The Leading Democracies in Africa


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 who are still marching forward with functional democracies. Elections are held where the majority votes and 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.

Adam Przewalski, a professor of political science recognizes integral elements of democratic societies. He argues that countries enjoying GDP per capita of over $6,000 succeed when they establish democracy, whereas those with GDP per capita of less than $1,000 repeatedly fail.

Back in the 60s and 90s, few African nations fulfilled this presupposed criteria. Many have made significant progress since then.

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

The Leaders:

1.    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 have 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. (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.) In the global Human Development Index, the country is ranked 101, which is commendable.

2.    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 precedence 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.

3.    Tanzania

Tanzania, with more than 50 million people, is one of the most populous nations in East Africa, and Africa in general. Previously known as Tanganyika, the former Arabian nation and Britain’s colony attained independence in 1961, from the British, and the Arab dynasty in 1963.

Upon independence, Prime Minister Julius Nyerere, who served under the British, became the country’s president. Under a single-party system, president Nyerere helped Tanzania align with the left via adoption of the socialist beliefs.

The constitution was amended in 1992, to allow for multiparty democracy. The president and the legislators are elected by popular vote for a term not exceeding five years. Not long ago, Tanzania enjoyed a peaceful handover of power when President John Pombe Magufuli was elected as the country’s fifth president. John Magufuli rejected calls from some of his supporters to extend his rule beyond the constitutional limit of two, five-year terms, bucking a trend in the region.

In 2017, the GDP PPP for Tanzania was 2946 USD, according to World Bank data.

4.    Kenya

With the ‘Mau-Mau’ uprising, Kenya was determined to resist colonial rule. The country gained independence from Britain in 1963, and the first president, Jomo Kenyatta, took over as the head of state.

Just like its neighbor Tanzania, Kenya embraced a single party system, with Kenya Africa National Union (KANU) the ruling party.

President Kenyatta died in 1978 and he was succeeded by Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi. The year 2002 proved to be historic as Mwai Kibaki defeated president Moi with a landslide victory. In 2007, Kenya’s political scene witnessed riots after it emerged the elections were marred with irregularities.

When the chairman of the electoral commission was asked who won the election, Mr. Samuel Kivuitu said he didn’t know.

The country degenerated into ethnic-based post-election violence that saw more than 1000 people dead. In the aftermath of the turbulent period, the country’s democracy has matured and is considerably stronger.

Kenya is among the few African nations that have not experienced a military coup, except for the unsuccessful attempt in 1982 that was easily thwarted by soldiers loyal to the state.

Kenya’s GDP PPP for 2017 was 3286 USD, according to World Bank data.

5.    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.

Taking the example of 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. Uganda’s GDP PPP for 2017 was 1864 USD, as per World Bank data.

In 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 countries where there are no laws or elections to talk about, like Eritrea, and failed states such as Somalia and Libya.

By Solomon O. for Ezega News


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