West Africa’s Democracy: Worrying signs, hopeful signals – Part II
Last week, I discussed what I considered some very worrying signs about the state of democracy in West Africa drawing on data from the Afrobarometer survey. I highlighted three worrying signs – a) the softening of citizens’ attitudes towards military regimes; b) growing doubts about the democratic credentials of countries in the region; and c) a sharp decline in the percentage of citizens who say they are satisfied with the way democracy is working from 70 per cent in 1999-2001 to 36 per cent in 2021-2023.
I also shared some hopeful signals in that a) citizens still express strong preference (70 per cent) for democracy and b) confidence in election outcomes has improved a lot.
This week is a return and further deliberation on this important issue. There is an emerging consensus that the region is facing a democracy crisis. Here are some additional worrying signs but also hopeful signals as stakeholders continue to search for solutions to address democratic retrogression in the region. Remember the words of President Akufo-Addo to the Ecowas community- “democracy in West Africa is in danger”.
Mistrust in key democratic institutions is very worrying. Think about these three institutions in any democratic set up — executive (presidency); legislature (parliament); judiciary (courts of law) — and the roles they play for a minute. Now ask yourself this question – what makes these institutions thrive? Several factors make institutions thrive, but one cannot overlook the very important ingredient called trust. Unfortunately, the percentage of citizens in the region who express a lot of trust in these institutions as of the most recent survey year (2021-2023) remains quite low – a) executive (30 per cent); b) legislature (16 per cent); and judiciary (20 per cent). Keep in mind that in the baseline year (2005-2006); the percentages were still low- a) executive (38 per cent); b) legislature (20 per ecnt); and judiciary (30 per cent). In all instances trust in these democratic institutions has declined.
To further complicate the trust issue for these institutions is the extent to which very few citizens are willing to give them what I call “a clean bill of health” on corruption. By “a clean bill of health” I am referring to the percentage of citizens who say, “none of them” when asked the question “how many of the following people do you think are involved in corruption?”
In the most recent survey year this is how the three institutions scored - executive (12 per cent); b) legislature (eight per cent); and judiciary (nine per cent). Again, keep in mind that in the baseline year for this indicator (2002-2003); the percentages were still low- a) executive (18 per cent); b) legislature (12 per cent); and the judiciary (11 per cent).
When citizens have low levels of trust in democratic institutions and further perceive them as corrupt, an immediate consequence is the erosion of confidence in them. Who wants to seek mediation or redress of a grievance before a court of law it cannot trust and perceives as corrupt? Or who wants to draw the attention of their representative in parliament to a public problem if there is no trust?
Weak institutions do not produce strong democracies.
Citizens in the region will be the crucial agents in saving democracy from any further crisis. I say this because of the strong preference they continue to express for democracy even as they express dissatisfaction with democratic governance in the region or have low levels of trust in the institutions designed to make democracy work.
In the most recent survey year, among those who collectively described countries in the region as “not a democracy”, six out of 10 (57 per cent) still expressed preference for democracy to any other form of government. Among those who are “not at all satisfied” with the way democracy is working, seven out of 10 (66 per cent) still expressed preference for democracy to any other form of government. And finally, among those who are “not very satisfied” with the way democracy is working, seven out of 10 (69 per cent) still expressed preference for democracy to any other form of government.
There are important country variations no doubt. But the collective picture is a hopeful signal.
Last week I pointed out that in the most recent survey year, as many as six out of 10 (56 per cent) citizens in the region felt military intervention was legitimate if government was abusing power. Among this group, six out of 10 (64 per cent) still expressed preference for democracy to any other form of government.
Citizens may be feeling various pinch points when it comes to the practice of democracy, but they are yet to abandon their strong preference for it.
But our leaders in the region cannot take this for granted. They must address this crisis before citizens break their peace pact with democracy.
The writer is a Democracy and Development Fellow at the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana).