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Why are Africans dissatisfied with democracy? Think corruption.

Christiaan Keulder 25 Nov 2021

The fifth in Afrobarometer’s special democracy summit series on Africa.


Originally published on the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, where our regular Afrobarometer series explores Africans’ views on democracy, governance, quality of life, and other critical topics.


Christie Keulder and Robert Mattes


While South Africa, Senegal and Mauritius are very different societies, one thing they have in common is that surveys show their citizens are increasingly unhappy about the way their democracies are working.

Another is that huge majorities in recent Afrobarometer surveys say corruption in their country is increasing.

These parallel trends aren’t a coincidence. Afrobarometer’s 48,084 face-to-face interviews in 34 African countries in 2019-2021 suggest that as people see levels of corruption rising in their key governing institutions, they grow increasingly dissatisfied with their democracy.

In the fifth installment of our series in the run-up to December’s Summit for Democracy, we explore the extent of perceived corruption and its corrosive effects on democracy across Africa.


Africans see corruption growing

Corruption’s costs to developing countries can be measured in trillions of dollars, in lives lost or spent in poverty, and in opportunities for progress missed.

And ordinary Africans say it’s getting worse.

On average across 34 countries, almost six in 10 respondents (58%) say corruption in their country increased “somewhat” or “a lot” over the past year. And almost two-thirds (64%) say their government is doing a “fairly bad” or “very bad” job of controlling corruption.

As shown in Figure 1, perceived corruption increased in many countries that have long confronted governance challenges, such as Gabon (82%) and Mali (76%). But large majorities also see surges in fraud and dishonesty in Lesotho (78%), Mauritius (77%), Senegal (75%), and even in Namibia (73%), a country long noted for exceptionally low rates of bribery reported by respondents.


Figure 1: Corruption increased/decreased in previous 12 months | 34 African countries

Almost half (48%) of respondents see “most” or “all” police as corrupt, while at least one-third say the same about parliamentarians (38%), civil servants (37%), judges and magistrates (35%), officials in the presidency (35%), tax officials (35%), and local government councillors (33%).

In sum, more than a quarter (28%) of Africans report what we call “extensive institutional corruption,” meaning they think that most or all officials in at least four of these six institutions are corrupt. Across 30 countries we’ve surveyed consistently over the past decade, this number has risen by 5 percentage points, fueled by large increases in Cabo Verde (+25 points), Guinea (+24 points), Lesotho (+16 points), South Africa (+12 points), Uganda (+12 points), and Senegal (+12 points).


Experiences of corruption

“Those are just perceptions,” a government official might respond, “based on hostile and sensationalist news and social media!” So what do we know about actual experiences?

Among respondents who sought key public services during the previous year, more than one-third say they had to pay a bribe to obtain police assistance (36%) or avoid problems with the police (34%). Many others report paying bribes to get a government document (25%), medical care (19%) or public school services (18%).

All told, among all respondents — not just those who tried to get these government services — 28% report paying a bribe to at least one of these agencies in the previous 12 months. Levels of extortion were far higher in Liberia (58%), Uganda (53%), Cameroon (50%), and Guinea (50%).

And the scope of victimization has expanded considerably in many countries since we started tracking this indicator in 2014-2015, led by Guinea (+26 percentage points), Niger (+19 points), Uganda (+17 points), Lesotho (+15 points), and Zimbabwe (+15 points).


Does corruption corrode democracy?

As we reported earlier in this series, while average levels of public support for democracy across Africa have remained high, satisfaction with the way democracy works has plummeted over the past decade – to just 41% across 34 countries. This downward trend is pronounced even in some countries once considered leading democracies on the continent, including Zambia (-31 points), South Africa (-29 points), Cabo Verde (-22), and Mauritius (-22).

While many factors drive citizens’ disenchantment with the way democracy works, our findings suggest that the increasing perceptions of corruption play a major role.

Interestingly, having to pay a bribe appears to have little impact on support for or satisfaction with democracy.

The most likely reason is that people make distinctions: When they’re asked for a bribe, they see a problem of underpaid or greedy low-level civil servants. But when they hear about massive embezzlement, bribes or contracts for cronies, they are much more likely to see a failure of the democratic system. Grand corruption schemes usually require the involvement or implicit assent of elected officials, and thus directly link corruption and democracy in people’s minds.

For instance, among respondents who report extensive institutional corruption in their country, just 39% say their country is democratic, and 30% are satisfied with the way democracy works. Among all other respondents, in contrast, 57% say they live in a democracy, and 46% are satisfied with its functioning.

With few exceptions, as shown in Figure 2, countries where people perceive high levels of corruption also register high levels of dissatisfaction — that’s the story in Gabon, Mali, Guinea, Lesotho, and South Africa.


Figure 2: Corruption and dissatisfaction with democracy | 34 African countries

And over time, when perceptions of corruption rise or fall, levels of dissatisfaction with democracy tend to follow suit, as illustrated in the figures below. In South Africa, dissatisfaction with democracy grew steadily alongside scandals involving President Jacob Zuma’s efforts to help his cronies capture contracts and accumulate influence in his administration. Yet dissatisfaction continued to rise under his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, whose office was tainted by his personal spokesperson’s implication in a major COVID-relief scandal.

Until 2014, Ghana also saw parallel increases in perceived corruption and dissatisfaction with democracy. However, the 2015 high-profile firings of judges on charges of bribery, the 2016 election of President Nana Akufo-Addo on an anti-corruption ticket and the appointment of a special prosecutor for corruption appear to have reversed these trends — at least temporarily.


Figure 3: Corruption and dissatisfaction with democracy: South Africa and Ghana


Recent headlines highlight two cautionary tales as well: Guinea and Mali, where rising perceptions of corruption and dissatisfaction with democracy formed a backdrop for military coups.



Christiaan Keulder is the owner of Survey Warehouse, the national investigator for Afrobarometer in Namibia, and a doctoral student at the University of Strathclyde.

Robert Mattes (@BobMattes1) is professor of government and public policy at the University of Strathclyde and honorary professor in the Institute for Democracy, Citizenship and Public Policy in Africa at the University of Cape Town.

Christiaan Keulder

Christiaan Keulder is the national investigator for Namibia.