West Africa’s democracy: Worrying signs, hopeful signs

Still on the theme on the current state of democracy in West-Africa and the challenges being faced, I return this week to discuss the last set of worrying signs that has the potential to chip away at the peace I often say citizens have made with democracy.

In this piece I focus on government performance when it comes to addressing socio-economic issues.

Why? I believe citizens prize the guaranteed freedoms that come with democracy.

I also believe that they prize dearly the participatory nature of a democratic system of government where, for example, they get to vote to decide who governs or represents them.

Beyond these vital set of freedoms and participatory government opportunities, I believe that citizens expect governments to address their important socio-economic needs.

As Giovanni Carbone said back in 2009, “deeply engrained democratic values would likely lead the elites and ordinary citizens of an established democracy to resist the abandonment of participatory politics.

And yet, gravely and consistently dismal results in the achievement of other goals (security, economic well-being or social equality) might overwhelm the will to remain loyal to the democratic model.”

The Worrying Signs

The Afrobarometer Surveys regularly asks, “How well or badly would you say the current government is handling the following matters, or haven’t you heard enough to say?”

The matters cover several public policy domains.

 For this piece I focus on seven – a) managing the economy; b) improving the living standards of the poor; c) creating jobs; d) improving basic health services; e) addressing educational needs; f) providing water and sanitation services; and g) fighting corruption.

Respondents can answer with a) very badly; b) fairly badly; c) fairly well; d) very well; or e) don’t know.

They can also refuse to answer or say they have not heard enough.

In the table below, I provide the collective view of citizens and the combined percentage of those who answered fairly well or very well.

The base year refers to the first time the question was asked in the survey cycle.

It is quite clear that in the most recent survey year (2021-2023) citizens in the region are dissatisfied with how well governments are addressing their critical social and economic needs.

 It is also clear that each policy domain has experienced a decline in citizens’ rating between seven percentage points (7 per cent) and twenty-four percentage points (24 per cent).

The declines are worrying and here is why I find it particularly so.

 Recall in a previous piece I showed that approval of military rule had increased from 13 per cent in survey period 1999-2001 to 35 per cent in survey period 2021-2023, leading me to conclude that there is a “softening” in the attitudes of citizens in West Africa towards military rule.

That “softening” in attitudes is even more worrying when placed within the context of how citizens rate government performance on the issues highlighted above.

Let me use three examples to illustrate the point from the most recent survey year.

Among those who approve or strongly approve of military rule:

a.Seventy-three per cent rate government’s job creation performance as very badly or fairly badly compared to only 25 per cent who rate it as fairly well or very well.

b.Sixty-five per cent rate management of the economy as very badly or fairly badly compared to only 34 per cent who rate it as fairly well or very well.

c.Seventy-three per cent rate improving the living standards of the poor as very badly or fairly badly compared to only 26 per cent who rate government performance as fairly well or very well.

Democracy’s vulnerability to poor government performance is what, once again, Giovanni Carbone said back in 2009 – “For emerging democracies especially, legitimacy requires at least a modicum of adequate performance.

In the latter’s absence, people are likely to withdraw their support, and may accept the wholesale abandonment of democracy on the ground that some non-democratic alternative will prove more effective.”

The Hopeful Signals

I conclude this series with a repeat of what I said last week “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 a softening in their attitudes towards military rule.”

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

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