A man casts his vote during Mali’s local elections. Photo by: Harandane Dicko / MINUSMA / CC BY-NC-SA

ABIDJAN — When it comes to democracy in Africa, the frustrations springing from an unsettled youth population and systemic poverty have historically fueled civil unrest and widespread demands for leadership changes across the continent.

Last week, election workers in Mali ended their “indefinite” strike, one which originally began as a protest against living and working conditions, and is now calling into question whether the July 29 presidential elections will occur as scheduled. The resignation of postapartheid South African President Jacob Zuma and the forceful overthrow of longtime Zimbabwean ruler Robert Mugabe in late 2017 are seen by some as further evidence of a growing push for increased accountability, transparency, and the democratic expectations of citizens.

However, the regions of sub-Saharan Africa are progressing unevenly in terms of governance, according to Jon Temin, Africa program director at democracy research and advocacy organization Freedom House. While some are making strides toward democratic openness and better governance, others show democratic stagnation.

“Our analysis shows that every country in East Africa is either stagnating or declining in our rating over the past 12 years and that’s a real contrast to West Africa, especially coastal West Africa, where we see a lot of important progress in some of those countries,” Temin explained.

Central African governance remains clouded with concerns around leaders not respecting term limits and making constitutional changes to prolong their stay in power. Meanwhile, southern Africa presents a “mixed picture,” Temin said, with “alarming indications of democratic backsliding in certain parts that we are following closely.”

A June survey by Afrobarometer found that roughly two-thirds of those surveyed support multiparty democracy, but less than half of them trust their national ruling party.

This tension between governments and citizens over the nature of democratic governance is likely to breed persistent volatility and instability, a recent United States National Intelligence Council report stated.

“African publics will almost certainly grow increasingly vocal in their demands for democracy, while African states will have mixed levels of capacity to insulate themselves from these bottom-up pressures,” the report explained.

Temin told Devex that democratic successes in West Africa have been due, in large part, to regional organizations and national leaders championing the idea.

“In West Africa, you have a strong and active regional organization in ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States, and] individual leaders in West Africa who are willing to stand up for democratic norms ... That builds a momentum that is absent in East Africa,” he argued.

The Africa program director said there is a level of peer pressure among West African political leaders, whereas some long-term leaders in East Africa have “credentials that are questionable in terms of democratic commitment,” giving way to a build-up of negative momentum in the eastern region.  

Civil society organizations have also become more organized over the past few years, empowering local voices and increasing their ability to channel discontent into sustained and visible campaigns. Temin described African CSOs as an important and influential element of the democratization process, with many garnering technical and financial support from international actors to solidify their national influence.

Democracy is seen as central to the development process, in part because it is “strongly linked to economic growth and better quality of life,” said Alexis Smallridge from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence during a Washington, D.C., event on sub-Saharan democratization trends last month.

It directly impacts the confidence of international investors, some said. “Certainly almost all investors are looking for a stable environment in terms of rule of law, where contracts will be respected and the norms and rules are clear and corruption is limited and all of those things track back to democracy and democratic governance,” Temin argued.

However, while leadership rotation is a crucial component of strong democratic governance, leadership change in Africa doesn’t always signal that. Temin noted that Mugabe was pushed from power unconstitutionally by military forces last November, though many citizens seemed to welcome an end to his 37-year rule.

“Process matters and inclusion matters ... It’s one thing to get the desired outcome, and for many people in Zimbabwe the desired outcome was President Mugabe leaving power, but the way in which that happens and the way citizens are involved matters,” he told Devex.

There has also been a worrying trend of leaders seeking to pursue third terms legally, through abolishing or bending rules around term limits or age. Many attempts over the past two decades — including in Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda — have succeeded.

Pressure from Western countries to influence political decisions has both positive and negative implications, the National Intelligence Committee report argued: While “the West will almost certainly face continued pressure from African publics to referee this contested arena for democracy,” such efforts could also spark backlash from governments “for perceived interference in their domestic affairs.”

The report added that spreading democratization could create challenges for international aid partners in the process, as liberation movements are often marred by violence as leaders mobilize supporters. Aid organizations are currently facing record numbers of attacks in Africa, according to the International NGO Safety Organization. Of the 702 NGO incidents recorded globally from Jan.-June this year, the Central African Republic ranks highest, followed by Syria, DRC, and Mali.

For now, all eyes are on upcoming electoral processes in Mali and Zimbabwe later this month, and the question of whether constituents will be able to freely choose their candidate.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.