Africa’s Waning Democratic Commitment
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Africa’s Waning Democratic Commitment

In the early 1990s, a wave of democratization (and, in some cases, redemocratization) began to unfold in sub-Saharan Africa. In the years since, a majority of the continent’s citizens have come to view democracy as the ideal political regime, and many African countries made considerable strides up through the mid-2000s in liberalizing their political systems and establishing democratic institutions. But for nearly a decade now, that progress has slowed and in some places reversed.

Foremost among the obstacles to democracy on the continent is the waning commitment to the democratic project on the part of political elites. Moreover, the supply of democratic goods—in particular, government responsiveness and accountability—has become increasingly scarce. Even in Ghana, a country held up as one of Africa’s star democratizers, there has been a recent spate of corruption scandals and, despite strong whistleblower protections, subsequent government reprisals against those who expose wrongdoing. While popular aspirations for democratic governance have gone largely unmet, citizens’ desire for democracy is deepening. What is causing democratic progress to falter on the continent, and what are the prospects for democratic development in the future?

Over the past several decades, most African countries have seen the development of four major democratic trends: the embrace of elections; the acceptance of constitutional norms; the emergence of free media and an active civil society; and the establishment of regional prodemocratic conventions and protocols. To begin with, the ballot box has replaced the military coup as the chief instrument for changing governments and electing political leaders. The holding of regularly scheduled and increasingly competitive elections has become the norm in most of Africa. [End Page 101] The number of multiparty elections for the executive has risen significantly over the past two decades, from an average of slightly less than one a year (1960–89) to around seven per year (1990–2012), and just over a fifth of these contests have led to a change in leadership.1 Indeed, the number of “electoral democracies” in sub-Saharan Africa has risen from just a handful in the early 1990s to 19 of the region’s 49 countries, according to the Freedom House rankings for 2013.2

Most African countries are now governed by constitutions that are—at least on paper—more or less democratic. Many of these charters mandate some degree of separation of powers and include a bill of rights that anchors independent judiciaries, ombudsmen, human-rights and anticorruption commissions, and election-management bodies. The imposition of presidential term limits in a number of countries (ranging from two four-year terms, as in Ghana, to two seven-year terms, as in Senegal) may be the most important indicator of how entrenched constitutionalism has become in the new era on a continent notorious for its de jure and de facto “presidents-for-life.” Moreover, parliaments have been flourishing, making at least some legislative oversight of the executive increasingly common in sub-Saharan Africa today (at least in the minimalist terms of approving the annual budget and public accounts, presidential nominations to ministerial positions, and legislation initiated by the executive).

Since the mid-1990s, an ever-expanding network of private FM radio, free-to-air and cable television, newspapers, and magazines has reduced states’ monopoly over print and electronic media. Most African governments have relaxed official censorship, making possible the practice of real investigative journalism and the occasional discovery and exposure of government malfeasance by local media. Associational freedoms have been expanding as well. As a result, civil society organizations have multiplied and are now undertaking (often with financial, technical, and moral support from the international community) a vast array of activities—including the promotion of social, economic, and political inclusion as well as human rights, equity, clean elections, and governmental transparency and accountability—to countervail state power.

Yet another measure of the embrace of democratic norms in the region, even if largely symbolic, may be found in the raft of prodemocracy agreements adopted by the African Union (AU) and the various subregional organizations.3 In the early postindependence period, military despots were common figures at African summit meetings. The AU, by contrast, denies...


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