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Introduction: The Struggle for Democracy in Africa: Elections, Coups and Popular Opinion

Marc Lynch, Hisham Aidi and Zachariah Mampilly

Democracy is under challenge globally, with declining commitment to the peaceful transition of power on display from Washington to Mali. Democratic retrenchment is particularly acute across the African continent. In contrast to the Middle East, where few democracies existed in the first place, Africa’s struggles have manifested within consolidated democracies. Since 2020, there have been four successful and several failed coup attempts in West Africa, putting the stability of these democracies into considerable doubt. Insurgencies rage across multiple countries spanning the continent, spreading violence, insecurity and fear. Already fragile economies have suffered crushing blows from the COVID-19 pandemic, and by the disruption of food supplies and soaring energy prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Can African democracy survive these challenges?


In June 2022, the Program on African Social Research (PASIRI) convened a workshop in Accra, Ghana with the support of Afrobarometer. Nearly twenty young scholars from sixteen different African countries participated in the discussions, allowing for direct and broad comparative analysis of individual countries and regional trends. Many of the papers drew on Afrobarometer data for finegrained analysis of trends in popular attitudes and for testing hypotheses about the effects of variables such as economic crisis, Presidential popularity, or exposure to violence. We are proud to now publish those papers as the second issue of African Social Research.


Among the most immediate and urgent challenges to democracy across the African continent is the resurgence of military coups. The rash of military interventions to overturn the democratic process, and the popular acceptance of at least some of those coups, represents one of the most potent threats to democracy. This does not necessarily imply a collapse in popular support for democracy as a form of government. As Sulley Ibrahim points out in his contribution, Afrobarometer data from countries which experienced military coups typically continue to show high support for democracy: 62% and 75% of Burkinabe and Malians respectively reject military rule, while 57% of Guineans are satisfied with democracy as a form of government.


Ibrahim looks closely at the wave of military coups sweeping West Africa and offers a novel explanation which does not rely on popular dissatisfaction with democracy. In his analysis, the coups have more to do with patterns of civil-military relations and the internal dynamics of military systems. He finds a close link between mutinies and coups, suggesting that the real impetus lies within the dissatisfaction of sections of the officer corps. He argues that the key to pushing back against military coups is to separate the military from politics, which means that civilian elites need to avoid polarizing initiatives which spur unrest and a sense of injustice among the military.


Looking particularly at Mali, Mahamadou Bassirou Tangara and Moumouni Diallo find evidence for the importance of economic performance in driving popular support for military takeovers. They note, like other essays, the continuing popular support for democracy, with over 60% of Malians expressing support in Afrobarometer surveys. But that rate did change over time, falling almost thirteen points from its 2014-15 peak of almost 75% by the 2019-20 eve of the coup. Throughout the democratic experience, electoral turnout has consistently been low (never breaking 50% in Presidential elections), and many Malians welcomed the series of military coups. They account for the paradox of general support for democracy with the popular welcome for coups by identifying discontent with democracy primarily among the poor – those who were not well served materially the democratic regime and who did not feel represented in its functioning. Their analysis shows clearly that “the class of the population that complains about their living conditions (feeling disappointed) registers the highest score of dissatisfaction with democracy. In contrast, those who find their living conditions acceptable are satisfied with democracy.” Tangara and Diallo reframe democracy from a set of institutions to a process of democratization in which the credibility of the electoral process, economic performance and accountability all determine its legitimacy. In his study of the full Afrobarometer round 8 dataset, Louis Tomavo similarly finds that the poor are more likely to believe that a nondemocratic government might improve their economic conditions, but that overall satisfaction with Presidential performance is correlated with support for democracy more broadly.


Yousra Hamdaoui moves beyond Mali to trace the arc of jihadist insurgency across the Sahel and its effects on regional support for democratic governance. In contrast to Isbell and Tangara and Diallo, Hamdaoudi focuses not on popular attitudes but on the effects of international involvement on democratic practice. The securitization and militarization of politics, she argues, pushes politics away from the norms of democratic routine and creates the conditions under which militaries can seize the initiative. The negative effects on democracy are not only exclusively caused by the jihadist insurgents then, but also by the militarized responses encouraged by France and others in the international community.


Thomas Isbell offers an alternative explanation for the rising acceptance of military coups: pervasive insecurity associated with endemic insurgencies and violence which increases acceptance of a militaryled government. It is often assumed that exposure to violence can both reduce support for democracy and increase support for non-democratic forms of government. Isbell’s examination of Afrobarometer data in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, along with ACLED geospatially located conflict data, surprisingly shows that citizens living in less violent areas tend to have more trust in the military and are thus more likely to accept a military coup.

Citizens experiencing violent effects, on the other hand, seem to demonstrate a “rally around the flag” effect and show greater support for the government and the military. Isbell adapts Afrobarometer’s measure of “demand for democracy” to separate out surface level normative preference for democracy with active commitment to democracy. While the index shows broad demand for democracy, it also reveals greater acceptance (support for?) of military rule than of one-party rule. In other words, violent insurgencies may not be undermining support for democracy, broadly construed, but they do increase demand for military regimes.


Moving beyond the Sahel, Matthew Benson looks to South Sudan to observe the nexus between taxation, coercion and civicness. Despite its vast oil reserves and economic potential, Benson argues that “South Sudan’s conflicts suggest that war made rebels and those rebels turned the state into a vehicle for self-enrichment.” Taxation, rather than forging links of representation and accountability, evolved from the British colonial state as a system of marginalization and domination which eroded rather than built the legitimacy of the state. His historical analysis helps to explain the distancing of many South Sudanese citizens from the state, regardless of elections or democratic forms, as well as the connection between ongoing insurgency and coercive extraction.


Malawi offers a contrast to this broad democratic gloom. As Hangala Siachiwena shows in his contribution, the alternation of power between parties helps to increase accountability and responsiveness to citizen concerns. Remarkably, Malawi was the only African country besides the Seychelles to see an alternation in power through elections since 2020. Broad cross-ethnic and crossregional coalitions made this peaceful alternation of power possible, in contrast to the winner-takeall stakes which have marred so many African elections. Siachiwena’s close look at Afrobarometer data reveals subtle distinctions in how Malawian citizens evaluate governments and the democratic system more broadly, but show no greater support for democracy than in other African countries less fortunate in their electoral outcomes. The requirement of 50% plus 1 for victory required these coalitions, in an institutional design which other African countries might emulate.


Several essays in the collection focus on one critically important case: the repeated rounds of electoral violence in Kenya, ostensibly one of the most consolidated democracies on the continent since its transition from one party rule in 1992. Beginning in 2007, each election was marred by significant violence which had enduring impact. Such violence is not uncommon in African elections, by one metric afflicting almost half of all elections across the continent. Research has shown that such specifically electoral violence (in contrast to the insurgent violence discussed by Isbell in this collection) has significant negative effects on citizens’ support for democracy and political trust. In his essay, Martin Fikiri Oswald argues that fear of electoral violence is likely to diminish participation in elections, which in turn undermines the legitimacy of those elections and their ability to produce political figures responsive to popular needs and demands. Using Afrobarometer data, he shows that a full twothirds of Kenyans reported feeling fear of election day violence ahead of the 2012 elections. Sylvia Muriuki, in her essay for the collection, shows that this violence also undermines trust in the independent electoral authority.


Perhaps the deepest effects of electoral violence are women who suffer gender-based violence. In her essay, Terry Jeff Odhiambo shows how pervasive such sexual violence has been during Kenya’s electoral cycles and how little accountability there has been. Only in December 2020 did four victims of sexual violence in the 2007-8 electoral cycle win their lawsuit against the government for its failure to investigate alleged abuses by state agents. Odhiambo argues convincingly that the repeated sexual violence and the absence of access to meaningful justice has had serious consequences for Kenyan women and undermines the foundations of Kenyan democracy. While no major incidents of sexual or gender-based violence were recorded in the 2022 elections, fear of such abuses still arguably affected the willingness of women to fully participate in the electoral process.


For all the challenges to democracy, many of the authors find reasons for hope. Gloria Na’antoe Longba’am-Alli focuses on nonviolent protest movements challenging military rule, showing how civil resistance is best suited to confronting military regimes. She details the emergence in 2020 of the anti-SARS protest movement demanding human rights and an end to abuses by security forces. But those protests ultimately dissipated. Sudan is a stronger case of momentum in the opposite direction, with a democratic spirit manifest in sustained nonviolent challenge to military rule which overthrew Omar al Bashir in 2019, and continues to confront the military regime which hijacked the transition in October 2021. Longba’am-Alli highlights the importance of historical memory and recent experience in shaping protest strategies and building movement resilience. Activists hearken back to protests in 1964 and 1985 for historical precedent, and more immediately learned critical lessons from abortive uprisings and fierce repression in 2013. Their activism is rooted in widely held public support for democracy. There is still strong support for these democratic trends. Anne Okello, in her essay for the collection, draws on Afrobarometer data to show that a full 80% of Sudanese favor regular democratic elections and 71% reject strongman rule.


Bamba Ndiaye’s essay in the collection traces the energy and enthusiasm of protestors across Francophone West Africa as they draw on a wide range of cultural production and social media. Ndiaye shows how political challengers creatively used platforms such as Facebook Live to attract sizable audiences.The interaction between digital media and traditional media helps support a robust Senegalese public sphere, keeping citizens engaged in critical discourses, but may have limitations in terms of reaching mass audiences which are less present on social media platforms. As in other regions of the world, Ndiaye also tracks the increasingly sophisticated tools of repression targeting such challengers, including cybermonitoring and targeted arrests and harassment. The back and forth dynamics of digital activism and digital authoritarianism form a critical backdrop to the struggle between democracy and autocracy. Pauline Mateveke uses social media as well, with a critical analysis of tweets revealing profound discontent with the failure of the state to meet citizen expectations generating profound doubt about whether Zimbabwe is really democratic. Her use of social media expressions to explore the deeper levels of beliefs about democracy offers an effective complement to the Afrobarometer survey data used throughout the collection.


The COVID-19 pandemic has put unprecedented pressures on these regimes. As Damilola Agbalojobi argues, the pandemic both revealed the weakness of the state and facilitated an expansion of its power over society in Nigeria and across Africa. Despite widespread poverty and the effects of a draconian lockdown, 93% of the respondents to a phone survey in Lagos State said that they had received no support from the government. The failure of the Nigerian state to provide support for citizens undermines their confidence in the state and likely contributes to the decline in confidence in democracy. Vayda Megannon, by contrast, uncovers surprisingly effective targeted relief efforts by the South African government in response to the pandemic. In contrast to the neglect by the Nigerian state, South Africa engaged in “the biggest fast roll out and the fastest big roll out” in Africa of a social support program targeted at the poorest citizens. The expansion of state power, including enforced lockdowns familiar across the continent, here seemed to facilitate more effective government action rather than drive autocratic impunity.


Even as support for democracy wavers, there are signs of growing citizen engagement at the local and municipal level. In Morocco, Abderrahman el-Karmaoui explores new initiatives for citizen participation in decision making outside of formal democratic institutions, particularly an experiment in participatory budget making at the municipal level. In Ghana, Owura Kuffour shows that local legislative candidates can have electoral appeal beyond that of the Presidential candidate, a reverse coat-tail effect which implies a greater resonance for the local level of democratic political engagement.


The essays in this collection both support and challenge the narrative of democracy in decline across Africa. Military coups do not necessarily reflect underlying distaste for democracy, nor do rates of support seem to decline in a straightforward linear way. New forms of civic activism, from online public spheres to mass mobilization against military rule, show strong civil engagement. If the underlying problems of economic crisis, insecurity and failed governance could be addressed, then the deeper support for democratic governance could rebound. The essays also demonstrate the value of collaborative research by scholars across the African continent, and the unique value of Afrobarometer survey data for facilitating cross-national panAfrican comparative research.

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