Democracy making strides in Africa

The recent successful elections in Senegal, which catapulted 44-year-old Bassirou Diomaye Faye to power has given Africa’s democratic experiment a glimmer of despite recent setbacks in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger.

In the four countries, the military intervened not only to restore laws and order but also to break the dominance of Western powers led by France.

In the run-up to the February elections, former President of Senegal Mackay Sall ordered the arrest and detention of Ousmane Sonko who together with Faye were the two front runners to win the elections.

Given their opposition against the dominance of France in their country, as well as their strong Pan Africanist stance, France was uncomfortable with their pairing. However, a few days to the holding of the delayed elections public agitation compelled Mackay Sall to release Songo.

As was predicted Faye won the presidential election and immediately appointed Songo as Prime Minister. The agenda of Faye and Songo has always been to kick France out of Senegal like Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso did. No wonder that Faye has so far taken steps to break away from France by announcing plans to replace French as Senegal’s official language.

With Senegal elections ending peacefully and  an equally peaceful transition, all eyes will now be on Ghana, which holds crucial elections on December 7, 2024. The election is significant because it marks an attempt by a ruling government’s attempt to break the jinx of the two-term tenure of any government since 1992, and an attempt by a former president to return to power after losing his first attempt.

Good governance

Africa’s development partners rightly or wrongly argue that the answer to Africa’s economic development hinges on democratisation and good governance.  The partners maintain that if Africa’s 54 countries practice good governance, their economies will grow, poverty will be eliminated, and the continent’s 1.2 billion people will enjoy prosperity.

African leaders are also enjoined to uphold accountability, transparency, responsibility, equity and the rule of law as essential ingredients for political and socio-economic development.

The attainment of good governance and democratisation was the rational for the promotion of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), an instrument established by the African Union (AU) to promote political stability, economic growth and integration on the continent.

Strong electoral institutions

Another aspect of good governance, according to the APRM, is effective electoral bodies that conduct free and fair elections, follow the rule of law and are pledged to accountability, separation of powers (particularly judicial independence) and the rights of women, children and vulnerable groups, including displaced persons and refugees.

Elements of good governance as described by the APRM and the UN are largely aspirational, which makes it difficult to identify fully when a country achieves good governance. Countries are tested by a self-assessment questionnaire.

“Good governance is an ideal which is difficult to achieve in its totality… Very few countries and societies have come close to achieving good governance in its totality,” says the UN.

What that means is that most countries can only strive to practise good governance. The UN, the World Bank, the AU and other bodies encourage countries and citizens to begin a good governance journey, and many organizations, such as Transparency International (TI), the World Bank and Afrobarometer, periodically measure distances covered.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development launched by the UN in September 2015 also concentrates on good governance. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16, for instance, focuses on the promotion of just, peaceful and inclusive societies, while SDG 5 calls for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

Also, the AU’s Agenda 2063, a roadmap that emphasizes the importance to success of rekindling the passion for pan-Africanism; a sense of unity, self-reliance, integration and solidarity that was a highlight of Africa’s triumphs of the 20th century—consists of a set of seven aims, anchored on good governance, to transform the continent’s socioeconomic and political fortunes within 50 years.

Agenda 2063 Aspiration three envisions an “Africa of good governance, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law,” while Aspiration six envisions “an Africa whose development is people-driven, relying on the potential of African people, especially its women and youth, and caring for children.”

Most governments tout their policies as geared towards good governance; the policies are then evaluated by TI and other organizations to determine if actions match words.

Corruption index

Transparency International’s 2015 index based on a corruption perception survey ranked Botswana as Africa’s best performer, at 28 out of 167 countries, followed by Cape Verde at 40. The poor performers were Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Angola, Libya and Guinea-Bissau.

Conflict countries performed poorly, which suggests that conflicts affect elections and good governance practices. However, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) differs with TI over the latter’s use of “perception” as an indicator of corruption. “No single indicator of corruption should be used,” says Carlos Lopes, the ECA’s executive secretary, in a foreword to the 2016 African Governance Report IV.

ECA argues that a credible assessments of corruption in Africa should also include information on the activities of international players involved in asset repatriation and money laundering.

Another watchdog instrument is the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, an annual assessment of the quality of governance in Africa. It consists of more than 90 indicators built up into 14 subcategories, four categories and one overall measurement of governance performance.

Its 2015 report ranked Mauritius as Africa’s best performer, followed by Cape Verde, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Seychelles and Ghana, in that order. Somalia, again, ranked the lowest, below South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Sudan.

So far, Mauritius demonstrated a connection between good governance and economic development. Globally, Mauritius is ranked 32 out of 189 countries in Doing Business 2016: Measuring Regulatory Quality and Efficiency, a flagship World Bank report.

In 2013 Mauritius confirmed its reputation as an investment destination when it became the highest-ranked sub-Saharan African country on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, having overtaken South Africa.

The country even has a Ministry of Financial Services, Good Governance and Institutional Reforms that fights fraud and corruption and promotes good governance. This comes against the backdrop of accusations by ActionAid that Mauritius is a tax haven for illicit financial flows.

Female empowerment

Some African countries have posted impressive data on citizens’ political participation, especially women’s. With 51 out of 80 parliamentary seats occupied by women (63.8%), Rwanda leads the world in women’s parliamentary representation, according to a 2015 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a global organization of parliaments. Senegal comes fifth on the global scale, with women occupying 64 out of 150 seats (42.7%). Although Ghana has had a stable democracy since 1992, the number of women elected to Parliament has never been impressive, despite promises by various government to improve the ratio.

While democracy is undoubtedly the foundation of good governance, the lack of free and fair elections in some countries often leads to political and ethnic violence. “Flawed elections, when passed as free, fair and credible, leave citizens with little choice than to agitate for regime change,” writes Emma Birikorang, a senior research fellow at the Accra-based Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre, in an article titled “Coup d’état in Africa: A Thing of the Past?”

Rigged elections often entrench incumbents in countries where democracy is under attack. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s series of Democracy Index reports, published by The Economist, a UK-based publication, assesses countries on “electoral processes and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture.”

It categorizes governments in four groups: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes.

Quite often flawed democracies consist of relatively free and fair elections but are characterized by low political participation and a weak political culture. Hybrid regimes may conduct elections but fall short on civil liberties, while authoritarian regimes have sit-tight leaders with no interest in elections. On the contrary full democracies score high on good governance practices, particularly civil liberties and free and fair elections.

Full democracy

Mauritius was the only African country with full democracy, according to Democracy Index 2015. Countries listed as hybrid democracies included Benin, Botswana, Cape Verde, Morocco, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda. The majority of African countries were categorized as authoritarian.

In 2015, elections were held in Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia that were seen as relatively peaceful, free and fair. In Nigeria, there was a smooth handover of power when the opposition All People’s Congress defeated the ruling People’s Democratic Party, marking the first time an opposition party unseated a ruling party in the country’s history. Ghana has, however, had two transitions in which the opposition defeated the incumbent party. Ghana remains the beacon of hope in West Africa on the democratic journey and this feat must be sustained.

Overall, Africa’s good governance picture indicates steady progress, despite recent coup d’états in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Guinea. Data generally indicates that good governance is trending in the right direction.

The AU, the ECA, regional economic groupings and many governments recognize that citizens are yearning for good governance, and are responding with appropriate policies, as shown by the continental adoption of Agenda 2063.

Historically, civil society organizations continue to play their contesting roles by holding authorities accountable for promises.  Moving forward, the judiciary, media, electoral bodies and other institutions need to become proactive by   strengthen good governance in many countries, even if under pressure to do better.


Ighobor, K. “African democracy coming of age”. UN Africa Renewal.

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