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Key findings
  • Africans broadly support checks on executive power: Solid majorities say presidents should always obey laws and courts (70%) and should be required to account to Parliament (64%). They also endorse the news media’s “watchdog” role over government (69%). But most see the opposition’s main role as cooperating with, rather than monitoring, the government.
  • Asked who should be responsible for making sure that elected leaders do their jobs, Africans most commonly assign this task to voters.
  • But many citizens also prioritize horizontal accountability, i.e. the executive and legislative holding each other accountable.
  • “Committed democrats” – citizens who prefer democracy over any other system and reject authoritarian alternatives – are more likely than other respondents to see voters as responsible for making sure that elected officials do their jobs.
  • Similarly, respondents who are highly involved in voluntary associations and frequently attend community meetings are more likely to see it as the voters’ role to hold elected officials accountable.

In addition to the growing number of African states that conduct regular elections and embed democratic principles in their constitutions, evidence comes from survey-based research that most Africans support democratic values and reward governments that adhere to democratic rules (Mattes & Bratton, 2007; Bratton & Mattes, 2001). However, in many countries, citizen demand for democracy is not met by supply of democracy (Mattes & Bratton, 2016) as governments, once elected, fail to respect the norms of democratic governance (Gyimah-Boadi, 2015). Beyond Election Day, democracy requires day-to-day accountability to ensure that those elected to represent the people in fact do their jobs (O’Donnell, 1998; Schedler, 1999; Warren, 2014).

How do ordinary Africans view accountability? Whom do they see as responsible for monitoring those in power? Findings from Afrobarometer surveys in 36 African countries show that most Africans support checks on executive power by lawmakers, the courts, and the news media. But when it comes to holding elected officials accountable, that responsibility is most often assigned to the voters.

Thomas Isbell

Thomas Isbell is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute of Democracy, Citizenship and Public Policy in Africa, University of Cape Town.