Claiming Democracy: Are Voters Becoming Citizens in Africa?

By Carolyn Logan and Michael Bratton

The political transitions that allowed many Africans to experience a degree of citizenship have been major achievements of the past quarter-century. But power corrupts, no less than before, and new democratic governments can corrode from the inside out. Advances in political accountability depend on Africans claiming democracy, a powerful notion articulated by Carolyn Logan and Michael Bratton. Afrobarometer survey data enable them to evaluate the progress or regress of this vital dimension of African states.

Photo Credit: Anthony Allison

Photo Credit: Anthony Allison

In previous assessments of political accountability in Africa’s emerging democracies, we wrote that many Africans had become “voters, but not yet citizens.”[1] We argued that, while Africans expressed widespread commitments to selecting their own leaders through elections, relationships of accountability were largely undeveloped. This was so in part because many Africans had yet to fully appreciate their political rights, and to embrace their own responsibility for holding leaders accountable. They had adopted the attitudes of “voters” by showing strong support for electoral processes, but had yet to transform themselves into “citizens,” who take on the added responsibility of monitoring and, where possible, sanctioning their leaders in the long intervals between elections. We suggested that “accountability remains incomplete because of individuals’ limited conception of political rights, of reasonable expectations, and of their own public roles and responsibilities” and concluded:

Coming out from under the shadow of authoritarian pasts, Africans may not so much be intentionally delegating power to their governments, as failing to claim it from them. Whether unwilling, unable, or simply unaware, many Africans have hesitated to take advantage of the rights and opportunities – along with accompanying responsibilities – that are meant to be theirs in a liberalized political world. . . . Thus, to the extent that democracy is supposed to mean “power to the people” and not just “a vote to the people,” democracy in Africa remains largely unclaimed.[2]

As we begin to explore new data collected during Round 5 of the Afrobarometer (2011-13), the question arises, “Whither the transition from voter to citizen?” As time passes and experience with elections accumulates, do we find an evolution in Africans’ understandings of their own political rights, roles and responsibilities? Or do people in African societies remain subject to authoritarian legacies that left little room for questioning leaders or developing expectations of government, much less demanding accountability.

Photo Credit: Anthony Allison

Photo Credit: Anthony Allison

Initial exploration of the Round 5 Afrobarometer data (which is still being gathered) offers some positive indications, although overall the results are mixed. While we see encouraging and substantial shifts in attitudes about the average citizens’ role in demanding accountability, there is little evidence that this has translated into behavior in the form of citizen actions aimed at holding leaders to account. Moreover, the evidence suggests that popular perceptions of the supply of accountability – that is, the extent to which elected leaders respond to their constituents – are declining, in some places precipitously. It is unclear, however, whether this decline reflects worsening performance by elected leaders, or whether it instead reflects rising expectations and higher standards against which legislators’ performance is being measured.

From Voters to Citizens?

In considering whether Africans increasingly exhibit the attributes of citizens, we begin with elections, the first tool of vertical accountability. Popular support for elections as the preferred method of selecting leaders remains strong and unwavering. In the 15 countries for which we currently have data across time,[3] a constant 82% agree that “we should choose our leaders in this country through regular, open and honest elections.”

But we continue to wonder how vertical accountability functions in the long intervals between elections. Do Africans demand and exercise their right to hold their leaders accountable on a daily basis? Our earlier analysis found this demand to be quite weak. In 2008-9, only one-third of respondents (33%) across 15 countries thought that voters “should be responsible for making sure that, once elected, legislators do their jobs.” A roughly equal proportion (34%) instead said this responsibility fell to their president. Another 24% attributed this responsibility either to parliament or to political parties.

In the most recent Afrobarometer surveys (2011-13) the balance appears to be shifting (Figure 1). A solid plurality (39%) now claims this responsibility for voters, while those who continue to defer to their presidents have declined (to 29%). But another 25% again leave accountability to parliament or parties. Thus voters’ claims of rights over leaders are still relatively weak; after all, a slim majority still leaves the responsibility to others. But the latest evidence nonetheless represents a shift in popular perspectives, particularly regarding the balance of power between presidential rule and citizens’ rights. And the shift implies a gradually growing awareness of the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship.

Graph 1

Moreover, at the country level, the perception that voters are responsible for MP accountability increased, often substantially, in 12 of 15 countries. Two-thirds (66%) of Kenyans now assert that it is voters who must hold MPs to account, compared to 45% in 2005. The 2008 post-election crisis may have taught Kenyans hard lessons about the costs of leaving too much discretion in the hands of elected leaders. Benin, Cape Verde, Ghana, Namibia and Zambia also recorded increases of over 10 percentage points on this indicator. In Zimbabwe, on the other hand, the turn has been in the opposite direction. After opposition political parties captured a slim legislative majority in 2008, citizens now rest their hopes on parliament itself to supervise its members (up from 8% in 2005 to 25% in 2012). However, most Zimbabweans are not interested in ceding power to the presidency (down from 32% to 28%).

Other results also point to a growing sense of citizen rights and responsibilities. For example, the Afrobarometer asks respondents to choose whether (a) “People are like children; the government should take care of them like a parent” or whether (b) “Government is like an employee, the people should be the bosses who control the government.” Across 14 countries in 2011-13, a solid majority of 59% chooses the latter option, designating themselves the government’s bosses. This contrasts sharply with findings from 2002-3 surveys[4] when just 37% identified the people as “bosses” rather than “children” (58%). Majorities now see themselves as being in charge in most countries, including up to 80% in Lesotho and 69% in Zimbabwe. The only exceptions are Mali (45% in 2012) and Cape Verde (which lags far behind all others on this issue: just 31% in 2011, up from only 23% in 2002).

But even in these countries that lag behind, the proportions that wish to take charge of their own political destiny (that is, “employing” politicians) have increased substantially since 2005. Overall, these changes reflect a potentially meaningful shift in popular understandings of the relationship between the people and their governments. The 2005 findings suggested a political deference so widespread that the soil hardly seemed fertile for a culture of political accountability to take root. However, a gain of fully 22 percentage points in those claiming ownership of their governments over the course of one decade represents a sharp reversal, and suggests that African voters may be evolving into rights- and accountability-demanding citizens.

Graph 2

Additional evidence of a newfound popular desire for political accountability emerges from a new question included in the most recent round of surveys. Respondents were asked “Which of the following statements is closest to your view?” Either (a) “It is more important to have a government that gets things done, even if we have no influence over what it does.” Or (b) “It is more important for citizens to be able to hold government accountable, even if that means it makes decisions more slowly.” Across 15 countries a majority of 55% opt for accountability, a relatively robust result given that, in practice, many African governments perform poorly in meeting pressing needs for essential public goods and services.

Taken together, the most recent Afrobarometer results hint that African publics are reappraising their relationship to the state. People appear to be making a transition from “subjects” who want material provision from government but feel they have little control over what they get, to “citizens” who increasingly accept that responsibility lies in their own hands for ensuring that government will help to meet their needs.

From Attitudes to Behavior?

The picture is not entirely rosy however. Although Africans may be gradually adopting the attitudes of rights-demanding citizens, they have yet to follow up by adopting the behaviors of such citizens. In fact, indicators of civic engagement have held relatively steady. For example, the reported rates at which individuals initiate contact with political leaders (like local government councilors, MPs, government officials and political party officials) remain largely unchanged in 2011-13 compared to 2005-6. The same goes for collective action: when asked whether they had “during the past year, got together with others to raise an issue”, we observed only a slight uptick, from 49% in Round 3 to 53% in Round 5. In sum, deepening accountability-demanding attitudes have yet to stimulate more extensive accountability-demanding behaviors.

From Demand to Supply?

More troubling still are trends on the supply side. We might expect that, as citizens express expanded demands for accountability, leaders would respond accordingly. But the data instead reveal a strong movement in the opposite direction. Afrobarometer respondents are regularly asked, “How much of the time do you think Members of Parliament try their best to listen to what people like you have to say.” Between 2005-6 and 2011-13, average positive responses (“often” or “always”) declined from an already low 24% across 15 countries to a mere 13% (Figure 3). Every country reports either stasis or decline in leadership responsiveness. In some cases the declines are very sharp, led by Namibia (-32%) and Tanzania (-36%). It is notable, though, that Tanzanians and Namibians still give MPs the highest ratings for responsiveness: 53% of Tanzanians say MPs listen most of the time, as do 47% of Namibians. By contrast, positive responses do not rise above one-third of respondents in any other country.

Graph 3 Why have popular assessments of leaders’ responsiveness dropped so sharply across most of the African countries we have studied? The negative trend may represent a real decline in the observed responsiveness of these leaders. Or it could instead reflect positive changes in the expectations of citizens. In other words, the standards against which citizens are measuring MP performance may be on the rise – itself a reflection of growing demand for accountability – and MPs may be found increasingly wanting as a result. This interpretation helps us to understand the sharp declines in leadership responsiveness seen even in Namibia and Tanzania, two countries that have long exhibited uncritical attitudes among citizens and generous popular assessments of government performance.[5] Whatever the reason, elected representatives in Africa are apparently falling well short of even low citizen expectations for responsiveness, and the demand-supply gap on accountability appears to be widening.

Why Deepening Accountability Matters

Bruce Whitehouse’s essay on the crisis in Mali, which appeared on this forum in April[6], highlights some of the reasons why the deepening of political accountability matters so much. He paints a picture of a country once “widely regarded as a paragon of democratic institution building” but where an inept government remained almost entirely unaccountable to citizens. In fact, voter turnout was low, and post-electoral engagement by the public was even lower. Corruption and policy failures – not least in protecting the country’s borders – steadily undermined the legitimacy of the state, and the country ultimately succumbed to minority rebellion, foreign invasion, and a military coup. Mali’s experience reveals the inherent weakness of a system where elections are routinely held but where civic engagement is lacking and relationships of accountability are weak or non-existent. The Malian case also highlights the danger – for the citizens of African countries and the members of the international community alike – of complacently settling for the formal processes of electoral democracy. The Malian government was elected by the voters of Mali, but it was not ultimately owned by the citizens of Mali. As a result, the country now has little to show for its former reputation as a democratic leader on the continent.

The interim survey results presented here make it clear that citizens and leaders in Africa are only just beginning to establish relationships of political accountability. Nonetheless, we detect incipient changes over the last decade in the way that citizens understand their roles in, and relationship to, government. We noted in our earlier analysis that it was no easy matter for individuals to transit from “subjects” under authoritarian rule, to “voters” in electoral democracies, and thereafter to rights- and accountability-demanding “citizens.” There is still a long distance to go, both in changing attitudes, and just as importantly, in transforming new attitudes into actions. But the Afrobarometer data thus far suggest that learning and change are occurring, and that citizen demand for political accountability may be strengthening in several parts of the continent.

Africa Demos Forum is inspired by the Africa Demos quarterly published by Emory University and the Carter Center, 1990-1995:

[1] See Michael Bratton and Carolyn Logan, 2008, “Voters, But Not Yet Citizens: Democratization and Development Aid,” in Richard Joseph and Alexandra Gillies (eds.), Smart Aid for African Development, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 181-206; a revised version appears as Michael Bratton and Carolyn Logan, 2013, “Voters, But Not Yet Citizens: The Weak Demand for Vertical Accountability ,” in Michael Bratton (ed.), Voting and Democratic Citizenship in Africa, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 197-218.

[2] Bratton and Logan, Smart Aid, 202 (emphasis added).

[3] Except where noted, all comparisons here are between the 15 countries that appear both in Round 3 (2008-9) and Round 5 (2011-13). These are: Benin, Botswana, Cape Verde, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Round 5 data collection is still under way, and will be completed in 35 countries by May/June 2013, including in all 18 of the countries included in Round 3.

[4] The question was not asked in Round 3, hence the comparison to Round 2, and the dropping of Benin from the countries considered, since Benin was not included in Round 2.

[5] See Robert Mattes and Carlos Shenga, 2013, “Uncritical Citizenship: Mozambicans in Comparative Perspective,” in Michael Bratton (ed.), Voting and Democratic Citizenship in Africa, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 159-178.


Copyright © 2013 AfricaPlus

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