Africa’s Democratic Decay

By Published On: 24th September 2020

The optimism washed in by the third wave of democracy has seen a receding tide and with it a gradual decay of democratic institutions. Across the continent, we are forced to uncouple the terms ‘democracy’ from ‘freedom’ and ‘democratic institutions’. Whilst many African countries continue to uphold the mirage of an electoral democracy, it takes a tiny effort to find that democratic institutions are in decay and liberties encroached upon.

Although a democracy hinges on the power of the ballot through which societies can select their leaders according to manifesto’s and policies, the real lifeblood of a democracy depends on the extent to which elected leaders carry out the will of the people. It is through assessing the quality of democratic institutions that we see the continent’s democratic recession.

Freedom House found that 22 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have seen declines in freedom between 2019 and 2020. Notwithstanding this, the demand for democracy remains strong, confirmed by Afrobarometer (a Pan-African series of public opinion surveys on democracy, governance and society) which found that 68% of Africans prefer democracy to any other type of governance system. Unfortunately, this demand is met with a poor supply of democracy with only 51% of Africans under the impression that their respective countries are a complete democracy or a democracy with only minor problems. This infers that Africans are receiving less democracy than desired, perhaps fuelling ‘the paradox of voting’. Which implies that for the self-interested reasonable voter, the cost of voting surpasses the expected benefits of voting. Naturally, this leads to questions of voter turnout and general political participation.

South Africa, considered to be one of Africa’s strongest democracies, has seen a significant decrease in voter turnout during its 2019 general election and consequently high levels of voter despondency. The South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB), a public opinion survey run by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), found in its 2019 survey, that 56% of South Africans felt that their vote does not make a difference. Alongside this sentiment is that almost two out of three (63%) South Africans believe that their vote is meaningless because they cannot trust the politicians in power. The Afrobarometer weighs in on trust deficits in South Africa and across the continent. It was found that in 2016/2018, 58% of South Africans did not trust their president ‘at all’ or trusted him ‘just a little’ compared to the 28% in 2005/2006. Distrust at a local level was even more dismal in 2016/2018 at 65%, but increasing from a higher 51% in the 2005/2006 survey round.

Paralleling this trust deficit is the continental outlook, with 43% of Africans distrusting their President in 2016/2018, compared to a smaller 32% in 2005/2006. Similarly, 50% of Africans in 2016/2018 did not trust their local government organ in line with 2005/2006 where 40% of Africans distrusted local government.

Voter despondency and trust deficits not only point to a democratic recession, but also lead to Africans looking for alternate options, possibly out of desperation.

Alongside the deterioration of the quality of African democracies is the progressively reduced performance of established democracies (such as the United States), to positively promote strong democratic institutions abroad. The recent trend of established democracies turning inward with populations preferring strongman populist leaders, leaves room for certain unsavoury African leaders to operate with greater impunity. In essence, this allows African leaders to act less democratic and more authoritarian, which serves as a contributing factor encouraging them to pursue state capture, repress protests and undermine elections.

While this unfolds across the continent, a new narrative is taking hold as a different player gains increasing geopolitical influence. The ‘China model’ of development before democracy brings with it, the promise of Africa ‘catching up’ with advanced economies. We have witnessed repeatedly throughout history many instances of growth under authoritarian regimes that have been short-lived and unsustainable.

In South Africa we saw this with the limited potential of growth under the Apartheid regime. Looking eastward, growth stagnated under the institutions of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) where incentives were insufficient to motivate broad segments of society into productivity. Dating further back, the fall of the Roman Empire, under extractive institutions experienced economic growth that truthfully only enriched a handful of elites before the ultimate decline of its Empire – gradually favouring a concentration of power over representation or pluralism.

Human and technological progress requires a certain level of freedom, secure property rights and incentives without these, economic growth will be both unequal and finite.

Apart from this, the ‘China Model’ also requires a nuanced consideration of context. China not only had to experiment with its economic model before it achieved the growth it has achieved today, but it also had to consider demographic characteristics that are unique to its country. These include considerations such as population size and density which have proven to be important.

With the largest population known to any one state, China is home to 1.4 billion people, of which 40% live in rural outposts. This compares to the SSA’s population of 1.3 billion people spread across 46 countries, with 59% of the population residing in rural areas. The varied diversity of cultures, languages and religions also renders the SSA demographically divergent from China.

Furthermore, the sheer sophistication of the Chinese surveillance state (subject to its own controversy) cannot, with any doubt, be adopted by a single African country. Governments simply do not have the funds or capacity to adopt and implement surveillance.

In parallel, leap-frogging under authoritarian rule remains an elusive dream for development as internet access remains altogether one of the lowest in the world, with less than 40% internet penetration on the continent.

In light of these essential considerations, development before democracy is not fit for purpose on a continent with little political integrity and government capacity. Yet the question remains, as the tide of democracy recedes in Africa, ‘where to from here?’

Although the answer may not yet be clear, we can certainly take a lesson from democracies that have strengthened over time, whereby one commonality emerges – pluralism.

As African leaders increasingly undermine democratic institutions, civil society must fervently demand more representation, more inclusion and less elitism. Networks of insulated power perpetuate democratic decay and dwindling political participation. A stronger focus of what happens between elections is indispensable. In tandem with growing trust deficits is the mounting need for stronger and more enthusiastic pushes for accountability. Democratic institutions must ensure that African governments and leaders respond the call of the people, honour their promises and realise the urgent need to restore the dignity of institutions.

Building and strengthening inclusive pluralistic political institutions that promote inclusive development will put Africa on a path of restoration. Ultimately renewing the integrity and meaningfulness of democracy on the continent, perhaps bringing with it a tide of hope for Africans.

Jaynisha Patel is a project officer at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR). She has an MPhil in Politics, Philosophy and Economics and her current work focuses on inclusive development in post-conflict states in Africa at the IJR.

Article first published on The Art of Politics

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