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.