What's democracy? In new study, unexpected answers from Nigeria, Burundi, Tanzania — things are not always what they seem

In a new study, on average, just over half polled in 28 African countries consider their country a “full democracy” or one with “minor problems”.

TANZANIA’S election is only 40 days away, and it’s being billed as the country’s closest yet, pitting John Magufuli of the ruling CCM party against Edward Lowassa of the opposition coalition UKAWA.

Lowassa is a former prime minister and long-term member of CCM, defecting to the opposition only a few months ago when he failed to clinch the ruling party’s presidential ticket, in the process triggering angry recriminations from opposition stalwarts who had expected a fair fight, only to see the top ticket handed to a queue-jumper.

Magufuli on the other hand has been described as an “accidental candidate”, not having been seen as a front-runner until he was named as the ruling party’s flag bearer.

Terribly exciting

The intrigue and drama makes for terribly exciting news, if only for the reason that Tanzania is seen as a bastion of stability (some would say, “boring” politics) in the region, where CCM has dominated the country’s politics since independence in 1961.

Still, a new report released Tuesday reveals that even a country with a good reputation like Tanzania can have a conflicted relationship with democracy. The paper from Afrobarometer, published on the International Day of Democracy, examines how Africans perceive the quality of their democracies.

On average, just over half of the respondents (52%) consider their country a “full democracy” or “a democracy with minor problems”, and 37% say that their country is not a democracy, or is one with major problems. It is a good showing, for a continent stereotypically associated with dictators and despots.

Mauritius (76%), Botswana (75%) and Namibia (72%) have the highest numbers if those who consider their countries to be full democracies, or as ones with minor problems.

Surprisingly, Burundi is in fourth place at 71%, though the survey was conducted last year, before Pierre Nkurunziza’s reinterpretation of the constitution gave him a third term which opponents say is illegal.

But with such a high positive rating last year, it’s probably not a surprise that Burundians protested so vehemently – protests killed at least 70 people since April. The sense of outrage, betrayal and disappointment is understandable, because Burundians believed they were coming into a good place.

The lowest ratings are in Swaziland; just 33% say they think Swaziland is a full democracy or one with minor problems. It is still a very high response rate for a country that is an absolute monarchy.

Respondents from Nigeria also gave a poor rating to the quality of democracy, 33% said it was a full democracy or one with minor problems, and 63% said Nigeria is not a democracy or is one with major problems.

Again, this data was collected just before the country’s election in February 2015, when Muhammadu Buhari trounced incumbent Goodluck Jonathan at the ballot, the first time the opposition had unseated the ruling party.

Not an exaggeration

The data confirms, then, that it is not an exaggeration to say that Nigeria pulled off a feat that hardly anyone thought it could with the peaceful handover of power; subsequent polls show that Nigerians are some of the most optimistic Africans when asked if they think their lives will be better in the future.

But when asked about the quality of democracy, there is a group of countries that had a surprisingly high response rate of “I don’t understand the question/ I don’t know what a democracy is.”

The three highest responses in this category were Sierra Leone (36%); Tanzania (27%), and Uganda at 24%.

Sierra Leone’s response rate is curious because it has been praised for rebuilding political institutions after the decade-long civil war from 1991 to 2002. The country has held three successful elections since then, and in March 2014, the closure of the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office marked the end of more than 15 years of peacekeeping and political operations in the country.

So such a high “I don’t know” response, coupled with the steep decline in satisfaction of the country’s democracy, is worth investigating – particularly considering the country’s history with conflict.

Unbroken grip

In Tanzania’s case, it could be related to the fact that the ruling party CCM has had an unbroken grip on power for 54 years, even though four multiparty elections have been contested in the past 20 years.

One could argue, then, that the country’s reputation as a stable democracy could be more of outsiders looking in, than one of the citizens themselves.

It’s the same case in Uganda, where Yoweri Museveni has been in power for 29 years. In fact, because of Uganda’s high population growth rate, 79% of the country’s population  was born under a Museveni presidency.

It implies that with  “democracy” not really being a concrete thing in these countries, leaders can shape it in any way they please, and still call it victory.

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