In 2024, over 60 countries worldwide gear up for a historic election year, with 22 African nations, including South Africa, Senegal, and Ghana, in the spotlight. As elections unfold, a deeper issue surfaces—African voters’ growing dissatisfaction with democracy. While discussions often blame autocratic leaders, the real threat lies in citizens’ perceptions that democracy fails to address everyday challenges. This dissatisfaction is fuelled by a waning novelty in electoral processes and economic setbacks since 2014. To safeguard democracy, it’s crucial to address these concerns by making elected governments more effective in delivering tangible improvements to citizens’ lives.
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Africa’s Year of Elections Faces a Pernicious Enemy: Ken Opalo
By Ken Opalo
As far as elections go, 2024 will be the biggest global election year in history. More than 60 countries are slated to stage executive and legislative elections at the national or subnational level or both.
In Africa, 22 countries — including major economies such as South Africa, Senegal and Ghana — are supposed to hold elections this year. Given the varying levels of democratic consolidation in the region, not all of these contests will be meaningful. In some countries, voting will merely serve to rubber-stamp predetermined outcomes. Others will be more genuinely competitive and reflect the will of voters.
Despite these differences, all of this year’s elections are likely to further reveal African voters’ deepening dissatisfaction with democracy.
Discussions of democratic decline in Africa and elsewhere typically focus on the role of populist or autocratic leaders. However, there is a need to address an even more pernicious enemy of democratic consolidation: popular perceptions — based on experience — that democracy doesn’t solve people’s everyday problems.
Two factors are likely behind this growing dissatisfaction with democracy. First it is logical that the novelty of increased electoral competition and the end of restrictions on freedoms of assembly and association have worn off since the reintroduction of multiparty elections in the early 1990s. Voters have come to take these features of political life for granted. Second, African economic growth has stalled since 2014 due to stagnating or declining commodity prices, domestic policy missteps and a host of shocks — from climate change, to pandemics, to recessions in major importers of African products. At the same time, elected governments in several countries have proven unable to protect their citizens.
While democracy doesn’t guarantee material prosperity, much of its promotion in the region was premised on the idea that the end of autocracy would lead to a flourishing of both political liberty and freedom from material want. The fact that neither of these goals have been realized poses a real danger.
The evidence appears in both public opinion data and voter turnout. Since 2015, a majority of Africans surveyed in dozens of countries expressed dissatisfaction with democracy. Ominously, in the last round of surveys (2022), a majority also supported military intervention in politics to arrest political dysfunction. These two data points contrast sharply with respondents’ consistent rejection of regularized military rule (see below).
Declining turnout in African elections also points to dissatisfaction. Take the example of Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and democracy. In the 2023 elections, a mere 26.7% of registered voters showed up to the polls. This was a steep decline from the peak of a 69.1% turnout in 2003. According to Afrobarometer surveys, satisfaction with Nigerian democracy has declined to a low of 20.6% in 2022 from a high of 83.6% in 1999.
Not even South Africa, arguably Africa’s most institutionalized large democracy, is spared these trends. In 2022, only 24.6% of respondents expressed satisfaction with the Rainbow Nation’s democracy. This was about half of the 53.6% who were satisfied with South African democracy in 1999, four years after the end of apartheid. These trends are corroborated by declining support for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) ahead of this year’s election. The latest available survey data suggest that the ANC is, for the first time, likely to dip below 50% of the vote share and be forced into forming a coalition government at the national level.
So, what is to be done? The starting point should be to listen to African voters. Like voters all over the world, many Africans view politics as a means of shaping their material conditions for the better. We should therefore not expect that they will continue to back democracy when their countries’ political systems can’t guarantee basic physical security, let alone broad-based economic prosperity. Eventually, charismatic populists will come along and convince enough voters to give alternatives to democracy a chance.
Second, African civil society organizations working on democracy promotion (along with their foreign partners) should upgrade their approach. Having largely won the battle against entrenched autocracy, their next cause should be making democracy work. “Democracy Promotion 2.0” in the region should focus on strengthening African states’ capacity to deliver essential public goods and services. Instead of the near-exclusive focus on rights and good governance (which are certainly important), there is also an urgent need to invest in effective government. This should come in the form of visible and attributable investments in critical sectors that touch voters’ lives — from agriculture, to education, to health care to infrastructure.
Simply stated, the best defense for African democracy is to make sure that elected governments can demonstrably deliver on improving voters’ quality of life.
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