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Key findings
  • Across 36 countries in 2014/2015, Africans express more trust in informal institutions such as religious and traditional leaders (72% and 61% respectively) than in the formal executive agencies of the state (on average 54%).
  • That said, people find certain executive agencies, such as the national army and the state presidency, to be quite trustworthy (64% and 57% respectively), especially when compared with legislative and electoral institutions (47% and 44% respectively).
  • Popular trust in the executive institutions of the state varies considerably across African countries, from more than 80% in Niger and Burundi to less than 40% in Nigeria, Liberia, and São Tomé and Principe.
  • Institutional trust is related to perceptions of corruption. If people think that officeholders are honest, they are likely to deem an institution trustworthy – and vice versa if they think officials are self-serving.
  • Trustworthy institutions help to achieve the development outcomes that Africans say they want. For every one of the general public’s stated development priorities, trust in the state is associated with positive popular assessments of government performance.

In a memorable address to the Ghanaian Parliament on July 11, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama asserted that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen; it needs strong institutions.” He went on to refer to “strong parliaments, honest police forces, (and) independent judges” as institutions that help to ensure that governments “respect the will of their own people (and) govern by consent and not coercion.” Citing good governance as a key to prosperity, he added: “This is about more than just holding elections. It’s also about what happens between elections.”

In a similar vein, the United Nations recognizes that good governance is a vital ingredient in poverty alleviation and socioeconomic development. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal No. 16 explicitly identifies “effective, accountable institutions” as essential elements in the development mix. Yet state capacity has been in short supply for too long in too many places. States with weak institutions can become havens for extremists, sites of humanitarian and human rights disasters, and sources of public health emergencies. Thus, even as development policy priorities evolve to address diverse aspects of human insecurity, there will always be a need for high-quality and high-capacity institutions.

This Afrobarometer dispatch explores whether African citizens think that political institutions – ranging from the state presidency to local government councils – are worthy of their trust and whether public trust matters for development outcomes. We focus on the popular trustworthiness of institutions as a convenient shorthand way to summarize the quality and capacity of political institutions from a public opinion perspective.

The analysis unfolds in three stages. First, we describe cross-country variations in levels of citizen trust in several types of state institutions and trace trends in these attitudes over time. Second, we identify a major – perhaps causal – factor that explains institutional distrust, namely public perceptions that state officials are corrupt. Third, we show links between trustworthy institutions and selected development outcomes, suggesting that institutions earning the public’s trust are essential to the successful pursuit of development.

Click ‘Download now’ for the full report. For the press release, click here.

Michael Bratton

Michael is a co-founder and board member at Afrobarometer

E. Gyimah-Boadi

Gyimah is the chairman of the board of directors at Afrobarometer