The State Of Democracy in Africa: half in Earnest, half in Jest

In 2017, what can be said about the democratic situation in African States? Whereas some countries are strengthened year after year, the democratic benefits often obtained come with difficulty and lots of sacrifices. Others don’t succeed in breaking free from the long-lasting and important lingering odour of authoritarianism. Whereas we witness pacific transfers of power and democratic alternations in some countries, we still deal with political leaders who use clever processes to unduly prolong their position as heads of the state. This is the demonstration that the obsession of power remains a perennial issue in the head of lots of political authorities in Africa. It shall be first specified that the democratic health condition of African countries cannot be determined only with regard to free and transparent elections in those countries. This would be  a really minimalist and subjective conception of democracy.

The Good Performers of Democracy in Africa

Ghana and Benin experienced last year, pacific elections and a democratic alternation at the head of the state. In these two countries, the political pluralism is seen as strength and is not stifled. Trade unions are well organized and constitute pressure means against the government. Benin is also the first country which organized the first national conference on the continent in 1990. Benin is moreover the pioneer in the establishment of an independent electoral commission. Benin is worthy  of note due the fact that this country didn’t stay paralyzed in a kind of excitement following this historical role of democratic precursor, but as the analyst Constantin Somé rightly underlines in his master’s thesis: « Benin distinguishes itself by its innovation ability in all fairness and transparency, which shows progress. Refusing the usurpation of political power by any group or faction that wouldn’t originate from the electoral body choice. This is why  an independent and autonomous « a mediator »  charged with elections has been established. Benin cultivates pacifism by an increasingly healthy management of electoral competitions and a progressive institutionalization of organs charged with regulating elections and above all their independence towards the government, the parliament and public authorities ». [1]

Ghana takes second place in Africa behind Namibia and the 26th at the global level of 2016 Reporters without Borders (RSB) ranking about press freedom. [2] This prominent place in this international ranking conveys the steady challenge of guaranteeing press independence and freedom of speech and opinion prerogatives. On the political level, the popular vote is respected and the losers accept their defeat. During the presidential election of 2012, Dramani Mahama was declared the winner by the Constitutional Court against Akuffo Addo after recourse of the latter before the said court. Following this sentence, he admitted his defeat and called Mahama to congratulate him. In 2016, the outgoing president Mahama was defeated by Akuffo-Addo during the elections and admitted instantly his defeat. This gives every reason to believe that the Ghanaian democracy is constantly growing.

Still in West Africa, Senegal is also an avant-garde in terms of democracy in our continent. Even if this country has known intermittent episodes of « crisis », it always knew how to recover. The longstanding and strong tradition of activism in the political, community and trade union spheres (Ex : Collectif Y’EN A MARRE, Raddho, Forum Civil as well as other organizations of the civil society and lively and committed political parties) forms a significant safeguard against authoritarian and anti-democratic vague desires. President Wade’s defeat against his opponent Macky Sall in 2012, the constitutional referendum organized in 2016, illustrate the healthy democratic condition of this country and the desire of citizens and political leaders to preserve the Senegalese democratic ethos. The insular States that are Cape Verde and Mauritius deserve as well to be mentioned as model democracies in the continent. These countries experience a political stability which is in particular the result of an institutionalization and of the respect of democratic rules and practices that govern the public action as well as the private sphere.

In respect to South Africa, it is a democracy which works well generally. Unlike a lot of countries in our tropics, we can add to the credit of this nation that the judicial power is still independent from the executive one. As proof of this, we can quote the legal problems of president Zuma entangled in corruption and abuse of power scandals. We all recall the reports of the Republic ex mediator Thuli Madonsela who revealed in all independence –even if she suffered political pressures- the « Nkandlagate » which refers to the renovation of a private residence with public funds and also the case concerning the narrow collusion between Zuma and the wealthy Gupta family. Even if the targeted murders are plentiful in this country, we can still notice that on the institutional field, freedom of speech is guaranteed and respected, as shown by EEF (Economic freedom fighters),deputies’ severe grumblings of Julius Malema during parliamentary sessions in the presence of president Zuma.

Sao Tomé and Principe is a democratic role model in Africa. Even if this little country, not much strategic in a geographical and economical perspective arouses little interest for the international observers and analysts, the essentials of democracy are established there and have value. The same analysis can be made for Tanzania.

According to a 2014 Reporters Without Borders (RSB) rank about press freedom, Namibia is the only country in Africa to get a score more or less similar to Scandinavian countries’, performing better (19th at global level) than France (37th) and many more countries of the Old Continent. Namibia is also the first African country to organize presidential and legislative elections by electronic vote in November 2014.Botswana is also quite reputable for its democracy. This country organizes regularly free and transparent elections, has good results in respect of good governance and fight against corruption even if we cannot ignore the coercive and repressive measures taken against the San minority, also called Bushmen. In North Africa, Tunisia tries to stand out from his neighbours. Tunisia adopted a progressive constitution and organized in 2014, free and transparent elections. Trade union or civil society activism such as the UGTT (Tunisian general union of work) and the Human rights league in Tunisia (LTDH) has without a doubt been an essential contribution in this democratic burst.

The political systems resistant to the long-term establishment of democratic principles

Alongside these countries that show notable democratic profiles, there are countries that counteract the good effects and are  still hostages to authoritarian systems or insufficiently democratic. In Africa, many regimes establish “cosmetic” or facade democracies. Many regimes claim that they become infatuated with democracy fundamentals such as multi-party system, free and transparent elections, Rule of law and basic law, even though the running of their countries reflects clearly an arbitrary power, autocratic or/and corrupt…the choice is yours. The Great Lakes region of Africa (Uganda, DRC, Rwanda and Burundi) and countries such as Eritrea, Gambia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Egypt, to name but a few, are among many that are far from having achieved the advisable or desired standards of a democracy. It is clear that the democratic situation of these countries is not utterly uniform. Some of these countries are led by tyrannical and last-ditch regimes, frontally resistant to populations’ democratic ambitions. Whereas in other countries, despite serious democratic gaps, some basic democratic principles are relatively, sometimes according to the desires of the regime, well promoted and applied.

African populations and especially the youth are very thirsty for democracy to freely express their potentials. They don’t want be stifled anymore by authoritarian obsolete drifts. Lately, we saw how Yahya Jammeh’s regime in Gambia attempted to carry out an illegitimate takeover in order to stay in power despite his defeat. This megalomania got fortunately what it deserved: a failure. The African Union as well as the sub regional organizations must assume an active role to stop the authoritarian momentums. It will be good when African democracy rises from the ashes and moves forward to progress!


[1] Somé, Constantin (2009, pp.31-32): “Pluralisme socio-ethnique et démocratie : cas du Bénin », a dissertation made to achieve a Master in political science at Quebec University in Montreal.


[2] RSF rank:

Translated by

Corinne Espartero


Are military coups and democracy always compatible in Africa?

Jean–Pierre Pabanel, in The Military Coups in sub-Saharan Africa, defines a military coup as “a conscious and deliberate act, by the army or a part of the army, to take hold of the state institutions and to rule the country. Unlike a military conflict and a revolution that both imply a great number of actors, a coup is plotted by fewer actors who decide to capture state power by force.
Yet, African public opinion expressed outrage and blamed the coup staged by presidential security regime (RSP), 17th September 2015, in Burkina Faso, in contrast with the sense of regret that came over the same opinion when the attempted coup against Pierre Nkurunziza regime failed in Burundi, this past May. 
From this contrast, it seems that the Africans prefer a certain sort of coups to other else. This hypothesis raises the issue of the compability between coups and democracy in Africa.
Since the first coup instigated in Egypt by Nasser in 1952, more than 80 coups have occurred in the cradle of mankind. The last one was plotted by Burkina RSP headed by Gilbert Diendéré, the previous chief of staff of ex-president Blaise Comparé. Plenty of coups sadly marked out postcolonial Africa History. But it is not an exceptional case, as the Westerners and the Asians have gone through such experiences.

Do we always have toblame the military coups?
According the fundamental principle of democratic regime, the answer is cleary yes: elections are the legal way of designation of political leaders. Democracy always blames the use of force as a mean of seizure of power.
However, one can also argue that the outcome, positive or negative, of the coups should be appreciated only in the long run, instead of blaming it systematically. The examples of Gambia or Gambia show that some seizure of power by force turned out to ensure stability. All in all, there is a fundamental difference between plotting a coup in order to establish a democratic regime (have a look to the legacy of the putschist Jerry Rawlings in Ghana), and between a coup in order to set up an authoritarian regime (see the bad gouvernance of the putschist Yahya Jammeh in Gambia). Besides, now a day, the Malians must not have the same opinion about Amadou Toumani Touré coup in 1991 against Moussa Traoré regime and the Guineans about Dadis Camara coup, in 2008, the day following President Lasana Conté death. The former view must be more positive than the latter one. 
Nevertheless, those binary oppositions are limited. First, they follow from an a posteriori argumentation: no one could have foreseen the exact outcomes of Ghana or Gambia coups. Just as well no one could have imagined that Dadis Camara, after being removed, thought to take power through ballot box, or that Amadou Toumani Touré will also be removed by a coup. 
History is unpredictable and uncertain. Blaming systematically every coup is a judgment which legitimacy is questionable. A coup must be examined after at least several years. 
Since the African Independences, coups has followed one another but without being similar. The Ivorian Researcher in History of International Relations Kouassi Yao, in his public lecture on “The coups in Africa: assessment and lessons to be learned”, distinguished 3 kinds of coups: the pro-democratic coup, the anti-democratic coup and the coup with subversive nature. “The first one aims at creating the conditions of the rise of democracy, the second one does not permit democracy to flourish, the third one comes out of bordering countries, multinationals or great powers”.  
Then, are coups and democracy always compatible in Africa? They are not necessarily! Does this answer imply that we praise coups in Africa? Absolutely not! However, we wanted to set off a critical refection on the link between coups and democracy in Africa and we did. 

Post scriptum : What is more dangerous for democracy in Africa between institutional coups and constitutional coups? In other words, who hurts more African people: the presidents for life or the putschists?

Translated by Mame Thiaba Diagne

Democracy and regular alternation of power in Africa

For regimes that are considered to be democratic (or those that try to become one), the leaders are replaced after free and fair elections, which means that there is no democracy without regular alternation of power.


In his article « Economic development and democracy» the American political analyst Seymour Martin Lipset defines democracy as « a political system, in a complex society, which gives the opportunities to legally change the governing officials and as a social mechanism which allows a large part of the population to influence the decisions through their ability to choose among alternative contenders for political office ». Important reminder: right after the Cold War, that ended by the triumph of liberal democracy over communism, African authoritarian regimes joined, in the early 1990s, what Samuel Huntington described as "the third wave of democratization".


The results of the last survey carried out in 2014 by the Afrobarometer Institut in 34 African countries, show that the majority of African people (71%) prefer democracy to any other political system. However, the global performances of Africa regarding alternation of the political power are quite poor. The Guinean case is a good example: if the president Alpha Condé hands over power to a new government after the presidential elections (scheduled on October 11th 2015), it will make Guinean history. And if he is reelected, some of his fellow citizens fear that he will imitate his predecessor Lansana Conté, who was not eligible for reelection as he had served two consecutive terms. So he modified the Constitution in 2002 to be allowed to serve a third presidential term. In 1984, Conté took power in a military coup the day after the death of the first Guinean president, Ahmed Sékou Touré, Conté kept power within his grasp until his death in 2008.


Another more recent example: the sociopolitical conditions under which Pierre Nkurunziza has been reelected in Burundi for a third term confirm that many African leaders are skilled manipulators and ready to do whatever it takes to cling to power, including bloody repressions of any public demonstrations organized by political opponents, scam elections, or changes of the constitution. Nkurunziza used these three processes at the same time.


Africa also offers some examples of role model Heads of State who were elected in the right way, and who actually left power after one or two mandates, as stated in most of constitutions.

Everything is not black and white. This paradox is amply enough to raise this fundamental question: how is it possible that some African countries successfully replace their leaders by way of regular and legal elections, whereas others do not achieve it?


Let’s be clear, this question is so complex that there are as many answers as African countries, because each country has their own endogenous and exogenous factors. Senegal is neither Central African Republic, nor Rwanda, even less Algeria, that gives an idea of this complexity.


However, South Africa and Ghana, among others, are not only showing to some countries like Ivory Coast that an alternation of power is possible without bloodshed, but they are also and especially proving to other countries, like Guinea, that presidency for life or military intervention are not established rites of passage to achieve a successful alternation of power.


In South Africa, Nelson Mandela chose to leave office after a unique term and gave his place to Thabo Mbeki in 1999. After two-year presidency, Mbeki let Jacob Zuma, the current president, take his place in 2009. In Ghana, Jerry Rawlings, elected in 1992 and 1996, chose to follow the Ghanaian constitution of 1993 which limits the number of President's terms to two. This is how his fellow countryman John Kufuor succeeded him, following the presidential election of 2000.


In fact, since 1990, we can notice that African countries, which regularly replace their President, had great political leaders who knew how to successfully maintain regular alternation of power. They had the will, wisdom, courage and patriotism to teach their fellow countrymen that alternation of power is the fuel of democracy.


In the African political game, the probability of a successful alternation of power increases under one of the two following conditions: a real political will of the outgoing president to organize elections considered as legitimate by all, including the opposition. That is how, in Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan yielded power to the current president. The second condition is : a unique candidacy from all the political opponents who seriously pursue alternation of power. Isn’t it that way that the current Senegalese president Macky Sall came to power in 2012? As the saying goes and always comes true : Unity makes Strength.


In conclusion, by addressing the African Union last July, Barack Obama rightfully reminded us that, "if a leader thinks that he is the only person who can hold his nation together, he has failed to truly build his nation. Nelson Mandela and George Washington forged a lasting legacy, because they were willing to leave office and transfer power peacefully".

Translated by Anne-Sophie Cadet