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The State of Democracy in Africa

In the quarter century since the end of the Cold War and economic “liberalisation” imposed by the World Bank and IMF, Africa has experienced many different types of governance. As the number of African polities holding regular elections has increased, so too have the intricacies of the democratic process. On 16 December 2015, ARI invited three speakers to draw upon their experiences and expertise in order to discuss the state of democracy in Africa:

Dr Nic Cheeseman, associate professor of African politics, University of Oxford; author of Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures, and the Struggle for Political Reform

  • The Afro-pessimists: For Afro-pessimists, the regular holding of elections not only hides authoritarian regimes but provides them with a degree of international legitimacy. The most stable regimes in the world are where an authoritarian leader runs very tightly controlled elections. Afro-pessimists argue that democratic regimes are no better at representing women; that elections generate periodic violence; that the quality of civil liberties across the continent has declined as the number of multi-party systems has increased; and that there is no clear correlation between free elections and political freedoms.
  • The Afro-positivists: Afro-positivists, on the other hand, argue that the holding of elections entrenches democratic traditions and values. They point to studies that show support for democracy is high amongst African citizens and that term limits are starting to bite. When respected once, term limits have never been subsequently rejected on the continent. Enforcing term limits also provides opportunities for the political opposition: when a ruling party fields a new candidate, rather than the incumbent, its chance of victory drops from 85% to 50%.
  • Three Africas: There are three different camps of democratic development in Africa. The first is racing ahead. In countries like Benin, Senegal and Ghana democratic values have been consolidated over time with transfers of power, a trajectory that is likely to continue. The second is in a turbulent middle ground where low incentives to give up power have created an environment in which elections have often been conflictual and skewed in favour of the ruling party. Examples include Zimbabwe and Kenya. The third is stuck in an authoritarian backwater, ruled by military leaders in civilian clothes. In places like Rwanda and Ethiopia elections are used as a means of control and political legitimation. The trajectory of democracy on the continent is not one of convergence but of divergence.
  • A role for the international community: Developing political institutions is an area where international actors can have a significant impact on democratisation. But geopolitics are also at play. Western powers provide unwavering support to regimes due to natural resources and security considerations, which in turn often undermine efforts to promote democracy. China’s arrival makes the politics more complicated, but the basic rules have not changed. Ultimately, outside processes can only do so much; domestic factors shape the success of democratisation.


Prof. Ibrahim Lipumba, former national chairman, Civic United Front (CUF); four-time presidential candidate in Tanzania

  • One nation, two governments: The United Republic exhibits a significant contrast between mainland Tanzania and the Isles of Zanzibar. The mainland does not have a strong history of political opposition because of the principles espoused by the first president, Julius Nyerere. Until the introduction of multi-party politics in 1992, political competition was limited to the confines of the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). Even after five elections, CCM continues to exert its dominance. In Zanzibar, political opposition has a long history that pre-dates independence. The most contentious elections took place in 1995, when the Civic United Front (CUF) emerged victorious only to see the decision reversed.
  • Polls in Zanzibar: With a history of closely contested polls in Zanzibar, in 2010 an agreement was reached – and enshrined in the constitution – that parties securing more than 5% of the vote would be included in a government of national unity. This stipulation was designed to reduce electoral contestation and prevent violence. But in 2015 the chairman of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission unilaterally annulled the election results, despite lacking the legal mandate to do so. This occurred as CUF took half of the seats in the House of Representatives – and presented evidence of having won the presidential vote. Currently the Isles are without a functioning government. However, Professor Lipumba said “I remain optimistic regarding Tanzania’s democratic development; I believe we can reach a solution on Zanzibar”.
  • Two terms: Term limits are a respected part of Tanzanian democracy. They are important because in a second term the president can push harder for political reforms, knowing he will not compete again. In 2015, the outgoing president, Jakaya Kikwete, tried to push for constitutional reforms. Even though political pressure eventually meant that he failed to hold a referendum on the Warioba draft constitution, he reopened a debate on the manner in which the nation is governed.
  • Valuing democracy: Democracy is not a cultural imposition but a universal value. Africans prefer a democratic system of government. Democracy is so omnipresent that even coup-makers claim to carry out their actions to preserve democratic principles.


Vera Kwakofi, current affairs editor, BBC Africa

  • The voice of citizens: The media can play a role in entrenching democratic principles. But in 2015 conventional media had to play “catch up” with the sentiments of people on the ground. WhatsApp is revolutionising politics in Africa. It has been transformed from a social tool to a political organising platform and a pseudo-medium for sharing news content. Because of its encryption it is harder to censor, meaning it has put the power of communication into the hands of citizens.
  • Investigative journalism: The investigation into the judiciary in Ghana by Anas Aremeyaw Anas provides an inspiring example for the continent. Anas exposed wide-scale corruption in an institution that holds historic importance in Ghana, and which has always been seen as non-politicised. 20 judges have already been sacked and over 180 judges and court officials are still under investigation. The media should hold politicians to account, but journalists are not doing enough of this in Africa. More attention should be given to examining the institutions of state and interrogating how effective they are and what they are really doing.
  • An African Fourth Estate: There is more at stake for local media than international media. Its primary role must be as educators – to explain the actions of actors, functions of government and processes of democracy as independently as possible. By detailing how the state works, local media can empower citizens to make informed choices. The international media should be observers of society and portray events to the rest of the world. However international media too often performs the function of local media. African media houses and journalists are better placed to understand local cultures and histories; however, the lack of a supportive environment prevents them from doing so.




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Interview with Prof.Ibrahim Lipumba

Event Video