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The Military in Politics: Does Democracy have a Future in Africa?

As featured in the Wilson Center's "Africa: Year in Review 2022" publication
Joseph Asunka 1 Jan 2023
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The recent spate of military coups in Africa is alarming, raising concerns that the continent may be riding a global wave of democratic recession back to the military regimes of yesteryear. The sight of ordinary Malians (twice in one year) and Guineans pouring into the streets to celebrate military takeovers prompts important questions about the future of African democratization: Are Africans becoming comfortable with military rule? Have military coups eroded democratic commitments on the continent? Is there a future for democracy in Africa?

These are legitimate questions. However, data from Afrobarometer surveys in 20 African countries in 2021 and 2022 give reason for cautious optimism: Africans continue to want to live under governments that are democratic, accountable, and responsive.

Across the 20 countries, solid majorities express a preference for democracy “over any other kind of government” (67%) and reject non-democratic alternatives, including one-party rule (79%) and one-man rule (81%). Clear majorities also endorse core democratic norms such as parliamentary oversight of the president (65%), media freedom (67%), and presidential term limits (73%). Moreover, the demand for accountable governance remains strong: 62% say accountability is even more important than effectiveness. That said, only 37% of Africans are satisfied with the way democracy works in their country, and even fewer (30%) think their government is doing an adequate job of curbing corruption, which a majority (62%) see as increasing.

Governments’ inability to meet the democratic aspirations of their citizens may be fueling an increasing appetite for military rule. While two-thirds (67%) of citizens still reject military rule, this represents an 8-percentage-point decline compared to the previous survey round. What’s more, fewer than half (42%) of Africans agree that militaries should never intervene in politics; the slim majority (54%) willing to accept this option if elected leaders abuse power grows to 58% among 18- to 25-year-olds.

This should be a wake-up call for governments and other stakeholders to act now on citizens’ democratic aspirations. The U.S. strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa correctly emphasizes the delivery of democratic and security dividends, but effective, collaborative implementation will be required to reverse a dangerous trend.

Joseph Asunka

Joseph Asunka is the chief executive officer at Afrobarometer.