12. February 2019 | EDP Wire | Julia Leininger

Democracy Promotion in Africa

This Wire is part of our EDP Wire Series featuring the contributions of our joint EDP policy paper. Once a week, you are invited to read a new article on one of the key issues that democracy promotion is currently faced with. In the following weeks, we will focus on the question of where the formerly major democracy promoters as well as the different world regions stand with regard to democracy promotion activities and (non-)successes. Julia discusses the various challenges that democracy promotion in Africa is faced with. She calls for more integrated approaches by donors and multilateral organizations, as well as a stronger recognition of and clear commitments to shared democratic norms between external democracy promoters and African societies.

Status quo[1]

Africa has one of the most elaborated regimes for protecting and promoting democracy worldwide. Inspired by the Organization of American States (see Wolff in this report), the Charter of the African Union (AU), adopted in 2000, includes a reference to the principles of democracy and human rights and established unconstitutional changes of government as a ground for suspension. Overall, attempts to pro-actively promote democracy have remained limited, but on several occasions the AU has applied its norm against “unconstitutional changes of government” to either protect democratically elected governments against unconstitutional threats or to defend existing political regimes against incumbents’ unconstitutional attempts to extend presidential term limits. The same pattern holds for the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS), which is the most active organization at the sub-regional level.[2] While these strong regional norms have resulted in an increase in more reactive measures for protecting democratic institutions when their survival was at stake (e.g. military coups, third term attempts etc.), no regime to pro-actively support and promote democracy is in place yet. Supporting democracy is still left to non-regional donors such as the US, the European Union and its member states as well as international and non-governmental organizations.[3]

Varying regional and non-regional efforts to protect and promote democracy mirror the different regime trends on the continent. Regular elections are held in most of the 54 countries, but only 19 are generally considered to be democracies, while the others are electoral autocracies with limited civil rights, accountability and rule of law. However, at least when considering the size of the populations of individual countries and focusing on Sub-Saharan Africa, this is the only world region which experienced a slight increase in its level of democracy in 2017.[4] In recent years, autocratic regimes unexpectedly opened up in the Gambia (2016), Zimbabwe (2017) and the second most populated African country, Ethiopia (2018).


Democracy promotion in Africa faces a series of important challenges. The first concerns the well-known issue of potentially competing foreign-policy interests. The two most prominent examples are security interests, and the current focus of the EU on reducing migration to Europe in response to the so-called refugee crisis. In addition, the prevalence of fragile statehood and violent conflict in a series of African countries has also led donor governments to prioritize state building and conflict management over the more ambitious goal of democratic transformation.[5]

Second, changing regional and global geopolitics are weakening international alliances for democracy promotion in Africa. In recent years, African countries have diversified their political and economic relations and, as a result, have become less dependent on traditional donor countries from the OECD world. Such diversification concerns, in particular, China, but also India, Turkey, Japan and (to a lesser extent) Morocco. Although still important in terms of resources (trade, investment, aid) and bound by a joint colonial legacy, cooperation with European countries and the US has been reduced to becoming one among several pillars of Africa countries’ external relations.[6] This has undermined the potential for democracy promoters to push for democratic reforms through political conditionalities.

Third, the normative competition for the “right” politico-economic model has increased during the last decade. For most parts of the period since 1990, debates on development in Sub-Saharan Africa have centered on the idea that good governance and democracy would lead to more societies that are prosperous. Yet, in recent years, democracy has lost appeal not only among African political elites but also among increasing parts of the population. This trend has been nurtured by the slow progress in human development and persisting inequalities as well as elites’ rent-seeking and corruption that have persisted even in relatively democratic regimes. Despite continuing support for democracy as the most preferable political regime in many African countries,[7] positive economic and social developments in a few authoritarian regimes such as Rwanda and Ethiopia have further strengthened a public discourse questioning democracy. Global dynamics also play a crucial role. International cooperation with economically successful authoritarian regimes, in particular China, increases the appeal of authoritarian development models.[8] China, in fact, has been offering political advice about the model of the authoritarian developmental state to some African governments, has opened culture institutes to engage with African societies and runs large programs of technological knowledge transfer. Democratic backsliding in the US and Europe has further undermined democracy as a model of development (see the introduction to this report). For instance, the European Union’s hesitant reaction to democratic backsliding in its member states and neighboring countries (e.g. Hungary, Poland, Turkey) lends inadvertent support to autocratic member states in African regional organizations which oppose AU democracy support.

Fourth, symbolic politics also matters. This not only concerns the negative signals that donor governments send when applying double standards and/or prioritizing other foreign-policy goals over democratic norms. In this context, post-colonial politics are another example with immediate relevance for democracy promotion. For instance, former colonial powers such as France and Germany have refused to return cultural goods which were stolen from African populations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the French government currently seems to be re-positioning itself on this issue, the refusal of both countries to acknowledge their unethical behavior in the past has undermined their credibility as democracy promoters. Why should African governments subscribe to the ‘democratic cause’ while donors defend their own autocratic behavior in the past?

In addition to these specific challenges to democracy promotion, it is also important to consider a series of interrelated megatrends that are likely to fundamentally transform African societies during the next three decades.[9] In terms of demographic change, the African population is expected to increase to 2 billion people by 2050, with the majority being younger than 18 years. At the same time, urbanization will accelerate, with two thirds of the population living in cities by 2050. If the current trend continues without major changes, two thirds of urban citizens will live in slums. Both trends are likely to reinforce an ongoing third trend, namely an increase in local conflicts. These societal changes, on the one hand, provide the opportunity for stronger social mobilization for the common good and against exclusive politics. And, in fact, recent years have already seen social movements and grassroots organizations actively challenging exclusive African politics despite a shrinking civic space (see Poppe/Wolff in this report). On the other hand, low-intensity conflicts might increase further and escalate if the demands of the youth remain unaddressed and if no progress is made in building sustainable and inclusive cities. This means that, while democracy promotion can hardly stop or even reverse these megatrends, it can contribute to mitigating emerging conflicts.


Strong democratic norms, African regional organizations, and different regime trajectories are the starting point for any effort to support democratization in African societies. In adjusting to the challenges just outlined, external democracy promoters should start by re-enforcing their recognition of the existing democratic norms they share with African partner governments and acknowledging the different regime trajectories on the continent. More specifically, I recommend the following:

The problematique of competing interests requires a clear commitment to democratic norms without giving up other foreign policy interests. OECD donors cannot fall behind in their economic commitments to African governments, but they need to balance these commitments if they want to support democracy.

In the context of diversified external relations (geopolitics), democracy promotion must go beyond focusing on domestic political systems or the support of regional organizations. More diplomatic action is needed to engage in a dialogue not only with African governments but also with other external partners of African governments. For instance, seeking an informal and confidential exchange about cooperation approaches in Africa with the governments of China, India or Morocco is a necessary condition for understanding the opportunities and challenges of democracy promotion in Africa better.

Normative doubts about democracy as the “right” politico-economic model for African societies can be countered through clear and open positioning of democracy promoters. Given the challenges to democracy within the OECD world, this is a task to be tackled first in donor societies themselves. Being open and transparent about the problems OECD democracies are facing is one entry point for changing the culture of cooperation between African and OECD governments.

Democratic symbolic politics require that negative signals must be avoided. This includes the example of stolen cultural goods which has clearly undermined the credibility of democracy promoters. Addressing spill-over effects of different sectoral policies is thus relevant for the success of democracy promotion.

Finally, addressing the implications of the different megatrends, calls for more integrated approaches by donors and multilateral organizations. If structural change is to be beneficial for the people, policies must be inclusive. Thus, sectoral approaches such as economic reforms or conflict management and crisis prevention must be more integrative with regard to democracy promotion (see Freyburg in this report). For instance, in order to avoid exclusive economic policies, any economic program should be accompanied by measures to support more inclusive political and economic institutions.

[1]     This chapter largely focuses on democracy promotion in Sub-Saharan Africa. For more details on North Africa see van Hüllen in this report.

[2]     See Julia Leininger 2015: Against All Odds: Strong Democratic Norms in the African Union, in: Tanja A. Börzel/Vera van Hüllen (eds.): Governance Transfer by Regional Organizations, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 51–67.

[3]     Simone Dietrich/Joseph Wright 2015: Foreign Aid Allocation Tactics and Democratic Change in Africa, in: The Journal of Politics 77: 1, 216–234.

[4]     See Lührmann et al. 2018 (footnote 10).

[5]     See Stephen Brown 2013: Democracy Promotion in Africa, in: Nic Cheeseman/David M. Anderson/Andrea Scheibler (eds.): Routledge Handbook of African Politics, London: Routledge, 404–13.

[6]     Sven Grimm/Christine Hackenesch 2017: China in Africa: What Challenges for a Reforming European Union Development Policy? Illustrations from Country Cases, in: Development Policy Review 35: 4, 549–566.

[7]     See, for instance, the results of the Afrobarometer surveys of round 7.

[8]     Grimm/Hackenesch 2017 (footnote 65).

[9]     Julia Leininger 2018: The Many Paces of African Societies, in: Dirk Messner/Lutz Meyer (eds.) forthcoming: 2030 – Deutschland und die Welt, Berlin: ECON, 130–139.

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