Democracy in Africa: Demand, Supply and the 'Dissatisfied Democrat'

Robert Mattes

21 Feb 2019

30pages PDF

The increasing threat to democracy from populist movements and authoritarian leaders occupies a prominent place in current political debate. Yet political scientists who study this question reach contrasting conclusions, often because they use different measures and standards of democracy. Some say the world is in a democratic recession, with countries experiencing recent declines in the quality of democracy outnumbering those where it has improved. In Africa, Freedom House has tracked a significant retreat in political rights, civil liberties, and the overall quality of democracy. The biggest shifts have occurred among countries previously rated as “partly free,” many of which have retreated to “not free” status. Analysts have observed that this is often the result of hybrid regimes using counter-terrorism legislation to shrink democratic spaces or of governments responding to increased electoral competition by restricting opposition parties and critical civil society organizations. African public opinion seems to embody this sense of divergence. While Yasha Mounk has claimed to find a systematic decline in citizens’ attachment to democracy across most of the established democracies in North America and Western Europe, Africans’ responses to questions posed by Afrobarometer over the past decade present a more varied and complex picture. At the most general level, the picture seems relatively clear and simple: The typical African is strongly committed to democracy and opposed to authoritarian rule, and has remained so for more than a decade. However, this image of solid democratic commitment changes radically if we narrow our focus to only those people who consistently express pro-democratic preferences across several different survey questions – those whom Afrobarometer describes as “demanding democracy”. Under these more demanding criteria, fewer than half of all Africans qualify as committed democrats. And levels of commitment vary sharply depending on a person’s demographic category and level of political engagement.