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date: 24 February 2024

Democracy and the Question of Its Feasibility in Africafree

Democracy and the Question of Its Feasibility in Africafree

  • Mamoudou GaziboMamoudou GaziboDepartment of Political Science, University of Montreal


Until the end of the 1980s, most observers believed that democratic prospects in Africa were limited, given the low level of economic development, the absence of strong nation-states, and the inexistence of a long history of social and political pluralism. However, beginning in 1989, a wave of popular protests demanding democratic reforms swept the continent. Within a couple of years, virtually all the countries liberalized their political systems. Since then, Africans have shown consistently that they strongly prefer and support democratic rule. At the same time, democratic institutions such as electoral commissions and constitutional courts have taken root on the continent. These developments suggest that the question of the feasibility of democracy in Africa is no longer relevant. Nonetheless, the existence of democratic demands, support, and institutions does not mean that democracy is easy to establish and consolidate. In many African countries, democratic gains are reversible and face several hindering factors, including state weakness, autocratic mindset, unstable and divided civic and political organizations, and widespread identity politics. This is why the level and quality of democracy on the African continent vary dramatically from country to country and from one region to another.


  • World Politics


Arguments that tend to limit the feasibility of democracy in some parts of the world do not stand historical scrutiny. In Western Europe, in effect, the minimal preconditions supposedly necessary for democratic opening were not met when it happened.

(Hermet, 1996, p. 96)

Democracies are not likely to appear more orderly, consensual, stable, or governable than the autocracies they replace. . . . These products of imposition or compromise are often initially quite ambiguous in nature and uncertain in effect until actors have learned how to use them.

(Schmitter & Karl, 1991, p. 85–86)

Democracy and the institutional forms it takes in the world today are the product of a specific historical experience. Representative democracy in particular, defined in procedural terms as a method of selection, through elections, of the people entitled to govern (Schumpeter, 1942), is an English model that became Europeanized and universalized either by diffusion or by imposition. Until the end of the 1960s, democratic institutions were generally found only in Western countries. Because these countries share some characteristics such as a high level of economic development, the consolidation of a strong nation-state, and a long tradition of social and political pluralism, it seemed obvious to scholars at the time that democracy was possible only in advanced industrial countries where national unity and other socioeconomic and cultural conditions were already met (Dahl, 1971; Lipset, 1959; Rustow, 1970).

However, in the 1970s and 1980s, following the Revolution of the Carnations in Portugal, a wave of democratization swept several authoritarian countries in Southern Europe and Latin America (O’Donnell & Schmitter, 1986). The wave became global in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War and the democratic experiments launched in Eastern Europe and Africa (Bratton & van de Walle, 1992, 1997; Huntington, 1991; Przeworski, 1991). Because these countries lack the socioeconomic and historical conditions presented as prerequisites by the former structural theories, these theories lost their explanatory power. This means that the question is no longer the possibility of democracy in some specific contexts but what makes it happen, endure, or abort. While some structural factors continue to weaken the prospects of democratic consolidation, most observers consider, given the empirical experiences, that the installation and endurance of democracy are more strongly correlated with actors’ volition and interactions and the institutional settings in which they take place (Bunce, 2000; O’Donnell & Schmitter, 1986).

Building on this theoretical assumption and using selective issues and cases, my argument in this article is that the idea of democracy, if not democracy itself, has now firmly taken root even in Africa’s least free countries. There are many reasons for this, among which the most important are the existence of democratic demands, the enlargement of the public space, the democratization of African societies, civic engagement, and the emergence of an institutional infrastructure illustrated notably by the growing relevance of the rule of law. These configurations vary, however, from one country to another, and democracy entrenchment on the African continent continues to depend also on the capacity to address several hindering structural and contingent obstacles.

Demand for Democracy

That democracy is possible in Africa is a truism for any observer of the continent’s political dynamics. In effect societal demands and mobilizations for political opening on the continent were old although unsuccessful until the end of the Cold War, which created a favorable international environment for domestic democracy activists (Cheeseman, 2015, p. 86). This is important because, as Tocqueville points out, democracy hardly happens and endures without popular demand and support and civic engagement.

It is true that the founding literature posits that transitions in Southern Europe and Latin America were primarily internal and elite-driven processes. Nonetheless, on the one hand, a fair number of studies concentrate on mass mobilization as the key factor explaining political opening. Paul Collier (1999), analyzing 27 cases of transitions with a focus on labor movements, agrees with Samuel Valenzuela (1989) that these movements frequently serve as proxy political actors for banned opposition parties or international actors. They can also open the floor to public protest for other sectors of civil society or provide channels for ordinary citizens to express their dissatisfaction with the regime. In the same vein, Elisabeth Wood (2000) claims that mobilization by subordinate social actors in some circumstances may be crucial to the success of democratic transitions. Her analysis of El Salvador and South Africa found that mobilization by the economically and socially marginalized impelled the transition to democracy by transforming key interests of the economic elites. This led to pressure on the government to compromise with the opposition, thereby strengthening regime moderates over hardliners and forcing the initial liberalization of the regime.

Most interestingly, even the Spanish case, which has often been stereotyped as a typical example of an elite-dominated transition, has been revisited in order to make arguments to reassess the importance of civil society (Hamann, 1998). Monica Threlfall (2008) considers, for example, that the Spanish transition was the result of a difficult “co-construction process” between regime and opposition and argues that the widespread actions of civil society organizations were the real cause of the failure of Navarro’s government and of his forced resignation.

Even in communist transitions, White, Gardner, Schopflin, and Saich (1990) point out that, in instances where the ruling groups were reluctant to reform, like in Czechoslovakia, it was popular protest that initiated the transitions. Valerie Bunce (2000, pp. 709–710), goes as far as claiming that not only have most Eastern European transitions been initiated “from below” by the mobilization of grassroots forces, but their course was also largely determined by the strength and perseverance of these mobilized mass actors.

In Africa, civic engagement for freedom has existed since the colonial era. Several moments of popular demands for liberty can be conceived from a historical perspective (Seddon, 2002). According to Branch and Mampilly (2015), Africa has historically experienced two waves of protests prior to the Arab Spring. The first wave includes the nationalist protests of the 1950s. It refers to a set of uprisings against colonial rule in Africa which ended with the independence of almost all African countries by the mid-1960s. The second wave refers to protests centered in West Africa between the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. These protests were directed against both African regimes’ mismanagement and the austerity measures imposed upon African states by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They ultimately led to political liberalization and sometimes democratization in the continent in the early 1990s.

On the other hand, the end of the Cold War facilitated the first massive and sustained popular assaults against authoritarian strongholds across the continent since the 1960s. Authoritarian regimes lost their “godfathers” and faced the political conditionality policies imposed by the international financial institutions and Western democratic countries such as the United States, France, and Great Britain in Africa and elsewhere (Cheeseman, 2015; Whitehead, 2001). In some countries, like Benin, demands for more freedom were made well before these policies, but on the continental level, this favorable international environment encouraged citizens to engage in massive demonstrations for better economic and political governance. The result was decisive, given that from 1989 to 1994, most sub-Saharan African countries liberalized their political systems. So, “while not unfolding uniformly and to the same extend everywhere, these movements and institutional rearrangements were evident to some degree in almost all African countries” (Bratton & van de Walle, 1997, p. 3). The international context opened a window of opportunity, but democratic demands were made by African people. Benin is a perfect example of this period: it was the state’s bankruptcy that led to the establishment of a coalition of students and workers who took to the streets to demand better living conditions and, later, political change (Banégas, 2003; Gazibo, 2005).

Even in the North African Arab states, which have been presented as impenetrable frontiers for democracy before the 2010 revolts, numerous revolts have occurred previously. Throughout this period repeated popular protests against similar austerity measures were noticed across the subcontinent. This resistance was often characterized as “bread riots”—for example, in Egypt in 2004, 2006, and 2008 (Seddon & Zeilig, 2005; Thiriot, 2013). The year 2008 was already an important moment of mobilization fueled by hunger and youth unemployment all over the region and constituted a first test of the capacity of Arab societies to force their authoritarian regimes to reform.

This is why democratization scholars working on Africa have taken this issue extremely seriously. Some have observed that it is the distinctive character of popular protest movements demanding democracy in the beginning of the 1990s that differentiates Africa from the political change experiences of the 1970s and 1980s in Southern Europe and Latin America. Bratton and van de Walle (1997) found that in sub-Saharan Africa between 1988 and 1992, of 42 out of 47 countries ruled by an authoritarian regime, 28 experienced popular mobilizations demanding democracy. Only in a tiny number of countries did the elites easily outmaneuver the fledgling mass mobilizations. Sub-Saharan Africa’s experience confirms the idea that democracy is produced by processes such as the formation of cross-class coalitions and the co-optation of previously autonomous leaders who then serve as intermediaries to excluded groups (Banégas, 2003; McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly, 2001). Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa also demonstrate that mass protests can effectively destabilize authoritarian regimes precisely because the regime often employs a disproportionate level of violence against the protesters. Violence against peaceful protesters, they say, is likely to backfire, stimulating wider anti-regime mobilization, precipitating international sanctions and support for the opposition, and causing defections in security forces, which will be reluctant to fire on unarmed fellow citizens (Stephan & Chenoweth, 2008). So in Africa more than anywhere else, including 13th-century England where the Magna Carta was adopted by King John under the pressure of rebel barons, democratization is the product of popular demand.

As in England, frustrations remain important to understand the 1990 wave of mobilizations (Riley & Parfitt, 1994). Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (2009) echoed Haggard and Kaufman (1995) when they found that increased economic inequality is a central factor in democratization because it fuels the risk of rebellion on the part of the population. In Africa, poor governance has been a source of weakness for authoritarian governments. One of the most recent examples is Tunisia, where the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, an itinerant trader whose merchandise had been taken away by the police, prompted a revolution in the small city of Sidi Bouzid. Bouazizi set free the frustrations of a population crushed by poverty, inequality, and oppression. So, rather than being obstacles to democratic opening, poverty and economic crisis have rather precipitated democratic demands coming from various groups in many African countries that lack the so-called prerequisites for democracy.

These political dynamics contradict the old structural explanations that see democracy as the consequence of economic development and political culture (Akindès, 1996; Mappa, 1995) since those political protests erupted in poor and bankrupt countries with no preexisting democratic culture. On the contrary, it confirms what observers of democratization in Latin America and elsewhere have noticed. For example, O’Donnell and colleagues (1986) have concluded that in Latin America and Southern Europe, democracy has been the product of actors’ interactions and institutional building. Di Palma (1990) supported the idea that democracy can be crafted in all sorts of contexts, including those supposedly structurally unfavorable, a position confirmed by some influential authors who have demonstrated how economic crisis has precipitated authoritarian withdrawal in several countries in Latin America and Africa (see in particular Haggard & Kaufman, 1995, p. 26) and how democratization has been seen by African populations as an emancipatory project (Ake, 2000).

Support for Democracy

Liberalization does not necessarily lead to the installation and durability of democracy. Some authors have argued that the overemphasis on elite agreements as a precondition to democratization is flawed and that such power-sharing agreements in fact favor the development of hybrid regimes rather than democracies (McFaul, 2002, pp. 212–244). Most Eastern European transitions, for example, have not only been initiated “from below” by the mobilization of grassroots forces but were also largely determined by the strength and perseverance of these mobilized mass actors (Bunce, 2000, pp. 709–710). This means that democracy has a better chance to grow, survive, and consolidate in countries where societal groups—not only the elite—have internalized democratic values or, at least, value democratic ideas, principles, and procedures and are ready to fight for them.

There are many reasons to believe that democracy has a good chance to endure in Africa. We explore two strategic factors here. The first is the opening of the public space and the proliferation, following the liberalization of the 1990s, of numerous non-governmental and civil society organizations. The second is the transformation of African societies which, in several countries, are more democratic than the political superstructure.

Certainly the concept of civil society is controversial in nature, and its application in Africa is highly debated. Even the founding figures of the concept do not agree on its definition and political role. For example, John Locke goes as far as considering that it is civil society that defines the nature and principles of government. Hegel considers civil society and government as two bodies that influence each other but sees civil society as performing essentially economic duties. Montesquieu and Tocqueville are more interesting because of their interactionist views. Relations between civil society’s groups, or associations, and government can be sometimes cooperative and sometimes conflictual (seen Harbeson, 1994, pp. 15–20). Many scholars interested in African democratization have an idealistic view of these groups. They tend to consider that civil society exists only if one can identify civic groups separate from the state and formed by persons acting against the government for the sole promotion of democratic ideals. From this perspective they maintain that civil society exists and may help democracy survive in Africa.

My argument here is that this way of laying out the debate does not capture the historical struggles for democracy, the nature of these groups, and how they are connected to democratization. On the one hand, a more pragmatic, dynamic, and contextualized conceptualization of African civil society organizations is necessary. Civil society organizations that emerged after 1990 are the product of specific state–society relations on the continent since the 1960s and the wave of independence. Throughout the two following decades, African governments concentrated and elaborated state power via single parties, the development of administrative infrastructure, and coercive apparatus in particular (Chazan, Lewis, Mortimer, Rothchild, & Stedman, 1999, pp. 46–64). They succeeded in emasculating civil society organizations. But their desire to become integral states was far from being achieved (Young, 1994), and by the 1980s, although precarious, the balance between state and society (Chazan, 1988) began to be altered and state power altered because “most, if not all, African states were undergoing an organizational crisis” (Chazan, Lewis, Mortimer, Rothchild, & Stedman, 1999, p. 65). So throughout the 1980s, various forms of civic engagement labeled as “politics from below” (Bayart, Mbembe, & Toulabor, 1992) or democratic struggles coming from the left (Anyang’ Nyong’o, 1987) erupted on the continent. By the end of the decade, contestation became widespread. Many African civil society organizations involved in these protests emerged out of state structures, particularly the single party where it existed. Some authors go as far as arguing that state and society were not antagonistic in authoritarian Africa, but co-authored the reproduction of domination (Mbembe, 2001). So from the beginning, some African civil society organizations have always been “uncivil” given their proximity with the state, and their demands were not necessarily political. In the 1980s, for example, protests were usually triggered by socioeconomic issues. This doesn’t mean that their political impacts were null. Political derision and “political poaching” helped erode and delegitimize authoritarian regimes (Toulabor, 1981), and probably contributed to paving the way for the 1990s uprisings.

On the other hand, civic engagement in Africa takes various forms, like public expenditure tracking, citizen monitoring of service delivery, participatory policymaking and budgeting, the boosting of awareness regarding legal rights, and citizen involvement in public commissions and advisory boards (Sarker & Hassan, 2010). Thus, civic engagement in Africa has a direct as well as indirect relation to the maintenance of democracy. Many actions civic organizations are involved in, political or not, force incumbent governments to have a more cautious governance style. Overt political struggle happened, for example, in South Africa from 2015 to 2017 with the “Zuma must fall” campaign, involving thousands of people in nation-wide marches in order to force President Jacob Zuma to resign after a series of financial scandals. In Mali in 2017, the president was forced to abandon the referendum he planned to hold in order to strengthen his powers after months of mass mobilizations involving civic and political organizations opposed to the project. Even in more authoritarian countries, like Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), although the presidents are still in power as of this writing, they face pervasive and nation-wide protests despite state violence that killed hundreds of people and forced thousands into exile.

Civic struggles are sometimes non-political, but with political consequences. This is the case of organization-monitoring groups interested in oil and mineral exploitation in Chad, Niger, DRC, and other countries. These groups are usually parts of an international web of organizations. This is the case of “publish what you pay” in Niger, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) linked to the initiative for transparency in the extractive industries, which monitor the governance of the natural resources sector and put the country under international scrutiny. These organizations are also involved in coalitions of local NGOs dealing with other issues such as corruption or abusive governmental policies in the social sphere.

The democratization of African societies is the second strategic reason to believe in the future of democracy on the continent. Any evaluation of the prospects of democracy in Africa must distinguish between two levels of democracy: that of the state and that of the society. African societies are much more democratic than their institutions, and this gap cannot be maintained in the long run.

As the literature contends, following Max Weber’s typology of domination, the most solid pillar of any regime is not force but legitimacy. In this line of thought, Adam Przeworski (1991) argues that democracy is consolidated when it becomes “the only game in town,” that is, when citizens come to see it as the only acceptable political system. If this is true, then the prospects for democracy are good in Africa, even in the countries currently classified as not free countries (Freedom House, 2018). Thus, most democracy deficiencies observable on the continent are related to the institutional superstructure. African societies demonstrate clear democratic maturity during electoral cycles unless they are politically instrumentalized, like in Kenya. For example, despite what the literature posits about the limits clientelism and neopatrimonialism put on African democracies (Bach & Gazibo, 2012; van de Walle, 2003), at least a dozen countries manage to organize free and fair elections and maintain peace. This is the case in Benin. As Banegas (1998, p. 75) puts it, politicians distribute money to voters during electoral campaigns, but voters vote for the candidate of their choice in the end.

Democracy is also strengthened when people internalize it and value it. As the Afrobarometer surveys demonstrate, Africans are not so different from other people around the world when it comes to the degree to which they value democratic ideals and principles. The proportion of respondents who know democracy or value it more than alternative systems like military rule is so high that, as early as 2001, two prominent Afrobarometer authors wrote on what they called “Africa’s Surprising Universalism” (Bratton & Mattes, 2001). In another survey, the same authors concluded that “[o]n average across the continent, Africans support democracy as a preferred type of political regime. Large majorities also reject alternative authoritarian regimes such as presidential dictatorship, military rule, and one-party government” (Mattes & Bratton, 2016, p. 2). The consequence of the disjunction between state and society is the frequent eruption of popular demonstrations demanding political reforms. The ignorance of the transformations affecting African societies explains why many observers were surprised by the outburst of popular uprisings against long-standing autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, and, more recently, Burkina Faso. The latter country offers a very good example of the way the continuous erosion of the political basis of a regime reinforces not only the possibility of mobilization of a society eager to gain its freedom but the downfall of the strongman. Many observers who have concentrated only on the November 2014 popular revolution seem to have been taken by surprise by the way events unfolded and how quickly the regime collapsed. But those who witnessed the 1999 and 2011 revolts, followed year after year by the resignation of the regime’s prominent figures, were not.

In addition to these two strategic factors, a third refers to the densification of the institutional infrastructure. In almost all African countries, governments are more or less limited in their arbitrary appetite by a web of institutions, among which are electoral commissions and constitutional courts, which succeed in enforcing constitutional and electoral principles in several countries.

Institutionalization of Democracy

Until 1990, constitutional frameworks in Africa—if existing at all—were generally considered as mere juridical facades (Jackson & Rosberg, 1982; Prempeh, 2006, p. 10). But the democratic wave that swept the continent in the 1990s was followed by a new era of constitutionalism. This process gained momentum and the establishment of constitutional courts became, along with that of electoral commissions in particular, one of the most important innovations and normative battles between political elites (Gazibo, 2006). Yet one may question the role of such developments for the promotion of democracy in these polities where big man mindset, clientelistic politics, and political manipulation of the judicial apparatus (van de Walle, 2003) have become part of the political culture. However, if these institutions remain mere facades in some countries, they have acquired strength and relevance in many others.

First, constitutional courts are good examples of how institutional density and strength, along with civic engagement and entrenchment of democratic values, foster the prospects of democracy in some African states (VonDoepp, 2018). While early studies have already recognized the explicit “political nature” of courts, notably by examining the role the U.S. Supreme Court played in American politics (Casper, 1976; Dahl, 1957; Gates, 1992; Rosenberg, 2001), more recent contributions of scholars and policymakers (the World Bank, for example) have increasingly explored the role courts play in the democratization process of developing countries. More specifically, legal scholars and political scientists alike have come to acknowledge that explanations of politics are incomplete unless they incorporate courts (Cappelletti, 1989; Gazibo, 2005a; Jacob, Blankenburg, Kritzer, Provine, & Sanders, 1996).

The primary purpose of constitutional courts is to oversee and to constrain the exercise of political power by legislative majorities or government agencies (Vanberg, 2001). Such oversight is threefold: (1) in making political powerholders accountable, and thus in ensuring transparency of the political process; (2) in obliging public officials to justify that their exercise of power is in accordance with their mandate; and (3) in imposing checks on government officials that violate the boundaries of their power or basic rights as defined by the constitution (Gloppen, Gargarella, & Skaar, 2004). By having “last licks” in controversial decisions, the court is also a political organ (Dahl, 1957) whose actions have a lasting impact on its respective democratic system.

The annulment by Kenya’s constitutional court of the 2017 presidential election won by sitting President Uhuru Kenyatta, which forced him to submit himself to a new electoral round, demonstrates the growing relevance of institutions in Africa. But it is probably in Niger that we find the most compelling illustration of the way a constitutional court can help a country stay on a democratic path. In 2009, after two constitutional terms, then-President Mamadou Tandja tried to reform the constitution in order to remain in power. On June 12, the constitutional court decided that the referendum planned by the president in order to stay in power beyond the two terms specified by the constitution was unconstitutional and annulled it. The president then dismantled the constitutional court and parliament. But these dramatic measures only precipitated the outburst of massive opposition and civil society organizations’ protests and ultimately his ousting. Of course, such institutional stories are still rare, and African governments continue to seek chances to avoid compliance with the courts’ rulings, intimidate judges, or stack the courts’ composition in their favor (Gyimah-Boadi, 1998). However, the Nigerien experience confirms Vanberg’s (1999) proposition that courts possessing the power to annul legislation or administrative acts must frequently rely on the willingness of other branches (and allies in general) to lend force to their decisions. But these coalitions around courts prove in turn the growing relevance of institutions in Africa. In Niger, as political parties and civil society organizations supported by the international community—especially the United Nations, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, France, and the United States—coalesced against President Mamadou Tandja and demanded the reinstallation of the court, he was overthrown by a military junta led by Major Djibo Salou on February 18, 2010. A political transition with a civilian government was then initiated and a transitional constitutional court was created. Symbolically, the military appointed Fati Bazeye Salifou, dismissed by former president Mamadou Tandja in 2009, as its chair. The process culminated with the election of a new president and his inauguration in April 2010. A “regular” constitutional court was then reinstated. Since then, the decisions it has issued have been in favor or against both the incumbent and the opposition requests. However, the court has been accused by some opposition parties to collude with the regime, especially during the 2016 tense presidential election. Such mistrust suggests that the constitutional court’s legitimacy is still fragile.

More convincing cases where constitutional courts contribute clearly to democracy are South Africa (Sarkin, 1997) and Benin (Rotman, 2004). In South Africa, the judicial institutions became the main institutions guaranteeing the respect of constitutional principles, transparency, and defense of opposition rights during President Zuma’s second term given that his party, the African National Congress, is dominant in parliament. For example, in December 2017, the South Africa High Court overruled President Zuma’s decision to appoint a new prosecutor by arguing that he “would be clearly conflicted in having to appoint a national director of public prosecutions, given [. . .] the many criminal charges against him that have not gone away” (Toyana, 2017). In Benin, where the constitutional court is in charge not only of settling constitutional disputes but also of protecting human rights, it became a popular institution to which ordinary citizens often address their complaints. One of the best examples happened in 2014. When a minister declared during a TV program that the then-President Yayi Boni should be allowed to seek a third term and that a referendum should be organized to decide on the issue, ordinary citizens asked the court to declare unconstitutional such reform. The court ruled that the minister had violated the constitution and that the people of Benin had already decided on the issue by voting for the 1991 constitution (Kabre, 2014), preventing the country from engaging in a process such as the one that took place in Niger in 2009.

Electoral commissions constitute the second institutional innovation that has acquired enormous influence in numerous African countries. Before 1990, when elections were organized in Africa, they were usually “without choice” (Hermet, Rose, & Rouquié, 1978). Only in some countries (Botswana and Mauritius) were elections competitive and free. But since the liberalization in the 1990s, competitive elections are now held in almost all countries. Because opposition parties do not trust incumbent governments, they have fought against the old mode of election administration under the supervision of the interior ministry and demanded the institutionalization of separate electoral bodies. According to IDEA (2016), “essential elements” of these bodies include determining voter eligibility, receiving and validating nominations for parties and candidates, polling, and counting and tabulating votes cast. Additional functions may include voter registration, boundary delimitation, voter education and information, media monitoring, and electoral dispute resolution. While by 1999, “of twenty advanced industrialized democracies, the governments—not independent commissions—are responsible for conducting the elections in fifteen, or 75 percent” (Pastor, 1999, p. 77), in Africa by 2018, of 54 countries, separate bodies are responsible for conducting the elections in 50, or 92.6%. The government conducts the elections in only four countries, or 7.4%. The reason separate electoral bodies are so popular is that the “ECs (electoral commissions) are not important in advanced democracies where people have confidence in the conduct of elections, but they are of central importance in countries where many people assume that the conduct of elections is manipulated to serve one party’s interests” (Pastor, 1999, p. 78).

Electoral bodies do not necessarily prevent fraud or foster democratization (Adejumobi, 2000), but “[f]ree and fair elections cannot take place without a legitimate and transparent electoral administration” (Massicotte, Blais, & Yoshinaka, 2004, p. 84; see also Elklit & Reynolds, 2002). To foster democratization, these bodies need to be inclusive and independent from government or even opposition parties and take their decisions autonomously (Gazibo, 2006; Mozzafar, 2002; Opitz, Fjelde, & Höglund, 2013). Autonomous commissions are not just separate bodies. They have inclusive membership, functional independence, and large control over the electoral process in terms of degree of influence over “rule-making, rule application, and rule adjudication” (Mozafar & Schedler, 2002, p. 8).

According to these criteria, by 2017 there were autonomous commissions in Africa, more than any other type (Benin, Burkina, Botswana, Cabo Verde, CAR, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Libya, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, São Tomé,, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Seychelles, Somalia, Tanzania, Tunisia, and Zambia; Gazibo, 2019). Other types of commissions include administrative boards (4), fake autonomous commissions (16), political commissions (5), and mixed commissions (1). If elections are usually fraudulent or disputed when organized by administrative and fake autonomous commissions, some countries with the two last types of commissions hold free and fair elections (Namibia and Mauritius, respectively, for example). Elections tend to be less problematic when organized by autonomous commissions. One of the best examples here is probably Ghana’s 1992 National Electoral Commission (NEC). It has seven members including a chair and two vice-chairs appointed by the president after consultation with the council of state. The seven members have permanent tenure of office and are subject to the same conditions of service as superior court judges (Gyima-Boadi, 1998). The NEC has full autonomy and control over the electoral process in terms of rule-making, rule application, and rule adjudication. Thanks to these powers, the commission has organized free elections in Ghana since 1992 and succeeded even in some very tense situations, such as the 2000 open-seat election won by the opposition candidate John Kufuor against the outgoing vice-president John Atta Mills; Ghana’s closest open-seat election of 2008, won this time by Mills, who defeated Kuffor’s vice-president, Nana Akuffo-Addo; and more importantly, the 2016 election during which a challenger, Nana Akufo-Addo, defeated a sitting president, John Dramani Mahama. This is why Debrah (2011) claimed that the NEC has made “the electoral process transparent by fostering agreement on the rules of the game and asserting its autonomy.”

The same can be said of the electoral commission of South Africa established under chapter 9 of the 1996 constitution as “an institution that strengthens constitutional democracy in the Republic.” Its five members, of which one is a judge, are appointed by the president, but proposed by a panel of experts composed of representatives of the president of the Constitutional Court, the Human Rights Commission, the Commission on Gender Equality, and the Public Protector. The nominees of this panel of experts must be approved by a committee of the National Assembly and the majority of the members of the Assembly. The commissioners have a 7-year term of office, and their removal is only possible by the president upon approval of the majority of the members of the National Assembly. The commission itself, as in Ghana, has full control over the electoral process in terms of rule-making, rule application, and rule adjudication.

Since 1990, elections have become an important component of African politics. Yet one must not overestimate the outcome of elections and electoral bodies. Bleck and van de Walle (2018, p. 5) are right to observe that if “[s]ome elections have been free and fair and have been held in political systems with recognized civic and political rights [. . .], more elections have been manipulated by incumbent regimes and their presidents, who can leverage the advantage embedded in disproportionate executive power or, in some instances, act in a manner that is totally at odds with the procedures and spirit of democracy.” This means that an important gap persists between democratic demands and institutions and the consolidation of democracy on the continent.

Beyond Democratic Demand, Support, and Institutions: Addressing Hindering Factors

Democracy is possible in all sorts of contexts and thus is feasible in Africa. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that it is easy to install and consolidate, as demonstrated by the Freedom House data, which shows dramatic regional and country-to-country variation in the level and quality of democracy on the continent. Free and partly free countries are concentrated in western and southeastern Africa, while autocracies are still strongly entrenched in central and northern Africa (Freedom House, 2018). Moreover, on the one hand, even in the more opened African countries, democracy is likely to remain “with adjectives.” Many regimes will continue to be at best hybrid, delegative, and illiberal in the sense that they feature both democratic and authoritarian traits and remain inefficient and irresponsive to popular demands (Diamond, 2002; O’Donnell, 1994; Zakaria, 1997). Thus, even in countries where elections are free and fair, other aspects of the regime may remain defective (Merkel, 2004). On the other hand, several factors, some structural and others contingent, seriously hinder its prospects (see Beetham, 1994, for a general discussion). This is why in addition to democratic demands, support, and institutions, democracy promotion in Africa requires that these hindering factors be addressed. Only a few of them are discussed briefly here.

First, state capacity, especially state effectiveness in the socioeconomic realm, is a crucial ingredient of democracy. Democracy can be crafted in (and even precipitated by) harsh socioeconomic factors, as was the case in Africa in the 1990s. However, as Max Weber has warned, democracy and poverty hardly go hand in hand. A functioning state is a precondition to resolving Africa’s problems of democracy (Linz & Stepan, 1996; Przeworski, Cheibub, Limongi, & Alvarez, 2000). Unfortunately, African states have generally fared quite badly in comparison with counterparts from other parts of the world and are among the weakest states. Scholars have described them as weak (Jackson & Rosberg, 1982; Rice & Patrick, 2008), as “criminal” (Bayart, Ellis, & Hibou, 1999), as being “in chaos” (Ayittey, 1998), or as having achieved a condition of “instrumentalized disorder” (Chabal & Daloz, 1999). In countries where the democratic process has been triggered by state bankruptcy, economic problems, if not addressed, are likely to constitute serious obstacles to its survival. As argued in Gazibo (2005b, 2012), Benin is an excellent illustration of the way the restoration of state capacities (via foreign aid) improved government’s ability to fulfill its basic tasks like paying civil servants’ salaries and keeping the army in its barracks. In turn, they were able to prevent social unrest and possible democratic breakdown. This is unfortunately not the case in many countries. One of the difficulties for democracy promotion in Africa is that, as Claude Ake (1994) lamented very early, what one is witnessing in even the so-called “success stories” can be characterized as the “democratization of disempowerment”—a process whereby newly installed multiparty systems merely allow rotating and competing portions of ruling elites to exploit the vast majority of Africa’s largely rural populations, who continue to remain disempowered from their respective political systems.

Second, democracy is a matter of a balance of power between actors. Thus, to be implemented and consolidated, it is crucial that those in favor of this system prevail. The attitude of regime elites toward liberalization and the cohesion of the ruling bloc are crucial factors that cannot be overlooked in any account of democratization. It is highly unlikely that a regime that is still in full possession of its coercive capability agrees to relinquish power solely because of popular protest (Hyug-Baeg, 1997), as Burundi and DRC demonstrate. Recent scholarship on the involvement of the military in democratic transitions tends to confirm this point of view, suggesting that many transitions “from below” were possible thanks to an important split within the authoritarian regime between the ruling clique and its coercive apparatus (McGowan, 2003, p. 339; Morency-Laflamme, 2018). As Bratton and van de Walle (1997) and Way (2011) have argued, more often than not, autocrats let go of power not because they want to, but because key political, economic, and military allies force them to give up after deciding that the regime is no longer worth supporting. In the spirit of O’Donnell and Schmitter (1986), leaders who can keep the support of crucial elites are likely to survive crises even in the face of overwhelming protest in the streets (Bellin, 2012; Way, 2011). This autocratic mindset explains why, beginning in 1993 and the military coup in Burundi, the democratization process has significantly stalled and, in some cases, has been reversed as soon as incumbents or hardliners regained strength. Given the presidential and patrimonial nature of African regimes (van de Walle, 2003), the two-terms-limit provision introduced in almost all the constitutions in the early 1990s, for example, has been abandoned in a dozen countries, a reform that precludes any chance of power alternation and weakens democratic prospects. The same can be said of electoral rules some incumbent governments change often in order to destabilize their opposition and suppress any uncertainty about who will be elected (Schmitter & Karl, 1991, p. 10).

Third, at the society level, even though there exist both demand and support for democracy, to be efficient, civic and opposition groups need to share some basic ideas and establish a minimum of coordination among them in order to counterbalance any authoritarian project—a suggestion made long ago by Barrington Moore (1966), who explained the origins of democracy by class alliances that restrict the arbitrary power of the governing elites. Many authors contend that the success or failure of the protest/political reform cycle depends importantly on the character and composition of the opposition movement, of which the relative strength and cohesion of political coalitions within the protesters are of primary importance. Bratton and van de Walle (1997), for example, argue that opposition groups must be able to forge an alternative ruling coalition with an articulate political program. This is particularly difficult in many African countries given the weakness and ideological divisions between civic and political groups, as the situation prevailing in DRC, for example, demonstrates. In that country, opposition forces are so fragmented that President Kabila easily managed to stay in power beyond the end of his second term in 2016. Cameroon, Gabon, and Togo are other examples of how the division of opposition groups weakens them and helps long-standing presidents to remain in power.

Finally, the “national unity” precondition for democracy suggested long ago by Dankwart Rustow (1970) is still not met in many African countries. Although the ethnicity factor plays differently from one country to another, with many multi-ethnic countries like Benin or Ghana managing to organize peaceful multiparty elections, it is generally recognized that ethnic divisions make it harder to install and consolidate democracy (Beetham, 1994; Berman, Kymlicka, & Eyoh, 2004). The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the electoral conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Nigeria, or the violent ethnic clashes in Burundi, Central African Republic, DRC, and Ethiopia, among others, demonstrate how difficult it is to install stable liberal democracies in many ethnically divided countries. When the ethnic factor is so salient in a country, it raises another question, which is the possibility to implement the one-man, one-vote democratic system. The problem here is that few institutional innovations are imagined given the standard understanding of democracy in its liberal Western style. In Burundi, where a form of consociational arrangement was attempted, it aborted, suggesting that the interest and commitment of African decision-makers to adapt democracy to the specific context of each country is weak.


Africa has for long been considered as one of the thick frontiers democracy cannot cross. However, in 1990 in most of the sub-Saharan countries, and in 2010 in the Arab countries, mass mobilizations demanding freedom were organized. The political picture in Africa in the early 21st century is very different from what it was prior to these demands. On the one hand, regimes now range from free to partly free to not free, according to Freedom House ratings. On the other hand, African societies value and support democratic values and ideals in huge proportions according to Afrobarometer surveys. In addition, many countries are now strongly institutionalized, respect the rule of law, organize free and fair elections, and witness power alternations. However, almost all of these countries, democratic or not, continue to face several constraining factors. What lessons can we draw from this multifaceted situation?

First, as the two authors cited at the beginning of this article argue, it appears that there is no precondition—economic, cultural, or historical—to democracy in Africa, a position confirmed by the empirical transformations in many countries. This means that rather than asking if democracy is feasible on the continent, we must explore what facilitates and constrains it.

Second, the feasibility of democracy does not mean that it will appear and endure automatically. To happen and to be secured, democracy needs, on the one hand, civic groups who are eager to demand and support it until it is institutionalized to a point where institutions constrain actors’ behavior. On the other hand, this process needs to be accompanied by actions aimed at mitigating the numerous obstacles that hinder its prospects.

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