There has been a challenge of developing lasting and representative political institutions based on the will of the people in Africa. Depending on one’s perspective, there are countries undergoing meaningful change, those adopting the form but not the substance of democratic functioning, and those that have not undergone any significant democratisation process.  Consequently, Africa’s progress on democracy cannot be generalised. 

The articles discusses three broad arguments in support and against the assertion that democracy has made significant progress in some African countries, respectively, in the last ten years. The discussion will focus on three main dimensions of political democracy as espoused by Dahl (1989) competition, participation and civil and political liberties.

Samarasinghe (1994) defines the concept of democracy using the two Greek words demos (people) and Kratos (rule). These two words are combined to make the word democracy, meaning “rule by the people”. This is the classical idea of democracy. Beetham (1993:55) elaborates this concept as a;

“mode of decision-making about collectively binding rules and policies over which the people exercise control, and the most democratic arrangement to be that where all members of the collective enjoy effective equal rights to take part in such decision making directly – one, that is to say, which realises to the greatest conceivable degree the principles of popular control and equality in its exercise…”.

However, democracy is understood and defined differently.

Arguments for democratic progress

First, some African countries have made significant progress in promoting extensive competition among individuals and organised groups, i.e. political parties. The demand for political participation and the involvement of the people in the choice of their leaders and decision-making which constitutes the critical hub of political democracy is not a new phenomenon in Africa.  The anti-colonial project was constructed and legitimised on this basis (Africa All-Party Parliamentary Group, 2014)

Decades of economic decline have created populations ready for a change from authoritarian leadership.  A political generation that had been in power for, a long time has lost its appeal and legitimacy. For instance, Libya and Egypt.  There are movements towards democratic consolidation, in most Africa Countries formerly under Dictatorial regimes (McMahon, 2000).

Secondly, some countries have demonstrated a highly inclusive level of political participation in the selection of leaders and policies at least through regular and fair elections. For instance, Africa All-Party  Parliamentary Group (2014) asserts that Sierra Leone since the Civil War ended in 2002 is now considered mostly peaceful and democratic, ranked 19th out of 52 African countries for participation by the Ibrahim Index of African Governance. The 2012 elections were the first since the civil war to be organised without UN organisational support, signalling a democracy beginning to stand on its own two feet.  Furthermore, in many African countries, a system of formal democracy has been established, and elections have been held regularly, for example, in Zambia and Ghana.

Thirdly, some African countries have made progress in the promotion of civil and political liberties such as freedom of expression. According to Friedman (2009), if we understand democracy purely as a set of “negative” freedoms that protect individuals from arbitrary government power, South Africa’s democracy has done better than expected since its inception in 1994. Overall, civil liberties have been respected, and the country’s 1996 constitution is enforced by a constitutional court that has periodically overturned legislation and rejected government decisions. A vigorous national debate provides a platform for divergent voices, many of them highly critical of the government.

In recent years, civil society organisations have been seen in Africa, fighting for common goals of citizens and providing checks and balances on government behaviour (Gaventa, 2006).

Arguments against democratic progress

First, in some African countries, the existence of competition among individuals and organised groups is not encouraged. According to McMahon (2000) in countries led by what had been hopefully called the “New Leaders” in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Rwanda, the political reform side of their ledgers is wanting.  Non-governmental organisations have been expelled from Eritrea, which has yet to legalise a multi-party system.  Political party and civic organisation development have been impeded in Ethiopia.  The no-party “Movement” system in Uganda was recently prolonged.

According to Africa All-Party Parliamentary Group (2014) despite considerable progress in some areas, there remain challenges in ensuring democratic processes are inclusive to marginalised groups such as women and youths. Furthermore, ethnicity and tribal politics remain barriers to an inclusive democracy in some parts of Africa, particularly where the winner takes all in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Côte D’Ivoire, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The losers risked being wholly excluded from the spoils of office.

Secondly, some African countries have failed to embrace political participation in regular and fair elections. According to McMahon (2000), generally many African countries authoritarian governments have attempted to carefully manage the democratisation process. Thus the legitimacy of electoral processes has fallen short of expectations.  Mapuva (2013) argues that elections on the African continent have been associated with vote-buying, politically-motivated violence, mud-slinging as different political parties seek to outwit each other. DRC, Sudan, and Somalia are yet to hold free and fair elections and unlikely to develop meaningful democratisation processes in the foreseeable future.

Thirdly, civil and political liberties remain highly constrained in Africa.  Adejumobi (2000) argues that civil society is generally conceived to be an organ for democracy, good governance and development, which presses for civil and political rights. Unfortunately, in Africa democratisation processes have focused mainly on changes to the political system, without paying much attention to civil and political rights. According to Africa All-Party Parliamentary Group (2014) in Ethiopia, the use of anti-terrorism legislation to imprison journalists can be considered a significant limit to press freedom.  In Sierra Leone, the 1965 Public Orders Act allows for the prosecution of journalists for criminal defamation even in cases where they have published the truth.


In countries held up as positive examples of democracy in Africa, democratic institutions are often weak and ineffective.  Botswana, for example, has held regular elections since Independence and citizens enjoy a high degree of political rights.  However, a single party, the Botswana Democratic Party, has been in power since Independence. The Parliament and judiciary are kept under the grip of the Executive.

In African countries, the nature of democracy varies so much across the continent. It is again difficult to make generalisations of the progress or no progress of democracy in Africa. However, generally speaking, various ingredients are required such as competition, participation and civil and political liberties.