Is Democracy the best model for African countries? By James Stevenson, Managing Consultant

Is Democracy the best model for African countries? By James Stevenson, Managing Consultant

There are many imperfections of what we call democracy. Mark Twain once said of democracy ‘’only a government that is rich and safe can afford to be a democracy, for a democracy is the most expensive and nefarious kind of government ever heard of on earth’’.

All across the globe there are many countries that contend with a democratic deficit yet there is a popular perception that Africa trails behind the rest of the world in this context. This notion exists whilst millions of people on the continent enjoy the benefits of comparatively good governance.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index identifies four categories of regime: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid and authoritarian. Its 2015 index shows uneven progress in sub-Saharan Africa, but notes a dramatic drop in successful “coups from within” since 2000, and says holding regular elections is now largely commonplace.

However some countries in Africa thwart this account of a democratic deficit. In its 2016 Freedom in the World report. Freedom House named Nigeria, Liberia and Ivory Coast among the countries with the biggest improvements in political rights and civil liberties. In Nigeria, 2015 was the first year an oppostion party gained power through elections. Botswana, Ghana, Cape Verde and Benin have also been revered as democratic examples. In 2016 at least 16 African countries, including Republic of Congo, Chad, Central African Republic, Djibouti, DRC, Niger and Uganda are holding presidential elections. Although elections do not automatically lead to representative governments, competitive, multi-party elections constitute an arrangement for democracy, and regular ballots indicate progress towards ensuring citizens are able to choose their leaders.

Picture- By MONUSCO Photos (Little girl with a voting card) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (

There is still a band of authoritarian leaders maintaining an iron grip on power in some parts of Africa. Of course African countries are not alone in this, you only have to look to North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Cambodia and Kazakhstan as examples. In Africa, nine leaders have wielded power for more than 20 years; four of them (Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Cameroon and Zimbabwe) have been at the helm for more than 30 years. But Africa is about more than this small group, aside from the growing number of leaders passing power peacefully after elections, there have also been cases of public backlash against leaders who have tried to prolong their tenures.

Elections are considered by most people as the main indicator of a thriving democracy. But is this the case? When Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, was asked if elections were giving democracy a bad name he said ‘’Democracy is not just about one day every four or five years when elections are held, but a system of government that respects the separation of powers, fundamental freedoms like the freedom of thought, religion, expression, association and assembly and the rule of law. Any regime that rides roughshod on these principles loses its democratic legitimacy, regardless of whether it initially won an election.”

The Ibrahim index of African governance an annual assessment produced by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation focuses on what happens between elections. It defines good governance as safety and rule of law, participation by citizens and a respect for human rights, sustainable economic opportunity, and human development. Topping the 2015 index were Mauritius, Cape Verde and Botswana. Central African Republic, South Sudan and Somalia, all nations torn by conflict, were bottom.

Consequently, there has been some discussion as to how to “Africanise” democracy. Chris Zumani Zimba the author of ‘’Democracy under Attack’’ suggests incorporating traditional power structures into formal government, “At the moment chiefs are seen as political footnotes, even though they are often more effective and revered than politicians. Politicians recognise the influence of traditional leaders on how communities vote during elections and try to manipulate this. A better system would be some kind of bicameral government, even giving traditional leaders legislative powers.”

As with any healthy democracy, there is a range of opinions and robust debate, but the consensus seems to be that whilst democracy is not delivering as well as it could be for Africa, it remains the most viable form of government for the continent.

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