A member of the Economic Freedom Fighters holds a placard during an antigovernment march in Pretoria, South Africa. (Themba Hadebe/Associated Press)

Media headlines suggest democracy is under stress everywhere — from leaders such as Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda. Yet social scientists know news reports and social media may miss real, underlying trends.

Take the example of perceptions and actual trends in global poverty. The common wisdom suggests worsening living conditions on an overpopulated planet, but evidence-based indicators demonstrate that, between 1990 and 2010, the global rate of extreme poverty was cut in half.

What about democracy in Africa — where many presidents cling to power (as in Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe), manipulate elections (as in Burundi, Gabon and Zambia) and ignore institutions of public accountability (as in South Africa)? One might reasonably conclude that democracy in Africa is only a facade.

Yet this viewpoint would miss the fact that more than half of all Africans today live in functioning multiparty electoral democracies that are demonstrably freer than were the military or one-party regimes that previously dominated the continent.

At the same time, the post-1990 gains that African countries registered in terms of civil liberties and political rights peaked in 2006, at least according to expert judgments offered by Freedom House (see graph below). Worldwide trends like this have led some analysts to conclude that Africa is part of a global democratic recession.


Inverted mean of Freedom House scores for 49 sub-Saharan African countries. Source: Freedom House (Afrobarometer)

Multiple things may be true. That is, democracy in Africa may seem to be declining when measured with a near-term yardstick. At the same time, democracy may be alive and well, because the continent is still far more democratic than it used to be when viewed from a longer-term perspective.

With these mixed possibilities in mind, we recently wrote a report published by Afrobarometer that emphasizes what ordinary citizens in 36 African countries think. Do they desire a democratic form of government, or what we call “demand for democracy”?

By tracking 16 African countries that had been surveyed over more than a decade, Afrobarometer has previously demonstrated a steady rise in popular demand for democracy. Yet large proportions of Africans remain skeptical that they are being “supplied” with democracy by their current political leaders.

So what does our report find? Here are a few key takeaways:

  • On average across the continent, Africans prefer democracy to any other kind of government. Large majorities of Africans surveyed by Afrobarometer reject alternative authoritarian regimes such as presidential dictatorship, military rule and one-party government.
  • There are, however, large differences across countries in demand for democracy. For example, three in four respondents in Mauritius are consistent, committed democrats, compared with fewer than one in 10 Mozambicans.
  • Demand for democracy is highest among those who live in urban areas, have a university education, and work in middle-class occupations. There is also an important gender gap, with women significantly less likely to demand democracy than men.
  • In the 16 African countries Afrobarometer has surveyed since 2002, a steady decade-long upward trend in demand for democracy has shifted downward since 2012.
  • The quality of elections helps to explain demand for democracy. African countries with high-quality elections are more likely to register increases in popular demand for democracy than countries with low-quality elections.
  • Popular demand for democracy exceeds citizen perceptions of the available supply of democracy in most African countries (see map below).

It’s the final point that leaves us cautiously optimistic about the future of democracy in Africa. In many countries, Africans want much more democracy than they say they are getting. This imbalance suggests that citizens in these countries are likely to keep pressing their rulers for more democracy.

This post is part of our Fall Friday Afrobarometer series, which highlights findings from the Pan-African, nonpartisan research network that conducts public-attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa. Read more in the series:

Robert Mattes is a professor in the department of political studies and director of the Democracy in Africa Research Unit in the Centre for Social Science Research, University of Cape Town. 

Michael Bratton is university distinguished professor of political science and African studies at Michigan State University. With Robert Mattes and E. Gyimah-Boadi, he is a co-founder of Afrobarometer.