Democracy in Africa

Thorvaldur Gylfason 17 November 2013



A man’s admiration for absolute government is proportionate to the contempt he feels for those around him.
Alexis de Tocqueville

Until the second half of the 19th century, there were so few democratic states around the world that they could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Under the auspices of the Polity IV Project, political scientists at the University of Maryland in the US have charted the progress of democracy since 1800, assessing democracy in terms of – among other measures – electoral competitiveness, openness, and popular participation.

Until 1850, autocratic or anocratic government was the rule, and democracy was a rare exception (see Figure 1). Anocratic rule (or oligarchic rule) is a system of government where power is vested in largely self-appointed political elites rather than in public institutions – a half-way house of sorts between democracy and autocracy. Without democracy, there was scant regard for human rights.

The second half of the 19th century saw change. By the dawn of the 20th century, the number of democracies had caught up with the number of autocracies – although anocracy remained the most common form of government. After World War II, the number of autocracies rose more rapidly than the number of democracies. Those were the years when the former Soviet Union and its satellite states cast a long shadow over Africa, where numerous new states declared independence one after another – severing their links with their erstwhile, mostly democratic, colonial powers without adopting democratic rule.

The tables were turned after 1970 when, in Europe, democracy returned to Greece, Portugal, and Spain, and made new advances in several developing countries. The pace quickened with the collapse of communism around 1990, when 25 new and mostly democratic states came into being. Today, there are only 20 autocratic states left in the world, compared with nearly 100 democracies and just over 50 anocracies (the figures refer to countries with 500,000 or more inhabitants). Democracy continues to win new adherents due to its clear advantages in terms of efficiency, fairness, and respect for human rights vis-à-vis autocracy and anocracy, where privileged elites exercise their political power without full regard for the public interest.

An important aspect of democracy is collective responsibility – we all have to accept and abide by democratic election results and other democratic decisions, whether we consider them right or wrong. The destiny of democratic nations is in the hands of their electorates. Democracy means, in the words of Lord George-Brown, Britain’s Foreign Secretary in the 1960s, that “There shall be no one to stop us from being stupid if stupid we want to be.”

Africa’s changing landscape

Africa exhibits the same general pattern of rapid democratisation as the world at large (see Figure 2). As in Figure 1, democracy is measured by the Polity2 variable compiled by political scientists at the University of Maryland. In their words (original emphasis),

“The Polity conceptual scheme is unique in that it examines concomitant qualities of democratic and autocratic authority in governing institutions, rather than discreet [sic] and mutually exclusive forms of governance. This perspective envisions a spectrum of governing authority that spans from fully institutionalized autocracies through mixed, or incoherent, authority regimes (termed “anocracies”) to fully institutionalized democracies. The “Polity Score” captures this regime authority spectrum on a 21-point scale ranging from -10 (hereditary monarchy) to +10 (consolidated democracy).”

In Figures 1 and 2, countries are classified as democratic if their Polity2 score is larger than or equal to 6, as open anocracies if their score lies in the range from 5 to 1, as closed anocracies if their score lies in the range from 0 to -5, and as autocratic if their score is smaller than or equal to -6. Hence, the 21-point scale of the Polity2 variable is divided nearly evenly among the four categories of government. In Figures 1 and 2, open and closed anocracies are treated as one category.

Figure 1. Global trends in governance, 1800-2012

Source: Polity IV Project.

Figure 2. African Trends in Governance, 1960-2012

Source: Author‘s computations based on data from the Polity IV Project.

For 30 years after 1960, the number of democracies in Africa stayed close to five or less, while the number of autocracies rose from 17 to 41. Following the collapse of communism in Europe, the 1990s saw a radical change in governance. The number of democracies in Africa rose from four to 17, while the number of autocracies fell down to single digits. Even so, in 2012 Africa had fewer democracies (17) than anocracies (30), and only a handful of autocracies (3).1 The political landscape of Africa has been transformed.

From democracy to growth

Many African countries have made significant economic progress in recent years, and Sub-Saharan Africa has been the world’s most rapidly growing region (IMF 2013). Economic progress has been accompanied by important – albeit gradual – social advances. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, fertility, measured by births per woman, decreased from 6.6 in 1960 to 5.2 in 2011 – a less marked decrease than in the Middle East and north Africa, where fertility fell from 6.9 in 1960 to 2.8 in 2011, in east Asia and the Pacific (from 5.4 to 1.8), or in Latin America and the Caribbean (from 6.0 to 2.2).

To take another example, life expectancy at birth in sub-Saharan Africa increased on average by 16 years, from 40 years in 1960 to 56 years in 2011 – a substantial increase, but still smaller than in the Middle East and north Africa, where life expectancy rose from 47 years to 72 years in the same period, in east Asia and the Pacific (from 48 to 75 years), and in Latin America and the Caribbean (from 56 to 74 years) (World Bank 2013). Longer lives in smaller families are good for economic growth. Smaller families go hand in hand with increased affordability of education.

Experience suggests that democracy is also good for growth through various channels, including more and better education. Despots sometimes feel threatened by too much education – as was the case, for example, in Congo under Belgian rule before 1960 – ‘Pas d’élites, pas d’ennemis’ (‘No elites, no enemies’). In Eritrea, the diaries of an erstwhile Italian colonial governor describe a conscious policy of limited schooling to ensure local acquiescence (see Wrong 2006: 67). Democrats, by contrast, typically favour education – for its own sake, as well as because educated voters tend to support democrats rather than anocrats or autocrats. Democracy is good for education, and education is good for growth.

Empirical evidence also suggests that corruption generally thrives less well under democracy than under autocracy (see Gylfason 2012). Democratic rule is more conducive to the establishment of institutional structures and mechanisms that restrain corruption. Without adequate checks and balances, despots usually find it more alluring than democrats to engage in corrupt practices, and often manage to do so with impunity. Even so, corruption is rampant in some democracies, as documented by – among others – Transparency International and Gallup. Democracy tends to hinder corruption and help growth. In the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, “Despotism alone can provide that atmosphere of secrecy which favours crooked dealing and enables the freebooters of finance to make illicit fortunes” (de Tocqueville 1856).

Figure 3 illustrates the cross-country relationship between democracy and growth in 145 countries from 1960 to 2012. Democracy is measured by the average of the Polity2 variable in each country over the sample period. Growth is represented by the log purchasing power of gross national income in 2012, on the grounds that the level of current income reflects its rate of growth in the past.2 The use of only the end-of-period value of income for each country rules out reverse causation from growth to democracy. The relationship is significant in a statistical sense as well as in an economic sense – the slope of the regression line (0.12) suggests that a four-point increase in Polity2 (e.g. from 2 to 6) is associated with an increase in real per capita income by nearly a half (i.e. by 48%).

Figure 3. Democracy and Growth, 1960-2012

Source: Author‘s computations based on data from Polity IV Project and World Bank, World Development Indicators.

Democracy in America

Democracy can never be taken for granted. In 1943, there were only four democratic states in Europe: the UK, Ireland, Sweden, and Switzerland – where women did not get the vote until 1971.3 Democracy remains a distant dream in some parts of the world, and is in deep trouble in some other places where many might expect otherwise. In the US, in a direct affront against democracy, the Republican majority of the House of Representatives recently threatened but failed to force bankruptcy on the US federal government in an attempt to compel Congress and the President to reverse their earlier decision to provide health insurance to poor Americans. A possibly major catastrophe for the US economy and the world at large at the hands of a few rogue politicians was averted at the eleventh hour. Plainly, even in America, democracy has powerful enemies.


Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2012), “Development and Growth in Mineral-Rich Countries: Why Social Policy Matters”, in Mineral Rents and the Financing of Social Policy: Opportunities and Challenges, ed. Katja Hujo, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

IMF (2013), “Country and Regional Perspectives”, Chapter 2 in World Economic Outlook: Transitions and Tensions, October: 53–79.

de Tocqueville, Alexis (1856), The Old Regime and the French Revolution.

World Bank (2013), World Development Indicators.

Wrong, Michela (2006), I didn’t do it for you: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation, New York: Harper Perennial.

1 The 51 countries included are Algeria, Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo Brazzaville, Congo Kinshasa, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The Polity IV data base does not include São Tomé and Príncipe and Seychelles, and has only two recent observations on South Sudan.

2 For more, see Gylfason (2012). Figure 3 is an update of one of the charts therein.

3 With fewer than 500,000 inhabitants, Iceland is not included – a democratic country where, at present, democracy is under siege by a parliament that refuses to respect the results of a national referendum in 2012 where 2/3 of the electorate expressed their support for a post-crash constitutional bill that parliament subsequently put on ice.



Topics:  Development Economic history Politics and economics

Tags:  education, democracy, growth, Africa, Corruption, fertility, life expectancy, autocracy, anocracy

Thorvaldur Gylfason

Professor of Economics, University of Iceland; Research Fellow, CESifo and CEPR Research Fellow

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