macroafricaintel | Democracy & African development

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

1.0       Introduction
Whether Africa’s democratic experiment thus far has led to differential economic development is a subject of debate. Many complain the democratic process is expensive and sluggish, with an increasingly number of Africans beginning to question whether western-style or liberal democracy is the development panacea it is touted to be.[1],[2] Nonetheless, there are studies that show democracy has engendered economic growth in Africa.[3],[4] But there is also evidence of democratic decline and disillusionment.[5] According to Cheeseman (2019), Africa’s democratic progress is stalling, with the continent’s countries divided down the middle between autocracies and democracies.[6] Cheeseman (2019) also notes a worrying trend: African autocracies have become more repressive and their democratic counterparts have not shown much progress. With evidence that democracy does engender growth and ample evidence to the contrary, what then should Africa do?

2.0       Evidence on democracy-development nexus is mixed
Acemoglu et al. (2019) show evidence that democracy engenders economic growth by attracting more investment, facilitating increased educational attainment, spurring economic reforms, decreasing social restiveness and thus the security of lives and property, and the provision of public services.[7] Democracy also engenders economic growth by making opportunities available to most of the people as opposed to a powerful few. For instance, Acemoglu & Robinson (2012) argue “inclusive political institutions, vesting power broadly, would tend to uproot economic institutions that expropriate the resources of the many, erect entry barriers and suppress the functioning of markets so that only a few benefit.”[8]

In sum, Acemoglu et al. (2019) posit that as democracy encourages economic reforms, increases human capital, raises state capacity, improves public service delivery, increases investment and reduces social unrest, economic growth occurs consequently. Acemoglu et al. (2019) also find that their results of the beneficial effects of democracy on economic growth are robust across developing and advanced economies. When a country adopts a democratic form of government, Acemoglu, et al. (2019) assert, its GDP per capita rises by at least 20 percent over the subsequent 30 years. Acemoglu et al. (2019) also find this effect to be easily attained in countries with already high level of educational attainment.

Conversely, Gerring et al. (2005) argue democracy has no significant effect on economic growth; and if at all, it is negative.[9] Similarly, Gerring, Thacker & Alfaro (2012) do not find substantial human development gains from democratic transitions. Instead, a country’s poor only begin to see substantial gains from democracy when it is longrunning.[10] To some extent, this corroborates Ross (2006) findings that while democracies tend to spend relatively more on education and health, the main beneficiaries tend to be non-poor groups.[11] There are more nuanced arguments. Baum & Lake (2003) investigate the indirect and direct effects of democracy on growth using a 30-year data set of 128 countries and find no statistically significant direct effect on growth. Instead, they find that democracy’s effect on growth are “largely indirect through increased life expectancy in poor countries and increased secondary education in nonpoor countries.”[12]

Varshney (2005) actually argues that relative to dictatorships, democracies have recorded a lacklustre performance with respect to poverty alleviation. They have not failed in the task, but they have also not been spectacularly successful.[13] In fact, Charron & Lapuente (2010) show evidence that poor countries may be better off with dictatorships until they become wealthy when “good bureaucracy and administrative services and lower corruption are better provided by democratic rulers.”[14] Besides, Collier & Rohner (2008) find that democracy actually increases the risk of political violence for countries below the US$2,750 income per capita threshold. While they do not altogether discountenance the benefits of democracy, their evidence clearly shows the net benefits of democracy for poor countries are not robust.[15]

3.0       Dividends from African democracies below expectations thus far
The so-called “dividends of democracy” remain elusive to many Africans. As earlier highlighted, democracy engenders development by increasing investment, educational attainment, provision of public services, human capital and state capacity. Democracy also spurs economic reforms and reduces social restiveness. Has Africa been a beneficiary of these touted benefits from its experiment with democracy thus far? Judging from the United Nations’ human development index, it could be argued that there has been a positive development trajectory on the continent. When juxtaposed with measures of freedom, however, a divergence is observed in recent years. Thus, it could be inferred that democracy may not be definitively attributed for the past improvements in human development on the continent. For if that were the case, a noticeable decline in progress should be observed in tandem with the recently increasing decline in freedom on the continent. In practical terms, having already established the theoretical thesis, why has democracy underwhelmed on development in many African countries?

Firstly, elected officials are rarely held accountable. This is not surprising since they mostly get elected through fraudulent electoral processes. Parliaments that are supposed to check the potential excesses of executives, tend to end up being little more than rubber stamps; especially when controlled by ruling parties. And since victory at the polls is significantly subject to elite manipulation, politicians are largely insensitive to the needs of the people. Apathy on the part of a frustrated and disillusioned populace consequently contributes to a vicious cycle that strengthens the manipulation machinery of the elite.

Secondly, political participation is largely exclusionary due to high barriers to entry related to ethnicity, financial capacity and corruption. Political parties charge exorbitant fees for registration and other party-related financing. Campaign costs are also prohibitive. There are similarly huge expenses borne by politicians for dishing out patronage; which they almost always make sure to recoup when they eventually win. Thus, “although democracy appears to yield economic benefits over time, the transition to democracy has not fostered dynamic economies or substantial improvements in welfare in most of Africa” (Lewis, 2008).[16]

Thirdly, state capacity remains weak in most of Africa. This is because ethnic insitutions still hold sway in many African countries, especially in rural areas far from capital cities, where whatever state capacity there is tend to be concentrated. A colonial legacy is responsible in part for these circumstances. In fact, it has been shown that the economic performance of partitioned ethnicities remain similar despite being under different national institutional arrangements. For instance, using light density at night as a proxy for economic activity, one study finds a significant relationship between pre-colonial ethnic institutions (stateless ethnicities, petty chiefdoms, paramount chiefdoms, and pre-colonial states) and regional development in Africa.[17] In other words, kingdoms, empires, chiefdoms and the like, that were in place before European colonisation continue to be relevant to African development.[18] And the rigidities of these pre-colonial ethnic-based political centralizations explain the incapacity of some African states to exercise full authority over property rights, tax collection and monopoly of violence to this day.

Fourthly, western liberal democracy is a foreign concept. Little wonder, Bradley (2011) contends African perceptions of democracy differ from the Western view.[19] This may explain why “democracy” has not been effective for development on the continent; in light of its increasing decline. Recent African elections have either been fraudulent or violent or both. True, there has been some positive outcomes from the African democratic experiment thus far. Still, it could not be definitively said that democracy has engendered relatively more development for African countries. Rwanda, which is regularly mentioned as an African development exemplar, is an autocracy in practice, for instance. It could actually be argued that African elites have found that it is easier to manipulate state resources under a flawed or pseudo democracy than an autocracy. Thus, the assertion by Jotia (2012) that “liberal democracy has impeded development in Africa rather than nurturing it” is succinctly true.[20]

Still, there is evidence that democracy has indeed been germane to economic growth for some African countries. Using data for 43 Sub-Saharan African countries over the period 1982-2012, for instance, Masaki & Van de Walle (2014) find “strong evidence that democracy is positively associated with economic growth, and that this democratic advantage is more pronounced for those African countries that have remained democratic for longer periods of time.”[21] More specifically, Narayan, Narayan & Smith (2011) find support in varying degrees for the democracy-development nexus in Botswana, Niger, Chad, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Madagascar, Rwanda, South Africa, Swaziland and Sierra Leone.[22] In any case, Cheeseman (2015) asserts that in spite of the negative narratives around Africa’s experimentation with democracy thus far, about a quarter of Sub-Saharan African countries could be considered to be relatively democratic.[23]

In sum, democracy, while underwhelming in general on the continent thus far, has great prospects for tackling some of the widely acknowledged constraints on African development like ethnicity, nepotism, corruption and so on. Using data on road building in Kenya, for instance, Burgess, Jedwab, Miguel, Morjaria & Miquel (2013) show high level of ethnic favoritism during earlier non-democratic periods, when “districts that share the ethnicity of the president receive twice as much expenditure on roads and have four times the length of paved roads built”, disappears during later periods of democracy.[24] Furthermore, Cheeseman (2014) finds in Kenya and a couple of other African countries that a rising middle class is aiding democratization across the continent, arguing “contemporary demographic changes will improve the prospects for democratic consolidation.”[25] Thus, the prospects of democracy on the continent remain bright. But will development happen in tandem?

4.0       Tune African democracies for greater development
For better or worse, democracy has become the preferred form of government in Africa. If as it has been found, it does not always deliver development, the obvious next step is to determine how to ensure that it does. Even so, there are a number of democratic exemplars on the continent. What have Mauritius, Cape Verde, Botswana done differently? These top three African democracies are in addition to being models of good governance also economic successes. They also have one common characteristic: they are small countries. South Africa, which is Africa’s most advanced country and one of its largest, while having relatively strong democratic institutions, suffers from rampant corruption, poverty and anaemic growth. South Africa’s increasing economic decline exemplifies how institutional design could still fail to deliver expected economic benefits. This background is useful for contextualising any proposed reforms.

Top 10 African Democracies
1. Mauritius
2. Cape Verde
3. Botswana
4. South Africa
5. Lesotho
6. Ghana
7. Tunisia
8. Namibia
9. Senegal
10. Benin
Source: 2018 EIU Democracy Index

Nonetheless, there is a strong case for urgent political reforms in many currently floundering African democracies. Making the electoral process more credible and less expensive might be a good place to start. A sense of urgency with such reforms would be crucial to stemming the increasing slide to autocracy on the continent. More importantly, it would ensure that current African democracies endure long enough to deliver the expected developmental benefits that the literature suggests tend to take time to come to fruition. With palpable benefits from democratization over time, these should then spur yearnings for democracy in current African autocracies.

5.0       Recommendations
We propose solutions to the earlier identified challenges faced by African democracies of lack of accountability, political exclusion, weak state capacity, and the perception and practical realities of democracy as still a foreign concept.

Improve the electoral process
Osaghae (2004) recommends the following measures for improving the electoral process, upon “which the stability and survival of democracy ultimately hinges”: “Control of electoral commissions should reside with the legislature and/or judiciary rather than with the executive” and “the first-past-the-post electoral system should, wherever possible, be replaced by the proportional representation system, which guarantees more opportunities for power sharing and bargaining among competing parties.”[26]

We believe electronic voting would also help a great deal in reducing electoral fraud; albeit it has not been quite successful in doing so in the few African countries that have tried thus far. For instance, the 2018 presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was adjudged to have been easily rigged because of e-voting.[27],[28] In the more recent 2019 Namibian presidential election, where electronic voting was similarly used, there were hiccups here and there.[29] Still, these challenges could be easily fixed. And even in the DRC example, just as the electronic system probably made it easier to manipulate the results, it made a forensic determination of fraud relatively easier as well.

More direct democracy for greater accountability
According to Matsusaka (2005), “direct democracy works.” “The spread of direct democracy is fueled in part by the revolution in communications technology that has given ordinary citizens unprecedented access to information and heightened the desire to participate directly in policy decisions.”[30] What is direct democracy? Matsusaka (2005) defines direct democracy as “an umbrella term that covers a variety of political processes, all of which allow ordinary citizens to vote directly on laws rather than candidates for office.” Bottomline, there is a growing need for more effective, representative and participatory political systems; especially in Africa.

We recommend a truly representative and egalitarian unicameral “People’s Assembly” legislative system where lawmakers would all be independents and not belong to any political party. That way, no party controls the legislature. Registration and other formalities for election into the legislature would be free or for pittance and via the electoral body. And while independent candidates would still be qualified and eligible to participate in elections to executive positions (president, governors, premier, etc.), political parties would be the primary vehicle for executive positions. If the rational assumption, in light of history thus far, that political parties are likely already captured by the rich elite, an egalitarian and truly representative People’s Assembly of independents would be a well-suited counterbalance.

Foreign technical assistance to strengthen state capacity
This would have to be an ongoing process, for sure. That is, even as the effectiveness of aid is debatable. For instance, while on the face of it, aid could potentially contribute to democratization through technical assistance with electoral processes, capacity-building for legislatures and judiciary, conditionality, and education, Knack (2004) finds no evidence it promotes democracy.[31] When properly designed, however, it could be effective. In fact, Gibson, Hoffman & Jablonski (2015) argue that foreign aid not easily converted to patronage by incumbents like technical assistance enabled greater and economic and political freedom in African countries.[32] That said, the international community must look beyond election monitoring and other mostly ex post measures to more cogent ones aimed at preventing electoral irregularities in the first place.

Africa should develop its own form of democracy
Cheeseman (2015) suggests “Africanizing” democracy, arguing some of the “most successful innovations on the continent, such as zoning in Nigeria or the best loser system in Mauritius, have been homegrown.”[33] Cheeseman (2015) advocates “a more indigenous set of political arrangements” is best suited for Africa’s peculiarities. In Ghana, “the integration of traditional rulers into the formal political system has helped to generate a sense of inclusion, and has made it easier to manage intercommunal tensions around elections” (Cheeseman, 2015). Recall, Mauritius and Ghana are in the top 10 of African democracies.

Kenya is another example of an African country continually evolving its political system with its realities. As politics is ethnically entrenched in Kenya, with elections almost always strictly along ethnic lines, a process is now underway to ensure the typical bickering and violence in the aftermath of elections are reduced or avoided altogether. The Kenyan proposal would ensure that both winners and losers end up feeling their efforts were not in vain. True, the likely outcome would be administratively expensive, a triumvirate of sorts, with a president, deputy president and prime minister and an official leader of the opposition. Still, the potential benefits outweigh the costs. Cheeseman (2015) also notes the incorporation of traditional norms on social relationships and decision-making into the formal political structure and system of Somaliland.

The point is that democracy engenders development when the government it produces is truly representative of the will of the people, less expensive to manage than other forms of governance, with elected officials truly held accountable, and all of its institutions having legitimacy with all stakeholders. Perhaps, western liberal democracy in its unadulterated form has not quite succeeded in doing that in Africa because it runs at variance with some local cultural entrenchments.

[1] Dahir, A.L. & Kazeem, Y. (2019, February 27). Africans pay a hefty economic price to uphold their democracies. Quartz. Retrieved from

[2] Campbell, J. & Harwood, A. (2011, October 28). Democracy’s growth in Africa: Slow, violent, and worth celebrating. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

[3] Bates, R.H., Fayad, G. & Hoeffler, A. (2012). The state of democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa. International Area Studies Review, 15 (4), 323-338. Retrieved from

[4] Masaki, T. & van de Walle, N. (2014). The impact of democracy on economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1982-2012. WIDER Working Paper 2014/057. Helsinki: UNU-WIDER. Retrieved from

[5] Freedom House (2019). Freedom in the world 2019: Democracy in retreat. Washington DC: Freedom House. Retrieved from

[6] Cheeseman, N. (2019). A divided continent – BTI 2018 Regional Report Africa. Gutersloh: Bertelsmann Stiftung. Retrieved from

[7] Acemoglu, D., Naidu, S., Restrepo, P. & Robinson, J.A. (2019). Democracy does cause growth. Journal of Political Economy, 127 (1), 47-100. Retrieved from

[8] Acemoglu, D. & Robinson, J.A. (2012). Why nations fail. New York: Crown.

[9] Gerring, J., Bond, P., Barndt, W. & Moreno, C. (2005). Democracy and growth: A historical perspective. World Politics, 57 (3), 323-364. Retrieved from

[10] Gerring, J., Thacker, S.C. & Alfaro, R. (2012). Democracy and human development. The Journal of Politics, 74 (1), 1-17. Retrieved from

[11] Ross, M. (2006). Is democracy good for the poor? American Journal of Political Science, 50 (4), 860-874. Retrieved from

[12] Baum, M.A. & Lake, D.A. (2003). The political economy of growth: Democracy and human capital. American Journal of Political Science, 47 (2), 333-347. Retrieved from

[13] Varshney, A. (2005). Democracy and poverty. Measuring Empowerment: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives, 383-401. Retrieved from

[14] Charron, N. & Lapuente, V. (2010). Does democracy produce quality of government? European Journal of Political Research, 49 (4), 443-470. Retrieved from

[15] Collier, P. & Rohner, D. (2008). Democracy, development and conflict. Journal of the European Economic Association, 6 (2-3), 531-540. Retrieved from

[16] Lewis, P. (2008). Poverty, inequality and democracy: Growth without prosperity in Africa. Journal of Democracy, 19 (4), 95-109. Retrieved from

[17] Michalopoulos, S. & Papaioannou, E. (2013b). Pre-colonial ethnic institutions and contemporary African development. Econometrica, 81 (1), 113-152. Retrieved from

[18] Osafo-Kwaako, P. & Robinson, J.A. (2013). Political centralization in pre-colonial Africa. Journal of Comparative Economics, 41 (1), 534-564. Retrieved from

[19] Bradley, M.T. (2011). African perceptions of democracy. African Journal of Political Science and International Relations, 5 (11), 456-464. Retrieved from

[20] Jotia, A.L. (2012). Liberal democracy: An African perspective. Academic Research International, 2 (3), 621. Retrieved from

[21] Masaki, T. & Van de Walle, N. (2014). The impact of democracy on economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa, 1982-2012. WIDER Working Paper No. 2014/057. Helsinki: World Institute for Development Research. Retrieved from

[22] Narayan, P.K., Narayan, S. & Smyth, R. (2011). Does democracy facilitate economic growth or does economic growth facilitate democracy? An empirical study of Sub-Saharan Africa. Economic Modelling, 28 (3), 900-910. Retrieved from

[23] Cheeseman, N. (2015). Democracy in Africa: Successes, failures, and the struggle for political reform. New York: Cambridge University Press

[24] Burgess, R., Jedwab, R., Miguel, E., Morjaria, A. & Miquel, G.P. (2013). The value of democracy: Evidence from road building in Kenya. NBER Working Paper No. 19398. Cambridge: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from

[25] Cheeseman, N. (2014). Does the African middle class defend democracy? Evidence from Kenya. WIDER Working Paper No. 2014/096. Helsinki: World Institute for Development Research. Retrieved from

[26] Osaghae, E.E. (2004). Making democracy work in Africa: From the institutional to the substantive. Journal of African Elections, 3 (1), 1-12. Retrieved from

[27] Wilson, T., Blood, D. & Pilling, D. (2019, January 15). Congo voting data reveal huge fraud in poll to replace Kabila. Financial Times. Retrieved from

[28] Paravicini, G., Lewis, D. & Ross, A. (2019, January 18). How Kabila’s election strategy unraveled in Congo. Reuters. Retrieved from

[29] ‘Frustratingly slow’ vote count in Namibia after extended polling. (2019, November 29). Aljazeera. Retrieved from

[30] Matsusaka, J.G. (2005). Direct democracy works. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19 (2), 185-206. Retrieved from

[31] Knack, S. (2004). Does foreign aid promote democracy? International Studies Quarterly, 48 (1), 251-266. Retrieved from

[32] Gibson, C.C., Hoffman, B.D. & Jablonski, R.S. (2015). Did aid promote democracy in Africa? The role of technical assistance in Africa’s transtions. World Development, 68, 323-335. Retrieved from,%20R_Did%20aid%20promote%20democracy_Jablonski_Did%20aid%20promote%20democracy_2015.pdf

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