The Leading Democracies in Africa

Democracies-in-AfricaDecember 9, 2018 ( - Recent years have proved too confusing for African democracies. There have been coup attempts that didn’t look like coups, and there have been elections that weren’t elections. Africa has witnessed years of political illusions.

From 2015, there has been a retrogressive trend that continues to threaten Africa’s democratic space, with a few exceptions, of course. 2017 proved to us that democracy in Africa is backsliding, where some powerful presidents in the continent decided to neglect the will of the people, by seeking an extension of their terms in office, beyond what the constitution prescribes.

Notwithstanding the recent slide, there are countries that are still marching forward with functional democracies. Elections are held where the majority votes, and where the courts arbitrate when disputes arise.

Some African countries have embraced democracy and are leading the pack. But what are these countries doing differently?

We will discuss more about these countries shortly, but let’s have a background look at the state of democracy in Africa.


Democracy in Africa remains one of the topics that elicit varied reactions and raises questions that cannot be answered conclusively. For instance, is Africa becoming more or less democratic? Why are many countries stuck between authoritarianism and democracy? And how can democracy be designed to fit the reality in many Africa states?

Researchers, media commentators, and scholars offer different opinions on the issue. Some suggest it is an experiment gone wrong and should be abandoned. Others suggest there has been progress made by many African states, but more should be done.

A good way to approach the issue of democracy is to look at our history, to determine how the 1960s, 70s, and 80s shaped the political space in Africa, especially the political systems that exist today. In doing so, there is a fundamental issue that goes unnoticed. African democracies are distinct not because they experience many challenges, but because it has advanced despite the lack of the hypothetical ‘pre-conditions’ of egalitarian society.

Political experts have determined a long ‘wish list’ of elements that make it easy to institute and consolidate democracy. At the top of this list, national identity is fundamental, followed by the existence of autonomous political institutions, autonomous civil societies, a vibrant economy, and the rule of law.

In 1985, Adam Przewalski, a professor of political science recognized integral elements of democratic societies. He argued that countries enjoying GDP per capita PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) of over $6,000 succeed when they establish democracy, whereas those with GDP per capita PPP of less than $1,000 repeatedly fail. Whereas this is not a hard and fast rule for the viability of democracy in any given country, it nevertheless shows the importance of the economy as one of the major metrics determining the democratic prospects in that country.

Back in the 60s and 90s, few African nations fulfilled this presupposed criteria. Many have made significant progress since then, against all odds many would say.

Having said that, let’s look at the leading democracies in Africa, followed by the laggards.

The Leaders:

1. Mauritius

According to Democracy Index ranking, Mauritius is the only African country that was practicing full democracy in 2017. The Democracy Index ranking is compiled by UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), based on answers to some 60 questions. The ranking covered 167 countries and took into account electoral procedures, civil liberties, political participation and threat to free speech. 8 African countries were classified under flawed democracies, 13 under hybrid and 23 under authoritarian regimes.

Mauritius ranked #16 out of 167 in democracy index list, just behind Austria, United Kingdom and Germany, and astonishingly, ahead of Spain, United States, Italy, Japan, France and Israel.

Mauritius has had regular elections since it achieved its Republic status in 1992, 24 years after its independence in 1968. The country of just 1.3 million observes a parliamentary democracy and the president and vice president are elected by the National Assembly for five-year terms. The Prime Minister is appointed by the president and is responsible to the National Assembly. He enjoys significant power whereas the President has a mostly ceremonial role.

In 2017, the GDP per capita PPP for Mauritius was $20,293. (The GDP PPP is the gross domestic product of a country measured in terms of not the US dollar, but on the goods and services one can buy inside the country. When you divide it by the population of the country, you get the per capita GDP PPP for that country.)

2. Cape Verde

Cape Verde, a nation with a population of 532,847, has captured global attention for the smooth transition of power it demonstrates since it attained independence about 40 years ago. So entrenched is the respect for democratic values in the country, opposing political camps have always handed over power smoothly among themselves, with former high officials preferring not to extend their terms in office beyond what is spelt out in the constitution.

Cape Verde never experienced any military coups, war or any major conflict. Since the country started conducting multiparty elections, there have been no cases of voter rigging.

Cape Verde is a semi-presidential representative democratic republic, whereby the Prime Minister of Cape Verde is the head of government, and the President of the Republic of Cape Verde is the head of state, and of a multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the President and the Government. Legislative power is vested in both the Government and the National Assembly. The Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. The constitution first approved in 1980 and substantially revised in 1992 forms the basis of government organization.

In 2017, the per capita GDP PPP of Cape Verde was $6,223. It ranked #23 out of 167 in Democracy Index.

3. Botswana

Despite being landlocked, this southern Africa nation offers the most typical example of a thriving democracy in Africa. And as MARK BABATUNDE reports, since attaining independence from the British in 1966, Botswana has never experienced a military coup or a non-democratic transfer of leadership.

After independence, the country’s leader - Seretse Khama - laid a good foundation that enables a strong multi-party democracy to thrive.

Via quality leadership, the country and its 2.3 million citizens have turned around their fortunes from being one of the poorest countries at independence to its present success as one of the dynamic economies. At a present-day Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita (PPP) of $15,800, Botswana’s is one of the highest in Africa. In the global Human Development Index, the country is ranked 101, which is commendable.

4. South Africa

The Republic of South Africa is a parliamentary representative democracy. The President of South Africa serves both as head of state and as head of government. The President is elected by the National Assembly and must retain the confidence of the Assembly in order to remain in office. South Africans also elect provincial legislatures which govern each of the country's nine provinces.

South Africa was ruled by Apartheid system of government from 1948 to 1994, whereby a white minority ruled the black majority that had no voice whatsoever. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) has dominated South Africa's politics. The ANC is the ruling party in the national legislature, as well as in eight of the nine provinces (Western Cape is governed by the Democratic Alliance).

The New National Party, which both introduced and ended apartheid through its predecessor the National Party, disbanded in 2005 to merge with the ANC. Jacob Zuma served as President of South Africa since May 9, 2009 until his forced resignation for corruption and abuse of power in February 2018. Zuma was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa. The country's next general election will be held in 2019.

The per capita GDP PPP for South Africa in 2017 was $12,295.

5. Ghana

Ghana is considered one of the more stable countries in West Africa since its transition to multi-party democracy in 1992. Formerly known as the Gold Coast, Ghana gained independence from Britain in 1957, becoming the first sub-Saharan nation to break free from colonial rule.

Ghana's population of approximately 28 million spans a variety of ethnic, linguistic and religious groups.

Ghana is a unitary presidential constitutional democracy with a parliamentary multi-party system led by a president who is both head of state and head of the government. Ghana alternated between civilian and military governments until January 1993, when the military government gave way to the Fourth Republic of Ghana after presidential and parliamentary elections in late 1992. The 1992 constitution of Ghana divides powers among a Commander-in-Chief of the Ghana Armed Forces (President of Ghana), parliament, the cabinet, the council of state, and an independent judiciary. The Government of Ghana is elected by universal suffrage after every four years.

In 2017, the per capita GDP PPP for Ghana was $4,228.

6. Lesotho

Lesotho, officially the Kingdom of Lesotho, is an enclaved country within the border of South Africa. It is has a population of around 2 million people. Lesotho was previously the British Crown Colony of Basutoland, but it declared independence from the United Kingdom on 4 October 1966.

Lesotho is a parliamentary representative democratic constitutional monarchy, whereby the Prime Minister of Lesotho is the head of government, and of a multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the two chambers of Parliament, the Senate and the National Assembly. The Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.

The Lesotho Government is a constitutional monarchy. The Prime Minister is head of government and has executive authority. The King serves a largely ceremonial function; he no longer possesses any executive authority and is prohibited from actively participating in political initiatives.

In 2017, the per capita GPD PPP for Lesotho was $2,851.

7. Tunisia

Tunisia is a unitary semi-presidential representative democratic republic, with a President serving as head of state, Prime Minister as head of government, a unicameral legislature and a court system influenced by French civil law. The country gained full independence from France in 1956. Between 1956 and 2011, Tunisia operated as a de facto one-party state, with politics dominated by the secular Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) under former Presidents Habib Bourguiba and then Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. However, in 2011 a national uprising led to the ousting of the President and the dismantling of the RCD, paving the way for a multi-party democracy. October 2014 saw the first democratic parliamentary elections since the 2011 revolution, resulting in a win by the secularist Nidaa Tounes party with 85 seats in the 217-member assembly.

In 2017, the per capita GDP PPP for Tunisia was $10,849.

8. Namibia

Namibia is a semi-presidential representative democratic republic, whereby the President of Namibia is both head of state and head of government, and of a pluriform multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by both the President and the Government. Legislative power is vested in both the Government and the two chambers of Parliament. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.

Namibia also have a network of traditional leadership with currently 51 recognized traditional authorities and their leaders. These authorities cover the entire Namibian territory. Traditional leaders are entrusted with the allocation of communal land and the formulation of the traditional group's customary laws. They also take over minor judicial work.

In 2017, Namibia has a per capita GDP PPP of $9,542.

9. Senegal

Senegal ranks as one of the most successful countries in terms of the post-colonial experiment in the continent. Based on the data from the United Nations, the West African state with a population of 16.4 million, has never suffered a coup attempt.

In 1980, the country’s first president, Leopold Senghor, set a good precedent for the subsequent leaders after voluntarily relinquishing his position and later, retired from the public life.

The country’s constitution stipulates that it is a republic with a president, elected for a five-year term in office. The president is also eligible for re-election. In 2008, Senegal ranked at position twelve in the Mo Ibrahim index of governance. In 2017, the GDP per capita (PPP) for Senegal was 2712 USD, according to World Bank data.

10. Zambia

This landlocked country, with a population of 16 million is one of the leading democracies in Africa. After gaining independence from Britain in 1964, Prime Minister Kenneth Kaunda was elected as the 1st head of state. Under the one-party state, he led Zambia for close to three decades, but he stepped down in 1991 to allow the country transition into a multiparty democracy.

In 2010, the World Bank identified Zambia among the fastest growing economies in Africa, which is attributed to a stable political environment.

Zambia’s GDP PPP for 2017 was 4050 USD, according to World Bank data.

The Laggards:

Despite the progress made by African countries to embrace democracy, there are those that perform dismally. Let’s take a look at some of the worst democracies in Africa.

Uganda - President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986. As reported by Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW), the president once said: “Africa is tired of leaders who cling to power against the wishes of the masses.” That was in 1980. But in 2006, he changed the country’s constitution to allow him to run for a fifth, 5-year term in office.

In 2016, President Museveni again won the election, which was contested by the opposition leader Kiza Besigye, but the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the incumbent. At 72, Yoweri Museveni is set to rule Uganda for life following the ruling party’s amendment of the constitution to remove the presidents’ age limit. In the mid 1990's, President Yoweri Museveni was declared among the new generation of African leaders by world bodies and the press, prematurely and with much fanfare, along with Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia (are you listening Ethiopia?).

In 2017, Uganda’s GDP PPP was 1864 USD, as per World Bank data.

Chad - Since gaining independence from France in 1960, Chad has been beset by civil strife. Hissène Habré seized control in 1982 and led a one-party dictatorship until 1989, when Idriss Déby, a military commander, launched a rebellion against Habré, ousting him in 1990 with support from Libya and no opposition from French troops stationed in Chad. Chad never experienced a free and fair transfer of power through elections. The president is elected for five-year terms, and a 2005 constitutional amendment abolished term limits. The country has more than 70 political parties operating, although a number of them were allegedly created by the government to divide the opposition.Chad is ranked the worst in Democracy Index, ranking 165 out of 167, barely ahead of Syria and North Korea. The GDP PPP for Chad in 2017 was $1768.

Sudan - Since gaining independence from UK in 1956, Sudan has been governed mostly by dictatorships and has endured numerous brutal civil wars. For decades, the dominant Arabic government in the north imposed “Islamic order” on the whole country, a policy that triggered a vicious civil war with the largely animist and Christian south. That led to the creation of an independent South Sudan in July 2011. Civil wars, however, continued in both the north and south, resulting in hundreds of thousand of people and the displacement of millions. killed an estimated 400,000 to 450,000 persons and forcibly displaced another 2.5 million individuals from their homes. In 2009, the International Criminal Court issued its first arrest warrant of a sitting leader of government, President Omar al-Bashir, on charges of being co-responsible for crimes against humanity in Darfur; in 2010, it added the charge of genocide.

Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, has ruled Sudan as president since seizing power in a coup in 1989. Freedom House ranks Sudan regularly among its “worst of the worst,” with the lowest scores of 7 in political freedoms and 7 in civil liberties. Sudan also ranks 155 out of 167 in Democracy Index. In 2017, Sudan had GDP PPP of $4467.

Burundi - President Nkurunzinza ran for a third term in office despite the controversies surrounding his eligibility to seek re-election. He said two term limits do not apply to him because he was elected by parliament, not by the people, for his first presidency. The 2015 election was boycotted by the opposition, but he was elected anyway. Violence broke out leading to the death of hundreds of people, and more than 400, 000 were forced to flee the country according to the UNHCR. Burundi’s GDP PPP for 2017 was 771 USD, one of world’s poorest, according to World Bank data.

The same can be said about Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe ruled for decades before he was forcefully asked to relinquish power by the military. In 2017, Zimbabwe had GPD PPP of 2086 USD, according to World Bank data.

And, of course, there are those countries where there are no laws or elections to talk about, like Eritrea, and failed states such as Somalia and Libya, where guns still rule.

So, what are the leading democracies in Africa doing right?

- These countries realized that national identity is fundamental if they are to succeed.
- A vibrant civil society is key to achieving full democratic autonomy, as witnessed in the leading democracies in Africa and worldwide.
- The leading democracies in Africa uphold and respect the rule of law.
- They have independent institutions like the judiciary and elections bodies that are independent and properly funded. Furthermore, these institutions are well staffed.
- The military is apolitical, meaning they don’t participate in the political events in the country. They only serve the presidency; not necessarily the person serving as the head of state.
- These countries have invested so much in their economy. Their education systems and their GDP per capita income are generally better (and more promising) than the laggards.
- They have a level political arena, where every candidate has an opportunity to vie for elections, provided they are qualified.
- In most of these democracies, elections are free and fair, but where it is contested, the right channel is followed.
- Some of these countries may have also been lucky enough to get leaders who not only worked hard to set up a self-sustaining democratic system, but also made themselves examples by relinquishing power willingly.

Too soon to give up:

Whereas elections in Africa that attract international attention are those that are hotly contested and/or the ones that turn out to be violent, many more are peaceful, especially in the leading democracies.

Although the continent has seen a lot of disappointments in the last several decades following independence, Africa shouldn’t be treated as a place with a fragile democracy. Rather, it is a continent that teaches us the varied pathways through which even the most fragile and unstable states can attain democratic freedom.

In light of this, Nic Cheeseman, a renowned writer, says the leading democracies will continue with the progress made, though much needs to be done. Only time will tell whether the rest of Africa will progress towards attaining full democracy, but it is too soon to give up.

By Solomon O. for Ezega News



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