Africa: Democracy alone is no guarantee of development

Visionary leadership and strong institutions are Africa‘s surest path to economic growth and sustainable development.

Until 1989, Africa was characterized by many authoritarian governments. After that, democracy took root as countries abolished military dictatorships, undertook constitutional reviews, and embraced multiparty politics and elections. This has fostered stability, legitimacy and acceptance in African political spheres. The general expectation was that multiparty democracy would eventually lead to economic growth and development.

But nearly three decades after the third wave of democratization, it is uncertain whether the development dividend has been achieved. Despite its vast natural resources, Africa remains the poorest region in the world. Persistently high public debt and corruption, coupled with unemployment, income inequality and poverty, remain endemic.

Although the cause of underdevelopment in Africa is multifaceted, one undeniable root is the lack of leadership. The inability of governments to drive their country’s development agenda continues to threaten democracy, with most countries reverting to autocracy.

According to the V-Dem 2020 Democracy report, which classified states into four categories – liberal democracy, electoral democracy, electoral autocracy and closed autocracy – more than 70% of countries in sub-Saharan Africa were electoral or closed autocracies in 2019.

Similarly, the EIU Democracy Index, which classifies countries as full democracies, imperfect democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes, indicates that Africa recorded its lowest score of 4.16 in 2020 since the start of the index in 2006.

States with the lowest democracy scores are also at the bottom of governance and development indices

Indeed, in 2020, only Mauritius could be described as a full democracy in Africa, along with seven other countries – Tunisia, Cabo Verde, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Ghana and Lesotho – labeled as imperfect democracies. The rest were either hybrid regimes or authoritarian regimes, with the latter constituting the majority.

Over the past decade, the decline of democracy in Africa is also evident in recurrent military takeovers. Since 2010, Africa has seen 43 successful and attempted coups. In 2021 alone, there have been four successful coups (Mali, Tunisia, Guinea and Sudan) and two attempted coups (Central African Republic and Sudan). Barely two months into 2022, there has already been one successful coup and one attempted coup (Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau).

The usual explanations for these coups point to economic mismanagement, corruption and poor development in the affected countries, which the economic impact of COVID-19 has worsened.

The democratic overthrow revealed the fragility of African democracy and the threat of political instability. It also raises the question of whether democracy yields the expected development dividends. The relationship is a point of contention among scholars. Some argue that democratic regimes undermine development; others say they improve it. Arguments have been made that economic development facilitates democracy, while some schools of thought argue that it has no significant impact on growth.

In Africa however, strong relationships can be observed. Using both EIU and V-Dem Index scores in 2019, nine countries ranked among the top 10 African democracies have a very high, high or medium human development score. (Mauritius is very high, Seychelles, Botswana, South Africa and Tunisia are high, and São Tomé & Príncipe, Ghana and Namibia are medium.)

And with the exception of Madagascar, all of the countries ranked in the top 10 democracies by at least one of the two indices are middle-income countries, with Seychelles being a high-income country.

In 2020, only Mauritius could be called a full-fledged democracy in Africa

In terms of poverty reduction, less than 3% of the Mauritian, Seychellois, Cape Verdean and Tunisian populations live on less than USD 1.90 per day. Ghana, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa have a poverty rate of US$1.90, or 9.7%, 11.8%, 17.1% and 17.2% of their population respectively.

How then can we explain why certain countries classified as democratic obtain very poor results on the development indices? States like Lesotho, Senegal and Madagascar all score low on human development. Indeed, in 2019, 73.2% of the Malagasy population lived on less than USD 1.90 per day. For Lesotho and Senegal, it is 36.4% and 29.7% respectively.

The difference in development rates in these countries can be attributed to their level of governance. Democratic states such as Seychelles, Mauritius, Cabo Verde and Botswana score high on governance indices and are also more developed. On the other hand, democratic countries like Madagascar and Lesotho, which score less well on these indices, have low development.

This suggests that good governance can serve as an intermediary factor between democracy and development. Good governance in the form of rule of law and justice, accountability, transparency and the fight against corruption is necessary to stimulate growth.

Are there alternative development paths? Does autocracy produce the desired results? Comparing the 10 worst African democracies using the indices above reveals an interesting relationship between authoritarian regimes and levels of development.

Whatever the type of regime, good governance promotes development

Most at the bottom of the democratic indices are low-income countries (Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Burundi, Chad, CAR, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia, Congo and South Sudan). And they have low human development (Djibouti, Sudan, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Burundi, Chad, CAR, DRC, Somalia and South Sudan).

Indeed, states such as Somalia, Burundi, CAR, DRC, Guinea-Bissau, Chad and South Sudan – which are at the bottom of the democracy indices – are also at the bottom of the governance and development. Over 70% of people in South Sudan, DRC, CAR and Burundi live below the poverty line of US$1.90 a day.

Similarly, Guinea-Bissau, Congo, Somalia and Chad have a high poverty rate. In addition to their poor governance, another common feature is years of political instability. Thus, authoritarian regimes coupled with instability, poor leadership and weak governance produce the worst development outcomes.

There are a few exceptions where authoritarian regimes seem to perform better on development indices. Countries like Libya, Equatorial Guinea and Algeria, which are very undemocratic, have achieved better development results. They are middle-income and have high human development indices and poverty rates below 2%.

Thus, whatever the type of regime, good governance promotes development. Visionary leadership and strong institutions are Africa’s surest path to sustainable development. This means that democratic states must focus not just on elections, but on achieving good governance.

Enoch Randy Aikins, Researcher, African Futures and Innovation, ISS Pretoria

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Image: Adapted from © Asokeretope, Commonwealth Secretariat and Nina R/Flickr

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