Why democracy is stalling in Africa

Why democracy is stalling in Africa
© Getty Images

Once more, the West African sub-region has been thrown into a political crisis, because of the recent ousting of President Alpha Condé of Guinea-Conakry by the military. West African leaders have failed to convince the new military strongman, Col. Mamady Doumbouya, to release the deposed president and restore the suspended national constitution, and have imposed a sanction on Guinea.

The sad reality is that most African leaders who have condemned the coup lack credibility. Most of them also came to power by force. Some of them, such as President Museveni of Uganda, who described the coup as “a step backward,” came to power by leading a rebel movement. Like many other African presidents, Uganda’s Museveni has remained in power since 1985 by constantly changing the constitutional term limits to perpetuate his term in office. This is what African political observers call “constitutional coups” — which have become more frequent than military coups in Africa.  

It is a similar constitutional coup that ex-President Condé carried out against popular sentiment in Guinea when he amended the constitution to run for a third term in disputed national elections in 2020. The truth is that military takeovers in Africa have ended badly for most nations. In most cases, these military governments entrench themselves in power, become more corrupt and repressive than the government they overthrew, and often are forced from power through another coup, popular protests or civil war. One of the latest examples: Last week’s coup attempt in Sudan.


Many Africans who fought for the so-called “second liberation of Africa” in the 1990s — which led to an end to military dictatorships in most of Africa — have become disillusioned and wonder why the democratization process is stalling in most of Africa.

In its 2021 survey, Freedom House concluded that only eight African countries are free and truly democratic. Many of us Africans wonder what it means to have a truly independent Africa when most countries in Africa are not free because they depend upon aid and loans from donor nations. What does democracy mean for everyday Africans whose countries are burdened by low levels of social and economic development, suppression of opposition, human rights abuses, heart-wrenching poverty and suffering, poor health care systems and social services, and crumbling civic societies? African leaders highlighted some of Africa’s pressing problems, including a lack of COVID-19 vaccine, in speeches last week to the United Nations.

The wreckage of Africa’s failed experiment with democracy is there for everyone to see: sit-tight repressive African dictators who enjoy the support of Western leaders and many investors from China and the West who are willing to do business with their corrupt governments; extreme poverty spreading like a harmattan wind from the Sahara; destructive effects of climate change and environmental crises; Islamic terror networks in the African Sahel, East Africa and Mozambique; millions of internally displaced Africans; the semi-permanent nature of the humanitarian crisis in many African countries; immigration crises; brain drain from Africa; and a resource curse.

What is obvious is that the future and fortune of Africa are not being shaped by the will and assets of her people through a democratic process. Indeed, bad politics, poor governance and weak states are the main causative factors for Africa’s underdevelopment. Democratization in Africa has remained largely about formation of parties, winning and rigging elections, and state capture by a few elites. According to the Center for Democratic Development and Democracy in Africa, in its latest reports, the future of Africa is being determined by shadowy networks that work in their own interest, rather than the public’s. These are heartless networks that feed, defend and sustain the kleptocratic appetite of Africa’s gatekeepers, the repressive and manipulative stratagem of what Freedom House calls “geriatric leaders for life” in Africa, and their Western supporters. 

Most African countries today have become extractive states and fiefdoms characterized by patron-client cleavages along ethnic, religious and regional lines, spawned through the merciless web of elite competition, corruption and contestation for the resources of the state in what French political scientist Jean-François Bayart calls “la politique du ventre” (the politics of the stomach).  

The Corruption Perception Index (CPI) of Transparency International for 2020 places the African sub-region as the lowest region in the world, in terms of transparency and accountability, with an average score of 32 percent. According to the CPI report, across the region, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights structural gaps in national health systems and shows how corruption risks associated with public procurement and the misappropriation of emergency funds are killing many people in Africa.  

The 2019 Global Corruption Barometer for Africa shows that more than one in four people — or approximately 130 million citizens in the 35 African countries surveyed — paid a bribe to access essential public services such as health care. The report indicates that unless African countries address corruption, many countries will not be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets in 2030.

The solution to these challenges is not military intervention. There is no African country that was transformed through the more than 200 military interventions that have occurred since 1957. Bad ethics and bad politics are not the exclusive preserve of African civilian leadership. Indeed, the military in Africa is just as corrupt as the political elites of Africa — and they are the very antithesis of a democratic culture.

According to the citizen attitude surveys conducted by Afrobarometer, most Africans prefer democracy over military rule. In Guinea, for example, the Afrobarometer surveys show that despite widespread dissatisfaction with the government of President Condé, Guineans strongly prefer democracy to any alternative form of governance. Most of them endorse elections as the best way to choose leaders.

Since a majority of Africans desire democracy, African nations must reject military interventions and commit to a democratic process anchored on the will, agency and assets of the people, and inclusive institutions of governance run by good, honest leaders.

Stan Chu Ilo grew up in Nigeria and now is a research professor of African studies and world Christianity at DePaul University, Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @stanchuilo.