Africa’s prosperity depends on clean and competitive elections


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – Democracy is taking root in Africa, but too few Africans are reaping its benefits, according to new research released today by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). The study shows that democracy is essential for prosperity, and points to specific aspects that must be improved if democracy is to deliver its developmental potential in Africa.

Democracy is not the dominant form of government in Africa. According to Polity IV, a data series widely used in academic and policy circles, only 21 of Africa’s 53 countries were considered democracies in 2015.

On the whole, however, the trends are improving. ‘The number of democracies in Africa has increased over time and the average levels of democracy have improved,’ says Jakkie Cilliers, head of African Futures and Innovation at the ISS and the report’s author. ‘That said, the number of people reaping the benefits of democracy is still disproportionately low.’

To understand this trend, the ISS study explored the long-term prospects for democracy and development in Africa. Findings point to neopatrimonialism, which sees patrons use state resources to secure loyalty; and to the compromised nature of constitutional and electoral governance. These issues are widespread in Africa, particularly in low-income countries where democratic structures are lacking, rent-seeking is entrenched and electoral deception commonplace.

While regular elections are on the rise – in 2016 Africa could host up to 24 elections, the most in several years – they are often manipulated to ensure the re-election of the ruling party and its preferred candidate. Countries such as Zimbabwe, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Angola and Mozambique have demonstrated such interference by rigging electoral registration processes, controlling the public media and/or misusing state resources to dispense patronage.

Elections, therefore, do not necessarily translate to democracy. ‘Instead,’ says Cilliers, ‘it is the issue of electoral governance that is important.

‘In order for democracy to be effective, to have a significant, long-lasting and beneficial relationship with human development and economic growth, clean and competitive elections are crucial. Without this, democracy does not deliver on development or growth.’

Looking ahead, then, is Africa headed towards an upswell of democracy or a regression away from it?

Evidence suggests that the likely scenario globally is one of regression. However, in Africa, where people have been poorly served both by authoritarianism and democracy, the latter still retains its pull. Cilliers forecasts that, ‘although democracy has not yet alleviated social marginalisation or poverty levels, it offers the power to effect change, to reshape the dynamics of power, and to hold leaders accountable. It remains an attractive – indeed, the only – solution.’

Over time, and amid complex circumstances, democracy in Africa has made significant progress. Although it still has a long way to go, and is neither a stable nor predictable system elsewhere in the world, democracy nevertheless provides the most important mechanism through which development and growth might be achieved. In this, the integrity of the electoral process is essential.

For more information or media enquiries contact: 

Jakkie Cilliers, ISS: [email protected]

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