A section of the electorate exercising their franchise in an election
A section of the electorate exercising their franchise in an election

Democracy in West Africa - Worrying signs, hopeful signals

On September 29, 2023, Ghana’s President, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo said this “As all of us know, despite the considerable progress made by the community in the areas of democracy, good governance and the rule of law since the early 1990s, which meant that, four years ago, all 15 leaders of ECOWAS States were democratically elected, we are, at the moment, witnessing a decline in our democratic credentials.”

Military takeovers in Mali, Guinea, Niger, Burkina Faso and Gabon between 2020 and 2023 have been enough to raise alarms about the threats to democracy in the sub region. And when one factors in the region’s history with military coups before the third wave of democracy, the President’s worry is spot on.
President Akufo-Addo also said, “democracy in West Africa is in danger.” 

In the maiden edition of the Afrobarometer survey (1999-2001), three countries from West Africa participated. In the most recent survey round (2021-2023), fourteen countries from the region participated. The increased participation in the survey means that the signals are coming from more voices (from 7,694 to 19,568 respondents) across more countries in the region. 

There is surely country variation in how citizens across the region feel about democracy. However, for the purpose of this piece, I am interested in examining the collective voice of West Africans.

So, what really is the situation in West Africa? What are these danger signs?

The danger signs

In survey period 1999-2001, eight out of 10, that is 83 per cent of citizens in the region disapproved of military rule. In survey period 2021-2023, six out of 10 (63 per cent) citizens in the region disapproved of military. Let’s look at it from another angle. From only 13 per cent approving of military rule in survey period 1999-2001, that increased to 35 per cent in survey period 2021-2023.

And in the most recent survey period (2021-2023) when asked whether – a) armed forces should never intervene in the country’s political process or b) if it was legitimate for the armed forces to take control of government when elected leaders abuse power for their own ends” as many as six out of 10, representing 56 per cent supported the legitimacy of military intervention.

So, as you can see, there has been what I call “a softening” in the attitudes of citizens in West Africa towards military rule.

When asked about the extent of democracy, in survey period 2002-2003, eight per cent said “not a democracy,” but in survey period 2021-2023, 16 per cent said “not a democracy.” Over the same period, there has been no significant change in the percentage who said, “full democracy” (15 per cent to 16 per cent); or who said a) democracy with major problems (still at 37 per cent); b) democracy with minor problems (33 per cent to 30 per cent). The doubling of the percentage of those saying “not a democracy” is a sign that there is growing doubts about the democratic credentials of countries in the region.

In survey period 1999-2001, seven out of ten (70 per cent) West-Africans said they were satisfied with the way democracy was working. In survey period 2021-2023, that dropped sharply to four out of ten (36 per cent). A sharp decrease in the level of satisfaction with the way democracy is working erodes the confidence of citizens. And that was very clear when citizens were asked in the same survey period about the level of democracy in five years. Only four out of 10 (38 per cent) felt the region will be more democratic. 

These are some of the danger signs to democratic governance in the region.

Some bright spots

While we cannot ignore the danger signs, there are some bright spots that can be leveraged in the fight to halt democratic backsliding in the region. First, there is still strong preference for democracy among West- Africans. That support was 74 per cent in survey period 1999-2001 and 70 per cent in survey period 2021-2023.

Second, there is still strong preference for a key democratic activity – the use of elections as the key method for choosing leaders. In survey period 2002-2003, 81 per cent expressed support for elections. In survey period 2021-2023, 78 per cent still expressed support for elections.

To add, confidence in elections (the percentage of those who say the most recent election was completely free and fair) has improved. In survey period 1999-202, 27 per cent had confidence in election outcomes compared to 40 per cent in survey period 2021-2023.

What next?

I must note that this is the collective picture. The danger signs are more pronounced in some countries than others. This is not an attempt to treat the region as politically monolithic. We must however heed pay attention to the danger signs and do two things – a) find out the drivers of the danger signs; and b) actively take steps to diffuse and reverse them. 

 The writer is a Democracy and Development Fellow at the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana).

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