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in 1974 which precipitated the independence of several Portuguese colonies in Africa. This wave peaked in the mid-1990s, after a blossoming of multi-party democracy in Africa in the wake of the end of the Cold War.
Using the powerful forecasting tools of the University of Denver’s International Futures programme, Cilliers proceeds to model the development impact in Africa of a putative fourth wave, which he says started in 2010 with the Arab Spring and began levelling off in 2020. A slow democratic regression will set in by 2030 until mid-century before the onset of a fifth wave of democracy, that, in turn, will last for a decade before plateauing.
He sees Africans themselves, particularly young Africans and not, as in the past, external donors, driving the fourth and fifth waves, though he stresses that he is modelling electoral or “thin” democracy.
The development impact of this new democratic wave is that, by 2040, Africa’s overall GDP per capita would improve by an average of US$47 for low income countries, US$76 for lower-middle income countries and US$193 for upper-middle income countries. About 11 million fewer Africans would be living in extreme poverty.
Cilliers concludes that what poor African countries need is not necessarily a democratic state, but a developmental state in which the elite has the will and ability to pursue developmental goals.
Ideally this would be combined with substantive democracy, both because it’s good for development and because it allows for greater self-fulfilment.
The problem of course, is how can we be sure that autocratic leaders will indeed use their power to direct development that benefits all their people- rather than to plunder the state to enrich themselves and their cronies, which has much more often happened.
In any case, Cilliers’ forecast that democracy would taper off after 2020 seems about right. There have been five military coups in Africa since then, two in Mali, one in Chad, one in Guinea and as recently as October 25, one in Sudan, apparently stifling the popular democratic uprising that began with the toppling of Omar al Bashir in April 2019.
Maybe the long-range trend is up but the journey to democracy is certainly a bumpy ride.
.Fabricius is a consultant to the ISS.