Sub-Saharan Africa politics: Elections are routine but democracy is being scaled back
- Content Type
- Country Data and Maps
- Economist Intelligence Unit
- No abstract is available.
- Politics, News Analysis
- Political Geography
- Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, South Africa, Djibouti, Liberia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Senegal, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, Angola, Eritrea, Ghana, Mali, Malawi, Chad, Guinea, Swaziland, South Sudan, Mauritius, Botswana, Guinea-Bissau, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Côte d'Ivoire, Niger, Comoros, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Seychelles, Benin, Togo, Cape Verde, Gambia, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo
In The Economist Intelligence Unit's 2016 Democracy Index, the regional score for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) deteriorated slightly, as a result of a lack of genuine pluralism in most countries. The region's score has stagnated since 2011, reflecting only marginal progress in strengthening democratic institutions and encouraging wider political participation. "Hybrid" and "authoritarian" regimes are still prevalent, making up 36 of the 44 countries in SSA-a level that has remained unchanged since the index was launched in 2006. Although this leaves considerable room for improvement, progress will be contingent upon improved political will to respect national constitutions and a reduced security threat, which has been given priority over political reform in recent years.
The index provides a snapshot of the current state of democracy worldwide for 165 independent states and two territories (covering almost the entire population of the world). While democratic gains were made in a handful of SSA countries in 2016, these success stories were outweighed by declining scores elsewhere. While there will probably be more shoots of democratic progress in 2017, we expect that much of the region will continue to be characterised as deeply entrenched one-party states that go through the motions of holding elections without providing the freedoms necessary to promote genuine democracy.
A step back in 2016
The index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. The average regional scores for political participation and political culture improved in 2016 (despite a few notable exceptions), but this was offset by deteriorating scores for civil liberties and the functioning of government. Meanwhile, the regional score for electoral processes has remained persistently low. Overall, the average score for SSA dipped to 4.37 (out of 10) in 2016, from 4.38 in 2015.
The average score for civil liberties recorded the most significant decline, with media freedom undermined in several countries by incumbent regimes' efforts to exert unfair influence on nominally democratic processes. In many cases, including in Ethiopia and Mozambique, growing pressure for reform from opposition and civil society groups prompted crackdowns on the press by the incumbent regimes, and viewpoints that opposed the government were overtly censored.
However, even if improvement remains patchy, some countries defy the narrative of a democratic deficit in Africa. In Côte d'Ivoire (which improved by ten places in the global ranking, to 122nd), progress was marked by greater opposition participation in politics, following a divisive few years since the country's civil war in 2010-11, and in Cabo Verde (up nine places to 23rd), high turnout in the country's credible and competitive elections underscored popular trust in democratic institutions. Other climbers include Liberia (93rd), where the easing of the 2015 Ebola crisis led to an improvement in government effectiveness, and Tanzania (83rd), whose reform-minded president has strengthened citizens' trust in the government.
Democracy is not just about election day
Although several countries in the region have undergone credible elections and transfers of power in recent years, the regional score for electoral processes remains stubbornly low in the 2016 Democracy Index. Many countries, such as Somalia, Guinea and Chad, continue to face serious concerns over electoral transparency. Numerous presidents and/or parties have learned how to circumvent the arrival of genuine multiparty elections by restricting civil liberties and shutting down the media. The manipulation of registration lists and falsified vote counts are also commonplace as some countries have sought to project an image of democracy, without putting in place sufficient institutions or election-monitoring mechanisms to back it up. Hence, elections do not automatically lead to representative governments.
A likely step forward in the next few years, driven by technology
In 2017 at least three countries in the region will be holding presidential elections, and advances in terms of technology will have the potential to support more transparent and democratic ballots. More than 20 Sub-Saharan African countries have already held elections employing a biometric voter register. The use of biometric information makes the voter registration process more transparent and reduces the risk of fraud. Text-messaging systems could allow observation by citizens on election day, which would increase the transparency of the process while supporting the credibility of the polls among both voters and the international community. In addition, social media has the power to provide a key platform for democratic movements, by giving a voice and power to people who otherwise might not have either. A number of constraints on the development of civil society organisations in SSA will remain, as long-standing bureaucratic structures are slow to evolve. Nonetheless, we expect the increasing use of new technologies and means of communication to gradually strengthen civic organisations in the near-to-medium term, helping to encourage more responsive state institutions.
Regional organisations can play a key role
The recent case of The Gambia illustrates the potential role that regional authorities can play in encouraging democratic progress in SSA. Yahya Jammeh, having lost the December 2016 presidential election, attempted to cling to power and prolong his 22 years in office. The crisis peaked when the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) threatened to intervene militarily. Although this could have resulted in bloodshed had the Gambian army chief decided to fight ECOWAS, it eventually prompted Mr Jammeh to relinquish power. The threat of intervention by ECOWAS is not unprecedented; however, previous incidents (such as in Côte d'Ivoire in 2011) have primarily been justified by ongoing conflicts or a threat to regional stability. Recent events in The Gambia marked the first case in which ECOWAS had threatened intervention in order to uphold an election result in the absence of ongoing conflict, raising the issue of the potential role that regional authorities could play in strengthening or enforcing democracy within their member countries. The Gambia will not transition from being an authoritarian regime to a hybrid regime overnight (the election process can hardly be described as free and fair, and media freedom is almost nonexistent), and a lot will need to be done by the new government. Nonetheless, the intervention by ECOWAS may have laid the foundation for the building of stronger democratic institutions in the country.
This sheds a new light on ongoing conflicts in other regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi, where elected leaders are attempting to cling to power, to the detriment of national and subregional political stability. However, military interventions have mostly been politically driven. In the DRC, in 2013, troops were sent from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), but with the aim of neutralising rebels in the eastern part of the country. Unlike in ECOWAS countries, both SADC and the East African Community (for example) are dominated by well-entrenched incumbents, making it unlikely that there would be any political will to remove another similar incumbent from office. Nevertheless, as the involvement of ECOWAS in The Gambia has shown, there is a role that could be played. However, military intervention comes with the risk of provoking violent clashes and further regional instability. Ideally, a regional intervention should start at an earlier stage by ensuring that open, transparent and multiparty elections take place, which would in time build the basis for democratic progress in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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