Africa's democracy stars - Ghana, Botswana, Cape Verde - in real danger of backsliding; lessons from Kenya, Zimbabwe

The pressure is building; while things may look rosy on the outside, but the reality may be very different when you look within

GHANA, Cape Verde, Botswana and, to a lesser extent, Benin, are considered some of Africa’s democracy star performers – the former three are ranked in the top ten of the latest Ibrahim Index of African Governance, and Benin doesn’t do too badly in 18th place.

In last year’s Freedom in the World report published by Freedom House, the four are among just 10 countries in Africa that are considered “Free”; the majority of African countries are either “Partly Free” or “Not Free”.

And in the 2014 Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Bostwana is second place in Africa in the quality of its democracy after Mauritius, Cape Verde is 4th and Ghana 7th; Benin also manages a strong showing in 14th place.

But although things may look rosy on the outside, and to the external analysts and researchers who assemble these rankings, the reality may be very different when you look within – and suggests that democracy is in real peril in those countries.

new working paper by Afrobarometer draws on recent, and historic, survey data from over 30 African countries, to identify rising stress levels within a particular regime – the shiny external edifice notwithstanding.

The paper connects empirical trends of citizen support for the political system to known periods of instability in Mali (a coup and political crisis in 2012), Kenya (election violence in 2008) and Zimbabwe (election violence in 2008), and uses the same trends to raise the red flag for countries like Ghana, Cape Verde, Botswana and Benin, suggesting increasing political instability that will require some form of resolution soon, or else risk democratic backsliding or even failure.

Distinct structures

It distinguishes three distinct structures that make up a country’s political system – the government, which is a group of political leaders in power at a given time; the regime, which is the “rules of the political game” for choosing leaders and exercising power, falling on a continuum from democracy through hybrid arrangements to autocracy; and the state, an established set of coercive and extractive institutions such as courts, armed forces, and tax agencies.

Government is the most transient; groups of political leaders can come and go as a result of elections or other arrangements.

Regimes are somewhat more durable; while they may sometimes change, democracies and autocracies routinely survive the circulation of leaders.

The most permanent edifice is the state, which almost always persists through time regardless of regular changes of government and even despite occasional regime transitions.

In a healthy democracy, you expect a rise and fall in support for a particular government, which is expressed at the ballot box. But it’s a cause for concern if people begin to lose support for the regime – such as when there starts to be a growing nostalgia or sympathy for forms of authoritarian rule, such as a “benevolent dictator”, one- party rule, or military rule. 

President Ian Khama of Botswana. He’s been accused of having an authoritarian streak.

The most serious risk to a political system is when state institutions begin to break down and citizens begin to disregard the commands of state officials or even transfer their loyalties to political groups with a rival claim to authority. At that point, civil war and outright state failure becomes a very real possibility.

Increasing political risk

The Afrobarometer paper tracks how dissatisfaction trends unfold in Africa, and where popular disapproval turns sharply upward, the researchers infer increasing political risk, particularly if disapproval of the incumbent government “spills over” into disapproval of the regime itself or state institutions.

In Mali, there is evidence of precisely such early warnings. Malians began to express unhappiness with the incumbent government of Amadou Toumani Touré (president from 2002 to 2012) well before the coup and political crisis of 2012. Disapproval of the job performance of elected leaders jumped upward between 2002 and 2008.

More significantly, popular dissatisfaction with “the way democracy works” grew more sharply, rising 14 percentage points over this period. By December 2012 almost two out of three Malians were dissatisfied with democracy, and almost half of all citizens also thought that “all” or “most” government officials were “involved in corruption”.

The risk to the state also spiked, almost doubling between 2002 and 2008 (from 10% to 19%), though from a low base, there was a growing feeling that the instruments of the state were unable to respond to challenges from the political environment.

It’s not a surprise, then, that in January 2012, ethnic separatists proclaimed a breakaway state of Azawad, a rebellion soon hijacked by religious extremists pursuing jihad from bases deep in the Sahara desert. The loss of central state control over Mali’s vast northern territories triggered a military mutiny in March 2012 that turned into a coup when Touré promptly fled the country.

Soldiers of the French Foreign Legion serve in Mali, as part of Operation Serval. Mali has been stabilised by external intervention by France and the UN. (Photo/Flickr).

In the end, Mali’s then-vaunted democratic regime simply crumbled, and the Malian state itself partly collapsed, and was only tentatively restored by a joint French-UN operation and elections in 2013.

The Kenya case

The same unfolded in Kenya, where people initially expressed heady optimism about the entry into office of a united opposition led by Mwai Kibaki via the landmark 2002 elections – in August 2003, a remarkable 92% approved of Kibaki’s performance as president, just 7% disapproved.

But the ruling coalition quickly fell apart, and the government was dogged by allegations of grand corruption. By September 2005, after revelations that corruption had cost $1 billion, and a controversial constitutional referendum that the government lost, Kibaki’s disapproval rating had spiked to 33%.

The risk to the regime was also building: whereas in 2003, just 17% of Kenyans worried about the nature and extent of their country’s democracy, almost half (49%) did so by 2008.

Fortunately, Kenya has shown a resilience of the legitimacy of the state institutions despite lurching from political crisis to political crisis – over more than a decade, an average of four out of five Kenyan citizens have affirmed that they would comply with directives from the courts, the police, and tax authorities.

This public vote of confidence in state institutions is a major resource for Kenya as the country faces growing external (and possibly internal) threats from violent extremists.

Zimbabwe - failed or not?

In Zimbabwe, between 1999 and 2009, clear majorities of Zimbabwean citizens (ranging between 58% and 68%) disapproved of the performance of incumbent leaders, especially of President Robert Mugabe. Of all the trends noted in the paper, no other period in any country matches the decade-long record of public dissatisfaction with the sitting government in Zimbabwe.

It suggests that until 2009, ZANU-PF rulers were exposed to considerable political risk, which led them to believe that desperate measures were required to maintain their supremacy.

But the curious thing is that Zimbabwe’s state institutions are very strong, even more so than in Kenya – there is “strong residual capacity”, the reserachers say, to deploy a security apparatus, to confiscate property, and to control elections throughout the country’s territory.

It throws into question the conventional portrayals of Zimbabwe as one of the world’s most fragile – if not failed – states.

Ghana is showing some of the same deteriorations. President John Kufuor enjoyed popular approval of his job performance; on average, only about one in five Ghanaians disapproved of the president’s job performance between 2002 and 2008. 

By contrast, nearly two in five Ghanaians (38%) expressed a negative assessment of John Atta Mills’ job performance in 2012. Under John Mahama (2014), a solid majority (60%) of Ghanaians did so—the most rapid recent rise in disapproval of the president all countries surveyed.

Floods have hammered Accra this week, a deadly petrol station fire has killed nearly 200.

The proportion of the population who think they are not getting enough democracy in Ghana has steadily increased, from 12% in 2008 to 20% in 2012, then nearly doubling to 38% in 2014. And the scale of risk to the regime also nearly doubled in 2012, to 23%, and rose further to 37% in 2014.

Swelling budget deficits, frequent electricity blackouts, and slowing economic growth have fuelled public resentment, and Mahama is likely encounter difficulty in its bid for re-election in Ghana’s 2016 polls. 

More importantly, public disillusionment with the government of the day also raises the spectre of broader possible risks for Ghana’s regime of democracy and the legitimacy of its state.

Island and Botswana troubles

In Cape Verde, in 2014 for the first time more than half (50.3%) of the people in this island nation called democracy into question. Intriguingly, many more people say they are dissatisfied with the way democracy works (65%) than think they do not live in a democracy (35%).

This contradictory result can perhaps be interpreted in light of the three-quarters of Cape Verdeans who have come to believe that their leaders serve their own ambitions rather than the public interest, the researchers say.

In Botswana, long-advertised as a poster child for democracy in Africa, the regime is beginning to show signs of stress. The risk to democracy doubled (from 12% to 24%) in a context where official crackdowns on opposition parties and the mass media have left citizens beginning to feel that they are losing the “freedom to say what you think”.

And in Benin, between 2008 and 2014, risk to the political regime in Benin rose 23 percentage points (doubling from 23% to 46%). This upward leap is as sharp and substantial as the increase in the same index in Mali (2008-2012) and Ghana (2008-2014).

It can be read against a background of growing public concern about official corruption; in 2014, three-quarters of Beninois said that the level of corruption had risen in their country.

But the researchers caution that disaffection with an incumbent government alone is not an automatic signal of impending political instability. Much depends on the type of political regime; a strong state is able to withstand the consequences of a sustained rise in governmental unpopularity.

For example, both Mali and Kenya were able to achieve peaceful electoral turnovers of government in 2002, thus releasing built-up political tensions.

Still, the jury is out on whether public opinion is really an independent “leading indicator” of future political developments, simply a reflexive response to the public-relations messages of skilled political operators.


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