In new ranking, the surprise countries that kept Africa’s democracy ticking—and the future of ‘The Nigeria Effect’

Nigeria’s much-acclaimed election offset the sharp deterioration in South Africa, Burundi, according to The Economist’s respected Democracy Index.

Supporters of Zanzibar’s President Ali Mohamed Shein in Zanzibar on October 23, 2015 in hotly contested elections that were later cancelled. Africa’s democratic gains remain modest, new index says (Photo/AFP).

NIGERIA’S first democratic change of power and laboured but eventually successful transitions in Madagascar and Burkina Faso helped keep the continent’s democratic gains at par in 2015, even as overall “scant” progress was made, a new index shows.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 release of its respected Democracy Index says that while indicators of democracy have improved, including a dramatic drop in the number of successful coups and the entrenchment of regular elections, these have not been enough to shift the region’s overall score.

“Taking the broader definition of democracy, however—including political participation and culture, civil liberties and the functioning of government—the region’s performance has barely altered,” the Index says.

The continent saw sharp deteriorations in South Africa, following a series of corruption scandals that have eroded the public’s trust in the system, and in Burundi where a controversial third term was secured by president Pierre Nkurunziza.

“Many elections are neither free nor fair. Peaceful and democratic changes of power are still relatively rare. Nearly 20 heads of states in [sub-Saharan Africa] have been in office for more than a decade. Ten of these have been in power for more than two decades,” the ranking said.

“Many incumbent heads of states have tried— and succeeded—to change their countries’ constitutions to allow them to remain in office beyond constitutionally mandated term limits, often via processes that lack democratic credibility.”

The election victory of Muhammadu Buhari in March 2015 was all the more remarkable “in a country that has hitherto known only military coups and civilian governments that have clung on to power.”

Buhari picked up 15.4 million votes to Goodluck Jonathan’s 13.3 million ballots, but defying many predictions, the handover was peaceful as Africa’s largest economy laid down a marker for its peers.

Despite various existing divisions in the continent’s most populous country, public frustration—over issues such as graft, lack of jobs, and high levels of insecurity—and modest technical improvements in the election authority were enough to outweigh formidable incumbency advantages at election time, the index says.

But despite a slew of elections set for 2016 and 2017, and even if rare, that a number of African incumbents have been defeated in elections, there is unlikely to be a replication of the Nigerian scenario, the authors say.

This is despite corruption, violence and low incomes being common grouses that leaders have struggled to address.

Ghana, Cape Verde and Zambia are among those holding elections this year, but changes in leadership there would not be as big a surprise as Nigeria, given their traditions of regime change.

Weak oppositions in Ivory Coast, Togo and Guinea saw expected results of incumbent wins last year. “But the prospects of a Nigerian scenario in places such as Angola, Chad, Congo (Brazzaville), Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Rwanda or Uganda appear very slim,” in part due to authoritarian regimes.

There is also uncertainty in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However the Nigerian example remains useful in building its clout as a promote of democracy in the region, the index says.

Mauritius remains the continent’s only “full” democracy, while Botswana, Cape Verde, South Africa (despite its reversals), Ghana, Tunisia and Lesotho are classified as “flawed” democracies.

Tunisia is the only country to have consolidated its Arab Spring gains, as Egypt and Libya appeared to be slipping back either to pre-2011 authoritarian levels or into chaos.

The majority of African countries on the 165-strong list are either “hybrid” regimes or “authoritarian”.

Titled ‘Democracy in an age of anxiety’, the Index says this naming reflects the situation in 2015, a year in which democracy was tested in the face of war, terrorism, mass migration and other crises.

It takes into account five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture.
M&G Africa Reporter