Support for Democracy Seen Falling in Africa

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 25, 2006

JOHANNESBURG, May 24 -- Africans are increasingly frustrated with democracy even as voters long for freer elections, broader civil liberties and more responsive political leaders, according to findings from multi-nation opinion polls released Wednesday.

Afrobarometer, a nonprofit polling project, reported that surveys conducted since 2000 have revealed a slow but steady deterioration in support for democracy, with particularly steep declines in Nigeria, Tanzania, Botswana and Uganda.

Sixty-one percent of Africans surveyed said they regard democracy as preferable to other political systems. But the pollsters found that flaws in many democracies across the continent have undermined support for the concept.

"Democracy's not been working politically," said Robert Mattes, one of the pollsters, speaking from Cape Town. Support for democracy is falling fastest in "places where you've had one-party rule for a long time or places where elections haven't been working."

The polls also found growing unhappiness among Africans about their personal financial circumstances and their national economies. Three-quarters of Africans surveyed said they have been short of cash in the past year, and 56 percent said they had been short of food.

Afrobarometer conducts house-to-house surveys in 18 sub-Saharan African countries to gauge public opinion. Pollsters complete at least 1,200 interviews in each country. In measuring continent-wide trends, the countries are given equal weight, meaning that Lesotho, with 2 million citizens, counts as much as Nigeria, with more than 130 million.

In Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. the number of people rating their personal financial situations as at least "fairly good" declined from 68 percent in 2000 to 45 percent in 2005. The decline in satisfaction with democracy over that time was even steeper, from 84 to 26 percent.

Trust in Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo fell nearly as far, from 77 to 26 percent, defying a broad trend among Africans toward putting more faith in their presidents.

Powerfully negative trends were also found in Zimbabwe, which is six years into a political and economic crisis that has turned one of Africa's foremost success stories into one of its biggest failures.

Afrobarometer found that President Robert Mugabe's approval rating, which it said reached 58 percent in 2002, has fallen to 27 percent. Only 3 percent of Zimbabweans surveyed said the government was doing at least "fairly well" at creating jobs, down from 23 percent in 2002. Poll results showed a worsening of poverty and hunger as well.

Mattes said that rising unhappiness had not yet led to uprisings against Mugabe mainly because of his control over the nation's armed forces. Only 12 percent of Zimbabweans questioned said they felt free to speak their minds about politics, lower than in any of the countries polled.

"There's quite a willingness to take to the streets and oppose," said Mattes, "but they've been bottled up very effectively."

Afrobarometer, which is funded mainly by Western donors, is a joint project of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, the Ghana Center for Democratic Development and Michigan State University.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company