Home > Publications > Governance & law > The Challenge of Representative Democracy in Africa

The Challenge of Representative Democracy in Africa

Democracy in Africa
Zim Nwokora

Zim Nwokora

Zim Nwokora is a senior lecturer in Politics and director of the Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) programme at Deakin University, Australia; a Fellow at Oxford Global Society.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

The views expressed are solely those of the author (s) and not of Oxford Global Society.

The debate about the “crisis” of representative democracy (RD) has concentrated on Western countries such as the United States and United Kingdom. In contrast, this article considers the African experience with RD.

Africa as a Hostile Context for Democracy

The received wisdom is that Africa has been barely hospitable for democracy, including RD. Indeed, in the decades since the region gained independence, only two countries, Botswana and Mauritius, have sustained democracy continuously.[i]

Today, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Africa hosts 5 other democracies: Ghana, Namibia, South Africa, Cape Verde and Lesotho, to which we might also add the Seychelles (which is not assessed by the EIU), making a total of 8 out of approximately 46 in the region.

Why, then, has the African experience with democracy been such an uncomfortable one? The answer will differ across countries, but here are some generally relevant considerations:

Poor preconditions, especially weak states

RD requires a state that can deliver law and order and public goods such as health and education; organise elections and the mechanisms for representation; and raise taxes.

The state in most African countries cannot perform these functions (especially beyond the capital city)—indeed it often lacks the legitimacy to do so.

The reasons for state weakness are deeply rooted. If we go back a long way in time to, say, around the 1600s, the patchy evidence available suggests parallels between the varied and unstable forms of governance in Europe compared with those in Africa at the time.

But what happened during that period set the two regions on vastly different trajectories.

Europe underwent a period of massive technological, social and political change, including the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions and many wars, propelling the region down a path that led to state strengthening.

In Africa, state strengthening did not happen at this time, and the region was set back in this respect by its encounters with the European powers that had acquired strong states. Of course, I’m referring here to the slave trade and colonialism—and I’ll say more about those in a moment.

African countries are also weak in terms of other democracy-facilitating conditions such as national income and education.

Slavery and colonialism

The trans-Atlantic slave trade involved the mass movement of 12 million Africans into slavery in North and South America from the 16th to the 19th Centuries. Estimates suggest that Africa’s population in 1850 was half what it would have been had the slave trades not occurred.

Often the trade involved communities turning on their own (e.g., to settle scores), causing a massive deterioration in social trust, an ingredient needed for stable alternations in power; for coordination to hold executives to account; and as a corruption-prevention condition.

These effects endure. As Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon show[ii], the African regions where the slave trade was most active continue to have lower levels of trust and cooperation than the regions that were less affected by the slave trade.

The prospects for democracy in Africa were subsequently undermined by modern European colonialism, beginning in the late 19th Century until the late 1960s, which established a dysfunctional ‘might is right’ norm; disenfranchised and disengaged citizens; and generated problematic national boundaries, setting the scene for ethnic conflict in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Sudan.

Poorly supported and designed institutions

After gaining independence, most African countries experimented with written constitutions and multiparty elections. But, of course, this didn’t last long.

One reason was the poor soil in which even good designs would struggle. For example, the parliamentary regime of Nigeria’s First Republic was cited as ‘weak’ when it was overthrown in 1966[iii], but it operated in an impoverished institutional context in which political parties, the legislature, courts and the bureaucracy underperformed in their core functions.

The military coups that followed used the weakness of parliamentary politics as a pretext for ruling by decree and introducing a highly centralized form of presidentialism, a pattern seen across the region.

Furthermore, as Nic Cheeseman has noted[iv], the range of governance models considered at the independence moment was limited and unimaginative, especially when compared with the innovations in post-1990 African constitutions (and other constitutions globally).

Sources of Democratic Potential

Despite such handicaps, RD has taken root in some African countries and there are also other reasons for optimism about the region’s democratic potential.

Some success stories

The success stories include Botswana, which has sustained a cooperative form of ethnic politics as well as free and fair elections (which have generated a long string of victory for the Botswana Democratic Party). Botswana’s accountability framework has enabled its vast diamond reserves to be used to support public goods provision, in sharp contrast to the ‘resource curse’ suffered by other African countries.

South Africa has established a constitutional framework for airing and resolving disputes, which seems to be widely accepted as legitimate. Given the country’s history and potential for division and violence, that is a fairly remarkable achievement.

In Ghana, another recent success story, one interesting development has been the emergence in the mid-1990s of a powerful informal mechanism, IPAC – the inter-party advisory committee – through which representatives of different parties meet to discuss electoral matters. IPAC has laid the foundations for trust-building and collegial inter-party relations.

Elements of success elsewhere

Even beyond the obvious success stories, there are some reasons for optimism. For example, in Nigeria – a ‘hybrid’ regime according to the EIU — the norm of civilian control of the military seems to have taken hold; term limits for the executive are now well-observed; and the 1999 constitution has proven to be enduring.

Kenya’s 2010 constitution, a response to ethnic conflict in the early 2000s, bears similarities with South Africa’s because it also enshrines a thick notion of socio-economic right. Again, the constitution has been cast as a critical device of democratic strengthening.

African Union (AU) as a democracy promoter

With its adoption in 2007 of the Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, the AU abandoned its policy of ‘non-interference’ to support constitutional changes of government and oppose extra-constitutional changes. It has also become more active in election observation throughout the region.

New models of democracy for Africa

There’s a realisation that traditional, liberal models of constitutionalism may not be an ideal fit in the region given its pressing conditions of poverty and disenchantment, but also given its deeper history of governance.

Decolonial researchers such as Mahmood Mamdani[v] argue for a ‘reimagining of political community,’ beyond not only the Westphalian model of the nation state but also the idea that Africa’s ethnicities are real (and therefore that nations should be built around them).

Less radical innovations include efforts to integrate indigenous and liberal models of governance[vi]; efforts to design future-oriented structures [vii]; an unearthing of the region’s deliberative democratic roots [viii]; and growing awareness of the need for more accommodationist structures in Africa [ix].

Mapping RD Performance and Potential

Given the reasons for pessimism and optimism discussed above, how should we understand the particular RD circumstances of different African countries? To gain traction on this question, I consider three criteria of fundamental relevance to RD.

A stable constitution provides an organizing framework for the development of the representative institutions and norms. Constitutional endurance can be measured with data from the Comparative Constitutions Project. The extent to which a constitution is actually implemented is at the core of measures of democratic performance, such as the one compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Finally, political violence/political stability can be measured with a data series provided by the World Bank (WGI Political Stability).

Using intuitive cut-offs on these three indicators, we can identify the following 5 profiles.

Fairly mature RDs: high (i.e., above global average) political stability; stable/enduring (i.e., over 20 years) constitutions; and a high level of democracy (i.e., bona fide democracy according to the EIU). These are the high performers in RD terms, and include Botswana, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mauritius and Namibia.

Excellent prospects: a young constitution in a country that is stable and moderately or highly democratic (i.e., hybrid regime or bona fide democracy); or a country with an established constitution that is strong in terms of democracy or political stability, but not both. This group includes South Africa, Madagascar, Lesotho, The Gambia, and Rwanda.

Promising but at risk: medium political stability (i.e., below global average but by less than one standard deviation); an established constitutional order; and medium democracy. This group includes Benin, Kenya, Senegal, Tanzania.

At high risk or teetering on the brink of collapse: Medium/low stability (i.e., below global average by more than one standard deviation); new/old constitutional order; and medium/low democracy. In this category are countries such as Angola, Gabon, Guinea, Nigeria and Togo.

Distant prospects: low stability; new/old constitutions; and low democracy (i.e., authoritarian regime). These cases, which are far from the requirements of RD, include Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Sudan.

Although it captures no more than a snapshot of the African RD context, this mapping suggests that the region has diversified in terms of its RD status and characteristics. It was easier to generalise in the past when Africa had a couple of democratic stars (Botswana and Mauritius) and a vast bulk of laggards. Now, the situation is more complicated, with a greater range of situations and therefore alternative pathways for democratic development.

[i] Cheeseman, Nic. 2015. Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures, and the Struggle for Political Reform. Cambridge University Press.

[ii] Nunn, Nathan and Leonard Wantchekon. 2011. ‘The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa’. American Economic Review 101(7), 3221-3252.

[iii] Baba, Yahaya T. 2018. ‘Executive dominance and Hyper-Presidentialism in Nigeria’. In: The Oxford Handbook of Nigerian Politics. Edited by: A. Carl LeVan and Patrick Ukata, Oxford University Press, pp. 257-272.

[iv] Cheeseman, Nic. 2015. Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures, and the Struggle for Political Reform. Cambridge University Press.

[v] Mamdani, Mahmood. 2001. ‘Beyond Settler and Native as Political Identities: Overcoming the Political Legacy of Colonialism’. Comparative Studies in Society and History 43(4), 651-664.

[vi] Gebeyi, Berihun. 2021. A Theory of African Constitutionalism. Oxford University Press.

[vii] Nwokora, Zim. 2022. ‘Constitutional Design for Dynamic Democracies: A Framework for Analysis’. International Journal of Constitutional Law 20(2), 580-610.

[viii] Wiredu, Kwasi. 2012. ‘State and Civil Society in Africa’. In: Reclaiming the Human Sciences, Volume 2. Edited by: Helen Lauer and Kofi Ayidoho, Legon-Accra: Sub-Saharan Publishers, pp. 1055-1066.  Also see: Ani, Emmanuel Ifeanyi. 2014. ‘On Traditional African Consensual Rationality’. Journal of Political Philosophy 22(3), 342-365.

[ix] Cheeseman, Nic. 2021. ‘How Could We Design Democracy to Make it Work in the African Context?’ In: Democracy, Elections, and Constitutionalism in Africa. Edited by: Charles M. Fombad and Nico Steytler, Oxford University Press, pp. 36-60.