Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, walk during a meeting in Juba, South Sudan, on Monday. (Jok Solomun/Reuters)

The bad and good news comes in almost daily. Increasingly authoritarian regimes clamp down on dissent in Tanzania and Zambia, and Togo’s Gnassingbe dynasty teeters as its opponents are bloodied in the streets. But democratic elections carried the day in the Gambia, where strongman Yahya Jammeh was forced to cede power without a shot being fired — and in Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf respected term limits and passed the torch. Meanwhile, in Uganda, Afro-beat pop star Bobi Wine has become a symbol for popular resistance and could threaten Yoweri Museveni’s three-decade rule. In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appears to be leading change with breathtaking speed, while Zimbabweans still wait — and demonstrate — for the democracy they were promised after Robert Mugabe was forced to step down.

What’s going on with democracy in Africa?

The research network Afrobarometer finds some answers in its latest analysis, based on face-to-face interviews with more than 45,000 Africans in 34 countries. The wide-ranging interviews, conducted with nationally representative samples between late 2016 and late 2018, covered more than two dozen questions on democracy, elections and political freedoms.

Most Africans still say they want democracy. Fewer are getting the democracy they want. And even fewer insist enough on improving their democracies that they’re likely to help their nations guard against authoritarian backsliding.

Let’s look more closely at the numbers. A strong majority of Africans — fully 68 percent — think democracy is the best system of government. Even larger majorities object to various forms of authoritarianism: 78 percent oppose presidential dictatorships, 74 percent oppose one-party rule and 72 percent object to military rule.

About four out of 10 Africans, or 42 percent, “demand democracy,” meaning they hold all four of these pro-democratic views at the same time. These committed democrats are most likely to be found among urban residents, men, and people who have middle-class jobs, a university education, a strong interest in politics, and a habit of reading newspapers and using the Internet.


Views on democracy | 34 African countries | 2016/2018 (Robert Mattess/Robert Mattes)

Across 18 countries for which we have data going back more than a decade, popular demand for democracy has declined by six percentage points over the past five years — but is still five points higher than it was in 2005.

In the 34 countries surveyed in 2016/2018, on average about half, or 51 percent, see their countries as functioning democracies, while only 43 percent are satisfied with how well those democracies are working.

The importance of “dissatisfied democrats”

Yet fewer than one in six Africans, or 15 percent, can be described as “dissatisfied democrats” — that is, citizens who are committed democrats but are dissatisfied with the current performance of the regime. Our survey data show that these are the people most likely to support civil liberties, to take responsibility for holding elected officials accountable and to support a range of limits on government — in short, to do the things that expand democracy, or at least guard against its erosion. We also find that African countries with lots of dissatisfied democrats are more likely to democratize, or avoid democratic backsliding, than countries that don’t.


Dissatisfied democrats | 34 African countries | 2016/2018 Figure shows % of respondents in each country who support democracy and reject authoritarian alternatives and are dissatisfied with their country’s performance. (Robert Mattes/Afrobarometer)

The story unfolds country by country

And that’s where the real story unfolds — in individual countries. African countries are moving from different starting points at various speeds in different directions.

One gauge to keep an eye on is a country’s share of dissatisfied democrats. Understandably enough, we find very small proportions of dissatisfied democrats in countries where democracy is fairly stable and robust, such as in Ghana, where they make up 3 percent; in Botswana, with 12 percent; and Mauritius, with 15 percent. In these countries, elections are generally free and fair, and citizens enjoy a matrix of political rights and civil liberties.

But it’s a bit more worrisome to find only small groups of dissatisfied democrats in backsliding democracies like Tanzania (7 percent), where a process of narrowing political space has progressed to bans on opposition gatherings and limitations on social media, and Kenya (8 percent), where the Supreme Court annulled the results of an election and the resulting rerun was marred by political violence and an opposition boycott. These small proportions of dissatisfied democrats suggest that if these democracies deteriorate further, there may be little popular resistance.

However, when we look at several other African countries that Freedom House considers only “partly free” or “unfree,” we find sizable proportions of dissatisfied democrats, from roughly one-fifth to two-thirds of the population, who are potential bulwarks against authoritarianism. In Zambia and Côte d’Ivoire, that proportion is 22 percent; in Zimbabwe, 29 percent; in Togo, 33 percent; and in Gabon, 42 percent. These numbers suggest that if those governments attempt to further restrict civil liberties and political activity, a significant proportion of citizens will push back. That’s a hopeful sign.

Robert Mattes is a co-founder of and senior adviser to Afrobarometer, a professor in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde, and an honorary professor in the Institute for Democracy, Citizenship and Public Policy at the University of Cape Town.

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