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Key findings
  • On average across 18 countries, just four in 10 Africans (42%) believe that their elections work well to ensure that representatives to Parliament reflect the view of voters and to enable voters to remove leaders who do not do what the people want
  • On average, nearly three-quarters (73%) of Africans say they want to choose their leaders through regular, open, and honest elections, including 50% who feel “very strongly” about this issue
  • More than six out of 10 Africans (62%) endorse multiparty competition as necessary to give voters real choices, while 36% say the presence of many parties just creates division and confusion. Opposition to multiparty competition is the majority view in just two countries, Tunisia and Lesotho
  • Participation in elections is as high as support for elections: Almost three-fourths (73%) of Africans (excluding those who would have been too young to vote) say they voted in the previous election in their country. Participation in campaigns is far more modest, though about one-third (35%) say they attended a campaign rally, and one in six (17%) report having worked for a candidate or party
  • Almost nine out of 10 Africans (87%) say they feel “somewhat” or “completely” free to vote for candidates of their choice without feeling pressured (Figure 14), including majorities in every country.
  • Almost two-thirds (64%) of Africans say their country’s most recent national election was free and fair (either “completely” or “with minor problems”). About one in four say it had “major problems” (12%) or was “not free and fair” (15%) (Figure 15). These assessments have varied little across the 15 countries that have been tracked since 2011
  • On other indicators of election quality, significant proportions of the population report negative experiences and perceptions (Figure 18). About half (49%) of Africans say that in their country’s most recent election, the media “never” or only “sometimes” provided fair coverage of all candidates. More than one-third (35%) believe that votes were not accurately counted or reflected in the results, while 20% think people voted more than once and 18% say they were offered food, a gift, or money in exchange for their vote. One in four respondents (24%) suspect that powerful people can find out how they voted.
  • Citizens who think elections are effective at removing non-performing leaders are more likely to vote and to support elections, but these gains are quite modest, suggesting that many Africans care about elections even if they’re unsure whether they can lead to change. Support for elections gets a bigger boost if citizens think their elections are free and fair

For Africa watchers, the 1990s ushered in a period of democratic renewal (Joseph, 1997; Schraeder, 1995). Democracy’s retreat globally over the past decade (Freedom House, 2019) has touched Africa as well (Logan & Penar, 2019; Gadjanova, 2018), although Afrobarometer survey findings suggest that it’s in the delivery of democratic goods, rather than citizens’ aspirations, that democracy in Africa is falling short (Gyimah-Boadi, 2019).

Although elections do not equate with democracy, the holding of free and fair elections is recognized as a hallmark of accountability and a fundamental component of a functioning democracy (Lindberg, 2006). The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (African Union, 2007) reinforces this link and sets electoral standards for the continent.

While elections are institutionalized in a majority of African countries (Posner & Young, 2007) analysts have argued that a change in leadership does not necessarily mean systemic change or greater democratic consolidation (Donner, 2020). Moreover, there has been concern that African elections are becoming increasingly contentious and marked by fear (Jenkins, 2020). In some cases, elections have been little more than springboards for leaders who, once in office, subvert democratic institutions to consolidate their position (Onyulo, 2017).

In light of these developments, how do Africans perceive the quality and efficacy of their elections? Drawing on 2019/2020 Afrobarometer data from 18 African countries, we find that while most Africans believe in elections as the best way to select their leaders, popular support for elections has weakened, and only a minority think elections help produce representative, accountable leadership.

In line with Bratton and Bhoojedhur (2019), our findings show that voting and popular faith in elections get a boost if citizens believe that their elections are high-quality and effective tools for holding leaders accountable.

Fredline M’Cormack-Hale

Fredline M’Cormack-Hale is the co-national investigator for Sierra Leone.

Mavis Zupork Dome

Mavis Zupork Dome is the national investigator for Ghana.