Africa loves 'democracy', but also likes its military dictators, one-party rule, and Big Men - study

Although most Africans say they support democracy, more than half also support some form of authoritarian rule

THIS week, three seemingly unrelated events unfolded in southern Africa. The common thread linking them is the democratic gains that the continent has made over the past few decades, but they also gave us some insights into how fraught the concept of democracy really is on the continent.

In Madagascar, former president Marc Ravalomanana returned to his home country after five years in exile, and was  immediately placed under house arrest, a move seemingly designed to buy time as the government decides what to do with him.

Ravalomanana had been sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment with hard labour for the shooting of 30 opposition protesters by his presidential guard in 2009, but it’s unclear whether the sentence will be carried out.

It appears that the former president may actually be asked to participate in the country’s national reconciliation efforts.

“We are not a country that exiles or deports its own citizens. That’s not at all our mentality. He is here and we hope that Mr Ravalomanana will actually participate in this [reconciliation] process,” Henry Rabary-Njaka, chief of staff of Madagascar’s presidency is  quoted to have said.

A bad but good election

In Mozambique, leader of the opposition party Renamo Afonso Dhlakama says he will  not return to war with the government, but insists that the recently concluded elections were marred by widespread irregularities including ballot stuffing.

Dhlakama, now a five-time election loser, said he would resort to legal means to challenge the results, but vowed that there would be “no more war in Mozambique”.

However, observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) endorsed the elections as acceptable, with SADC saying they “generally peaceful, transparent, free, fair and credible”.

And in Lesotho, King Letsie III  re-opened parliament Friday amid tight security, the first step in a peace deal aimed at ending a crisis sparked by an attempted military coup.

Opposition parliamentarians celebrated with song and dance on the floor of the legislature, as the chamber sat for the first time for four months.

These three scenarios could have played out very differently in a different time and era in Africa, pointing to the political changes - mostly for the better - that the continent has undergone over the past two decades.

So on the surface, it seems that Africans are committed to democracy. But are they?

Conflicted about democracy

recent survey by Afrobarometer in 33 African countries shows that most Africans do support democracy – but it also revealed some ambivalence and conflicted attitudes as to whether democracy is the only form of government that they would ever wish to have.

The researchers asked respondents whether democracy is the form of government they want, but to test their “true commitment”, they also asked respondents whether they reject all forms of autocratic rule – one-party rule, military rule and one-man rule.

Almost all those interviewed (93%) reject at least one form of autocracy; whether one-party, military, or one-man rule. But fewer people reject two forms (81%) and far fewer reject all three forms (58%). Most importantly, less than half of all Africans interviewed (46%) consistently identify democracy as the only form of government they would ever wish to have.

Although the demand for democracy has increased 15 percentage points since 2002, a deeply rooted demand for democracy - meaning rejecting all forms of autocratic government - remains a minority public sentiment.

Demand is relatively high in Zambia, Mauritius and Ghana, with two-thirds or demonstrating solid commitment to democratic rule, but less than one in five express similar commitments in Egypt (17%), Algeria (18%) and Madagascar (20%).

So it seems that although Africans generally want democracy, more than half still hold some nostalgia or sentimentalism for autocratic rule of one form or another.

Don’t know what they want

The survey also sought to find out if people think they are getting democracy – they asked respondents if they think they live in a democracy, and whether they are satisfied with the way democracy works in their country.

The results show a deep dissatisfaction with the kind of democracy being supplied in Africa. Fewer than half (43%) of respondents said they consider their country a democracy and are satisfied with how democracy is working in their countries.

But tracing the different responses in the questions reveals some interesting insights in how Africans understand the very concept of democracy. 

In Tanzania’s case, although Tanzanians are apparently the most satisfied in Africa in how democracy works in their country (75% say they are satisfied), followed by Ghanaians (74%), they are below average in rejecting of one party rule – suggesting that they have a much less stringent standard for what “democracy” actually is.

North African surprise

But the places people want democracy most isn’t where you expect. North Africa is one place where, in the wake of the Arab Spring, you would expect high demand for democracy, but the numbers show that it now has the lowest demand in the continent: Tunisia is at 27%, Algeria at 18% and Egypt lowest of all the countries surveyed at 16%. Only in Morocco – which is a constitutional monarchy and was largely isolated from the paroxysms of the Arab Spring – is demand for democracy at 40%.

It could be that since 2011, the energy for popular movements has dissipated, but there could be something else there – that what was being demanded in the first place was not really democracy in the Western liberal understanding of it. 

Egypt is the classic case where a return to military rule last year was welcomed by the same masses pushing for the removal of Hosni Mubarak just two years prior. So what were the masses agitating for in Tahrir Square in 2011?

It was about bread

It’s been lost in the narrative as time has passed, but the initial demand of the masses in North Africa was stark, simple and straightforward – the price of bread was too high.

In 2010, a few months before Mubarak’s ousting, Muhammad al-Mahdi, professor of psychology at al-Azhar University is  quoted to have dismissed the possibility of revolution in Egypt: “There could be a poor people’s revolt if the state fails to provide food. But we must bear in mind that Egyptians rarely explode, and then only in specific cases; among them threats to their daily bread or national dignity.”

A few months later, that’s exactly what happened. Food was the  principal factor in driving the initial unrest in Cairo and Alexandria in early 2011. Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of wheat, and the year before, a drought in Russia – Egypt’s main supplier of wheat –  had killed 40% of the wheat harvest. 

North African governments largely subsidise the price of wheat, but even that wasn’t enough to keep the prices down. The Food Price Index had been  rising since the beginning of 2009, and by the time it peaked in February 2011, the index had registered a 68.3% increase. The Cereals Price Index rose an even sharper 75.5% in a shorter period of time, from a low in June 2010 to a high in April 2011.

With time, the demands evolved into more explicitly political grievances, but it’s remarkable that when the Afrobarometer survey was carried out early this year, the majority of Egyptians (56%) said that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, yet more than half (51%) “strongly approve” or “approve” military rule. 

In other words, the Egyptian understanding of democracy clearly includes military rule, so it’s doubtful that the Western, liberal understanding of democracy was central to the demands of the protestors of Tahrir Square.

Three types of African countries

When the demand for democracy is subtracted from its supply, three types of African countries emerge:

There are the countries with a deficit of democracy, where demand for democracy exceeds its supply. Sixteen of 34 countries are in deficit.

Cote d’Ivoire, which has yet to hold national elections in the wake of a civil war, represents the country with the largest gap between supply of democracy (22%) and demand for democracy (64%), a 42 percentage point difference.

Other countries with large negative gaps between high demand and low supply include Nigeria (a deficit of 29 points), Zimbabwe (27 points), Togo (23 points), Uganda (21 points) and Cameroon (20 points). The researchers say that ruling elites in countries with a democratic deficit can expect to encounter sustained popular pressures for further democratisation.

Then there are countries where the supply of democracy exceeds its demand, or where there is a surplus of authority. In these places, mass demands are relatively limited and people say they are satisfied with (whatever elites choose to call) “democracy.” 

Based on the attitudes of their citizens, the countries where demand is greatly surpassed by an excessive supply of elite control are Algeria (29 points), Niger (28 points), Namibia (17 points) and Tanzania (14 points). Because elites in these countries enjoy a great deal of room for policy maneuver, any political change is likely to originate from authorities.

Finally, there are countries with consolidated regimes. The final seven countries reside on the equilibrium line where demand exists in balance with supply. The cases range from Ghana and Senegal – whose regimes are consolidating at relatively high levels of democracy – to Madagascar and Sudan, which are hardening as autocracies. 

Hybrid African regimes

Other hybrid regimes – in countries like Benin – appear to be consolidating at middling levels between democracy and authoritarianism. In the absence of excess pressures from either side, the political development of all these regimes seems destined to settle in its present form.

Where do the three countries we mentioned earlier, Madagascar, Lesotho and Mozambique fall in the democracy supply-demand gap? Don’t pop the champagne yet – in Lesotho and Mozambique, the supply exceeds the demand: so even though it seems the countries are making big strides, it’s coming from the top, with the political elite in control, giving “more democracy” than is demanded by the citizens.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the high level of elite control implies that if they ever decide to narrow the space, there isn’t much pressure that the citizens can exert in that case to prevent them from doing so. So there isn’t really any citizen accountability; it’s only luck that the elite is “behaving”, at least for now.

Madagascar’s case is at an equilibrium, but there is such a low demand and supply for democracy (20% demand, and 19% supply) that the regime is consolidating as an autocracy – so even the ostensibly accommodating gestures towards the former president must be interpreted within the context of a regime whose authoritarian nature is actually not opposed by the public. In other words, the house arrest of Ravalomanana could go very “undemocratically” – and there will be very muted public pressure against it.

Why the differences

So what makes one country’s citizens demand democracy, while others are happy to let the authorities decide things for them?

Most of the countries that have an “oversupply” of democracy have a history of socialist rule or a form of a welfare state – Algeria, Tanzania, Mozambique fall here.

And two groups of countries emerge that have a high outright demand for democracy – defined by both expressing support for democracy and rejecting all forms of authoritarian rule.

The first group, as expected, is those countries that have had a positive experience with democracy, peaceful handovers of power, credible elections and good governance- such as Mauritius, Botswana and Ghana.

But the other group is on the opposite extreme, countries that have had a history of dictatorship or civil war, where people see the tangible benefits of democracy that brings peace and a rise in prosperity – such as Uganda, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

For countries which fall in the middle, neither having a long solid history of democracy, nor of terrible civil war or conflict, attitudes are much more ambivalent, perhaps because they’ve never experienced the worst of military or big-man rule to really have an aversion for it, nor have they experienced the best of democracy and the prosperity that it should bring, to be fiercely attached to it either.

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