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21st Century Progress in Africa: Democracy

November 23, 2011

In 2011, we have seen parts of North Africa throw off dictatorships under the spotlight of the global media. But over the last two decades, many more sub-Saharan African countries have travelled the long bumpy road towards imperfect, multi-party democracy.

Why is this change happening, and what role does aid play in these changes?

As the Commission for Africa set out in its 2005 Report, Our Common Interest, tackling poverty means addressing issues of governance and democracy. These issues were on my mind last week, when I attended the Fifth Annual Ibrahim Forum in Africa.

The Ibrahim Prize is awarded to a democratically elected former African Executive Head of State or Government who has served their term in office within the limits set by the country's constitution, has left office in the last three years, and has demonstrated excellence in office (find out more about the full criteria for the prize as well as the past prize laureates). It sent a great signal by holding its 2011 prize-giving ceremony in Tunisia, where this year’s North African revolutions began. But the changes we’ve seen in sub-Saharan Africa didn’t start this year. A quiet democratic revolution has also been taking place over the last two decades.

A Quiet Revolution

One imperfect way of measuring good governance and democracy is through elections. Let me acknowledge its limitations up front. Paul Collier’s Wars, Guns & Votes, is a great analysis of how elections are not enough to guarantee democracy, let alone good governance. Elections can indeed be used as a sham, to create an illusion of legitimacy for undemocratic regimes.

In an Economist article titled Democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, they assessed that, of the 17 elections due to take place in 2011, “most of them have so far passed off smoothly; a good half were credible.” Obviously, then, it is better to count the credible elections than the total number of elections. The Economist goes a step further in this article and counts the number of elections that led to a peaceful change of parliamentary majority or president. That’s a very strong sign of democracy.

As this table shows, during the Cold War, there were no democratic transitions of power on mainland Africa as a result of elections. (The exception in the 1980s was Mauritius, where power changed hands twice.) Presidents who didn’t die in office clung to power or handed it over to a successor from their own party. Africa naturally gained a reputation for dictatorships.

But, since 1991, the Economist shows that power has changed hands because of the voters at least once (more often twice) in a third of all sub-Saharan African countries. A quiet democratic revolution is indeed taking place.

Drivers of Change

It’s far from clear what is driving this progress. I certainly believe that, as in the Arab Spring, the change is mainly coming from citizens themselves. Maybe they have just lost patience with corrupt dictators. I’m sure a gradually growing middle class is important. As we have seen in the Arab Spring, the wider availability of information about what corrupt leaders are–and are not–doing, and awareness of what is happening in neighbouring countries, looks like a growing factor.

Have external factors made any difference? It can’t be a coincidence that this quiet revolution began at the end of the Cold War–when West and East stopped propping up “friendly” dictators.

I have not seen any convincing evidence that the strings attached to modern aid have been a big incentive. But, speaking of incentives, maybe Mo Ibrahim would disagree with me. The Ibrahim Prize certainly feels like it has the potential to encourage leaders to accept the verdict of their electorate.

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