In the last two decades, there has been a significant increase in the number of public opinion surveys in Africa. While experts on economic development and health had long been collecting individual-, household-, and community-level data on the continent, efforts to gather information on what Africans thought about their governments, societies, and political and economic situations, more broadly, were limited before the late 1990s. Certainly, this expansion was enabled by the wave of political liberalizations that hit most African countries at the end of the Cold War, thus creating conditions under which citizens could be more open in discussing attitudes and behaviors, particularly with regard to politics. However, it also coincided with a growth in the popularity of public opinion surveys globally. The distribution of data-collection efforts has not been uniform across countries: more surveys have been conducted in countries with higher levels of economic development, political openness, and security, such as Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa, than in more challenging settings, such as Eritrea, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Thus, our knowledge of what Africans think about politics and economics varies significantly from country to country. Myriad organizations have been involved in these efforts. Academic organizations, both on the African continent and overseas, have been at the forefront of such work in Africa. The most prominent among these has been the Afrobarometer, which has conducted dozens of surveys, in about two thirds of the continent’s countries, since 1999. The majority of studies, however, are made up of contributions by other entities, including for-profit companies, media houses, and even political campaigns. In total, these surveys vary in their methodologies, focuses, quality, and the accessibility of their data for researchers, policymakers, and the general public. These developments have had significant impacts on academic studies, policymaking, and even countries’ domestic politics. Surveys have improved understandings of Africans’ attitudes, assessments of the status quos in their respective countries, decision-making processes, and hopes and priorities for the future. For academics, these data have provided new opportunities for testing theories—oftentimes upending or at least complicating extant conventional wisdom—and catalyzing the development of new research programs. Candidates and parties use enhanced understandings of the electorate to develop different persuasive strategies. Governments frequently attempt to control, limit, or strategically use survey enterprises. Media in some countries regularly report on popular attitudes and campaign-time “horse races.” In some instances, the release and interpretation of public opinion data have become quite politicized. And election observers frequently propose collection of public opinion data before elections as a guard against flagrant rigging. In sum, these developments have, in myriad ways, fundamentally changed how African countries are studied and governed.
Radio’s affordability, portability, and use of local languages have long granted it a special status among mass media in Africa. Its development across the continent has followed remarkably similar paths despite clear differences in different countries’ language policies, economic fortunes, and political transformations. Common to many countries has been the virtual monopoly over the airwaves enjoyed by the state or parastate broadcasting corporations during the first decades of independence. The wave of democratization since the late 1980s has brought important changes to the constitutional and economic landscape in radio broadcasting. Although private, religious, and community stations have filled the airwaves in many countries, it is also important to recognize the many subtle ways in which state-controlled radio broadcasting, both before and after independence, could include alternative ideas, particularly in cultural and sports programming. By the same token, radio’s culpability in orchestrating oppression—or even genocide, as in Rwanda’s case—stands to be examined critically. Liberalized airwaves, on the other hand, draw attention to developments that find parallels in radio history elsewhere in the world. They include radio’s capacity to mediate intimacy between radio personalities and their listeners in a way that few other media can. They also become apparent in radio’s uses in encouraging participation and interaction among ordinary citizens through phone-in programs that build on the rapid uptake of mobile telephony across Africa. Such developments call for a notion of politics that makes it possible to observe radio’s influence across the domains of formal politics, religion, and commercial interests.
Despite predictions that urbanization, economic development and globalization would lead to the recession of religion from public life, populations around the world continue to be highly religious. This pattern holds in most parts of the Global South and also in some advanced industrial democracies in the North, including in the United States. In grappling with the influence (or lack thereof) of religion on political life, a growing body of literature pays attention to how clergy–congregant communication might shape listeners’ political attitudes and behaviors. Considerable debate remains as to whether clergy–congregant communication is likely to change political attitudes and behavior, but there is a greater consensus around the idea that exposure to religious communication can at the very least prime (that is, increase the salience of) certain considerations that in turn affect how people evaluate political issues and whether they participate in politics. Religious communication is more likely to exert a persuasive and a priming influence among those already inclined to select into the communication and when the source of the communication is credible. More research is needed on the duration of religious primes and on the effects of religious communication in different political and social contexts around the world.
Kim Yi Dionne and Boniface Dulani
One significant barrier to sexual minority rights in Africa is the generally negative attitudes ordinary Africans have toward same-sex relationships. Yet since 1998, there has been notable progress in terms of legalizing same-sex relationships on the continent, with Botswana the most recent African country to do so, in 2019. Botswana joins Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Lesotho, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, Seychelles, and South Africa, among countries that have decriminalized same-sex relationships. Publicly available cross-national survey data measuring citizen’s attitudes toward homosexuality in 41 African countries from 1982 to 2018 shows that, on average, Africans hold negative attitudes toward same-sex relationships, which is consistent with previous reports. However, there is variation in these attitudes, suggesting greater tolerance of sexual minorities among women, people who use the Internet more frequently, and urban residents. One key finding is that homophobia is not universal in Africa. In light of recent policy and legal developments advancing sexual minority rights, and given findings in existing scholarship highlighting the influence politicians have in politicizing homophobia, the literature questioning the generalized notion of a “homophobic Africa” is growing, and there are calls for more research on the factors influencing decriminalization.
George M. Bob-Milliar
Since the early 1990s, African states have been democratizing. Political parties now dominate the public spaces in many African democracies. The past 26 years have witnessed the growth and consolidation of “party democracy” in Africa. This is the longest period of uninterrupted growth of electoral politics in many countries on the continent. Recent Afrobarometer surveys show that almost two-thirds (63%) of Africans support pluralistic politics. Party identification in sub-Saharan Africa has also been on the rise. Across 16 states Afrobarometer surveyed, a majority of Africans (65%) claim they “feel close to” a political party in their country. The mass public who identified with a particular political party increased by 7 percentage points between 2002 and 2015. Political parties are the vehicles for citizens to engage in party activism. The women and men who join a political party become the party activists. Party activists are the lifeblood of the party organization. And political party activism in sub-Saharan Africa is geared toward the election of the party and its candidates into office. Consequently, party activism is a continuum of high-intensity and low-intensity political activities. Party activists vary in their levels of involvement. Thus, it is a mixture of fanfare and aggressive participation. Political party activism is a multifaceted process where party members undertake any of the following political activities: display a poster, donate money, help with fund-raising, deliver election leaflets, help at a party function, attend party meetings, undertake door-to-door campaigning, and run for party office. The involvement of party members usually varies from active engagement to passive attachment to the party. There were several motives for party activists getting involved in “high-intensity participation.” Because of the crucial role party activists play in the intra- and inter-party competition, the parties provide some incentives to get members commitment. At the organizational level, party activists present themselves for election into party offices at the grassroots, regionally or nationally. They devote their time and financial resources in furtherance of the party agenda. In return, party activists expect the party to reward them with selective incentives when power is won. That said, more research is required at the country level to enable us to construct the profile of the African party activists.
Survey evidence indicates that political corruption is more prevalent in Africa than in any other global region, though there is also evidence of considerable variation between countries in degrees of corruption and where it is most likely to be located. Traditional explanations for the frequency of corrupt political behavior emphasized the effects of conflicting values that were a consequence of the imposition of modern forms of bureaucratic government upon societies in which authority rested upon personalized relationships. Contemporary African corruption’s historic roots and its variation across the continent may be the effect of the disjuncture or “incongruency” between colonial and successor postcolonial states and the precolonial political settings upon which they were imposed. Modern neo-patrimonialism is a coping response by rulers and citizens to conditions fostered by economic scarcity and institutional incapacity. Since the 1990s, democratization and liberalization have supplied fresh incentives and opportunities for venal politicians and officials. And even among Africa’s more capable and resourceful states, the institutional fluidity generated by democratic transition and economic reform has opened up possibilities of systematically organized state capture. Consequences of corruption certainly further impoverish poor people, and it is likely that corruption also limits economic growth and distorts government efforts to promote development. It is arguable that in the past, corruption may have helped to facilitate political stability but this is less likely in 2018, as evidence emerges of its corrosive effects on public trust in institutions. African anti-corruption efforts are constrained by the extent to which political power is exercised through patronage but there are instances of successful action, sometimes the byproduct of factional struggles within the political elite. As of 2018, there is no clear evidence of trends in success or failure in the work of African anti-corruption agencies.
Jocelyn M. Boryczka
Capturing the nuanced attitudes toward LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people and rights in Africa involves examining them from within and outside the African context. Constructions of the entire African continent as holding negative attitudes toward LGBT peoples and denying them any rights remain quite commonplace across the Global North. However, closer analysis of specific nation-states and regions complicates our understanding of LGBT people and rights in Africa. Advances in the global study of LGBT attitudes through tools such as the Global LGBTI Inclusion Index and the Global Acceptance Index survey African peoples’ beliefs about LGBT communities. These measures locate African attitudes about LGBT peoples within a comparative context to decenter assumptions and many inaccurate, often colonialist, constructions. Attitudinal measures also expose the gap between legislation securing formal rights and the beliefs driving peoples’ everyday practices. These measures further specify how African governments can, often in response to Western political and economic forces, leverage homophobia on a national level to serve their interests despite a misalignment with the population’s attitudes toward LGBT peoples. Nongovernmental organizations and advocates raise awareness about LGBT rights and issues to impact socialization processes that shape these attitudes to generate political, social, and economic change. A rights-based approach and research on attitudes emerging from the African context represent shifts critical to better understanding how LGBT peoples and rights can be more effectively advanced across the continent.