Africans now back institutions more than ‘Big Men’ – Afrobarometer

Nigerian police at a checkpoint used to illustrate the story
Nigerian police at a checkpoint used to illustrate the story

Excerpts from Afrobarometer’s report, Demand for Democracy Is Rising in Africa, But Most Political Leaders Fail to Deliver.

What explains popular perceptions of the supply of democracy in Africa?

Based on analysis of public attitudes in 34 African countries in 2011-2013, the quality of elections is closely linked to the supply of democracy. If citizens see the last national election as largely free and fair, they are also likely to consider that political elites are supplying democracy. Indeed, fully 89% of those who perceive clean elections also regard their country as an extensive democracy.9 In short, ordinary Africans make a direct connection between the quality of elections and the nature of the resultant political regime.

Other factors also matter. In keeping with persistent personal rule in some places, people still also use the job performance of the national president to judge the degree of democracy. If they think the president has done a good job over the previous year, they are likely to give higher democracy ratings. And, given widespread poverty, they also often make reference to their material well-being; if the national economy has performed well, they tend to equate it with the delivery of democracy.

But which of these explanatory factors matters most? When a regression analysis on the supply of democracy was first done for 12 African countries in 2000, the most important factor was the performance of the president. Since that time, however, the situation has changed. Across 34 countries in 2011-2013, the leading explanatory factor is now the quality of elections.10 In other words, the order of the leading explanatory factors has been reversed.

This result can be read as evidence of gradual political institutionalization. Appraisals of the quality of an institution – elections – now trump the public’s assessment of the behavior in office of a “big man” president. Thus, popular attachment to institutions is slowly but surely displacing mass loyalty to dominant personalities.

Moreover, the quality of political institutions (in this case, elections) continues to explain more variance in democratic supply than the condition of the national economy. As such, the results of the Afrobarometer’s latest survey reconfirm that democracy building depends primarily on the delivery of political goods (like clean elections and good governance) and is less beholden to economic recovery than might conventionally have been thought.

Are there regional patterns of democratization in Africa?

…In East Africa, more than half of all adult citizens demand democracy (54%) and a similar proportion also think it is being supplied (52%). A case can be made that, on average, political regimes are relatively more democratic in this region than in other parts of Africa. But the level of democracy is intermediate at best. And because demand and supply are in rough equilibrium there are few pressures for further regime change in either a democratic or autocratic direction.

In Southern Africa, a similar pattern prevails. Supply (46%) and demand (47%) are in rough equilibrium, but at an even lower level than in East Africa.

In West Africa, many more people want democracy (51%) than are getting it (42%). Because demand and supply are out of alignment, political regimes in this region tend to be unconsolidated. Regimes may be particularly susceptible to mass mobilization from below since citizens are likely to exert more pressure for democracy than political elites are willing or competent to supply.

In North Africa, levels of both demand and supply are low, making this region the least democratic in Africa. In early 2013, when the Afrobarometer surveys in North Africa were conducted, demand lagged behind supply, which suggests that much of the popular energy behind the Arab Spring has dissipated. One might therefore expect the reconsolidation of hard democratic regimes in this region.

How do African countries compare in terms of democratic development?

The regional analysis above, while somewhat illuminating, obscures as much as it reveals. Because of the diversity of political regimes in every region of Africa, countries constitute a more appropriate level of analysis. By focusing on countries, we are able to further explore the following questions: Are African regimes consolidating? If so, are they consolidating as democracies or as some other form of regime? If not, how unstable are they likely to be? …

…African countries can be sorted into three main categories:

Countries with a deficit of democracy, where demand for democracy exceeds its supply.

Sixteen of 34 countries are in deficit… Based on the attitudes of citizens, countries range from Tunisia at the low end to Mauritius at the high end. Cote d’Ivoire, which has yet to hold national elections in the wake of a civil war, represents the country with the largest gap between supply of democracy (22%) and demand for democracy (64%), a 42 percentage point difference. Other countries with large negative gaps between high demand and low supply include Nigeria (a deficit of 29 points), Zimbabwe (27 points), Togo (23 points), Uganda (21 points) and Cameroon (20 points) (Figure 13). The ruling elites in countries with a democratic deficit can expect to encounter sustained popular pressures for further democratization.

Countries with a surplus of authority.

In these places, mass demands are relatively limited and people say they are satisfied with (whatever elites choose to call) “democracy.” Based on the attitudes of their citizens, the range of countries with a surplus of political authority runs from Botswana among proto-democracies to Egypt among autocracies.8 Other countries in which low levels of democratic demand are greatly surpassed by an excessive supply of elite control are Algeria (29 points), Niger (28 points), Namibia (17 points) and Tanzania (14 points). Because elites in these countries enjoy a great deal of room for policy maneuver, any political change is likely to emanate from authorities.

Countries with consolidated regimes.

The final seven countries reside on the equilibrium line where demand exists in balance with supply. The cases range from Ghana and Senegal – whose regimes are consolidating at relatively high levels of democracy – to Madagascar and Sudan – which are hardening as autocracies. Other hybrid regimes – in countries like Benin – appear to be consolidating at middling levels between democracy and authoritarianism. In the absence of excess pressures from either side, the political development of all these regimes seems destined to settle in its present form.

How reliable are the Afrobarometer’s estimates about democracy?

Observers often note that Africa lacks an institutional tradition of liberal democracy – or even of electoral democracy. Under these circumstances, do ordinary people have enough experience to properly understand democracy, let alone to develop effective demand for this regime or accurate judgments about its supply? The Afrobarometer has always operated on the assumption that, as long as survey questions are posed in plain and concrete form, Africans can express clear preferences about different types of government and offer valid opinions about government performance.

To test this assumption, Afrobarometer indicators can be checked against other data sources. For example, the Afrobarometer’s estimates of popular perceptions of the extent of democracy can be compared with Freedom House’s expert estimates for political rights and civil liberties…

This result strongly suggests that ordinary people and political scientists arrive at similar conclusions about the quality of democracy in various African countries. True, there are a few outliers: people in Sudan, Algeria and Burundi think they have more democracy than the professionals do; and the populations of Tunisia, Lesotho and Cape Verde think they have less. But the main point is that the judgments of citizens and experts broadly validate each other.


This story was reproduced with the permission of allAfrica.

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