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Does a change in leadership result in improved governance?

Following the announcement of former Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the winner of the 2017 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African leadership, there is renewed attention on leadership on the African continent.

As Dr Salim Ahmed Salim, Chair of the Ibrahim Prize Committee, stated:

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took the helm of Liberia when it was completely destroyed by civil war and led a process of reconciliation that focused on building a nation and its democratic institutions.

Strides forward in Africa’s electoral democracies

The emphasis put on democratic institutions brings us to the issue of political transitions on the African continent. Africa has seen a number of leadership transitions between 2006 and 2016, as highlighted in the 2017 Forum Report, Africa at a Tipping Point. Elections have multiplied over this time period (109), leading to 44 changes of power.

Data from the 2017 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) show that more free and fair elections are being held on the continent. On average, the Free & Fair Elections indicator – measuring the extent to which executive and legislative elections are free and fair, including impartiality of the electoral laws and frameworks – has improved since 2006, and has more than doubled its annual average pace of improvement since 2012. In this latter period, countries that have accelerated their pace of improvement by more than +5.00 points per year on average include those that have seen a change in leadership since 2006. This includes Namibia, whose leader, President Hifikepunye Pohamba, became an Ibrahim Prize laureate in 2014. Of the ten fastest improving countries in this indicator, Algeria is the sole country not have gone through a political transition since 2006.

The 2017 IIAG trend classifications assess short term trends – the last five years (2012-2016), within the context of longer term trends – the last decade (2007-2016). These classifications are used in all IIAG publications and provide analysis on the rate of progression in the IIAG’s governance indicators. Please see our blog on Reading the 2017 IIAG results for more information. For the purpose of this blog and in the wake of the announcement of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the winner of the 2017 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African leadership, the longer-term trend assessed is 2006-2016, the base year being the one in which Ellen Johnson Sirleaf first took office.

10 fastest improving countries in the last 5 years in the IIAG’s Free & Fair Elections indicator

As pointed out in the 2017 Forum Report, citizens share a positive view of the quality of their elections. 65% of Africans (in the 36 countries surveyed by Afrobarometer) regarded their latest election as 'completely free and fair' or 'free and fair, but with minor problems'.

We have seen accountable leadership and effective institutions during recent elections in some African countries. Heads of electoral commissions have also emerged as figures of integrity in recent years, as Alieu Momarr Njai of Gambia and Attahiru Muhammadu Jega of Nigeria pronounced elections results in favour of opposition candidates irrespective of existing political pressures in the 2016 and 2015 elections, respectively.

Compared to ten years ago, more citizens are aware of the existence of and trust electoral commissions.

African-owned efforts to achieve more inclusive and peaceful elections have been bolstered over a decade (2006-2016). The African Union and other regional bodies have increased their election monitoring activities, with the African Union monitoring more than 100 elections (both presidential and parliamentary) between 2006 and 2016. ECOWAS played a particularly key role in ensuring the transfer of power in Gambia in January 2017. The 2017 IIAG data shows that ECOWAS is one of two Regional Economic Communities (REC’s) to speed up its pace of improvement in the Election Monitoring Agencies indicator since 2012.

Diversity exists among African countries on the issue of political transitions and progress made in strengthening democratic institutions. In 2016, the average age of African presidents was 66, while the average median age of the continent’s population was 20. For more than a quarter of Africa’s population the leader has not changed for the last ten years, and often much longer. Angola, for example, has had only one leadership transition since it achieved its independence in 1975. In ten countries – Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Djibouti, Gabon, Gambia, Mauritius, South Sudan, Togo and Uganda – the presidents are not subject to constitutional term limits. According to Afrobarometer, in countries with no term limits, there is a higher desire to put them in place, such as Cameroon, Togo and Uganda.

Coups d’état appear to be fading as out of the 56 African heads of state that left office between 2006 and 2016, 13 stepped down following a coup, arrest or uprising. Although is it worth noting that in the past few years (2013-2015), the top motivation for public protest in Africa has been change of government. Protests and riots have also been used as a 'democracy guarantor', either paving the way to the removal from office of long-standing autocrats (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya), or ensuring the respect of democracy (Burundi).

2017 IIAG data shows that in majority of countries where leadership has changed (between 2006-2016) Overall Governance has improved

In 2016, the majority of countries (20 out of 34) where political transitions have occurred score higher than the continental average score for Overall Governance (50.8). Eight out of the top ten scoring countries have changed leadership since 2006:

Conversely, of the ten lowest scoring countries at the Overall Governance level, only three have had a change in leadership over the past decade: Central African Republic, Libya and Somalia (South Sudan is not included in this assessment).

Number of countries per classification at Overall Governance level

24 countries (out of 34) that have had a change of head of state since 2006 have seen advances in Overall Governance during this period.

Further, of the 18 countries that have shown Increasing Improvement (demonstrating stronger positive performance since 2012) at the Overall Governance level, the majority (11 countries) have had a change of head of state between 2006 and 2016: Comoros, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Tanzania and Tunisia. Amongst these are four of the most improved countries on the continent since 2012: Côte d'Ivoire (+8.2), Kenya (+4.9), Namibia (+4.0) and Tunisia (+3.6).

Positively, all three countries that are Bouncing Back (where a negative trend has turned positive) since 2012 at the Overall Governance level have seen a change of head of state over the past decade: South Africa, Mali and Madagascar. Madagascar reached its lowest score in 2012 but has since shown continuous improvement.

Five out of the ten countries showing Warning Signs (decline in the last five years despite long term improvement) have seen a change in leadership: Mauritius, Cabo Verde, Zambia, Malawi and Sierra Leone.

Three countries whose leaders became Ibrahim Prize laureates, President Joaquim Alberto Chissano from Mozambique (2007), President Festus Mogae from Botswana (2008) and President Pedro De Verona Rodrigues Pires from Cabo Verde (2011), now show wavering signs in their Overall Governance performance as both Botswana and Mozambique have shown Increasing Deterioration while Cabo Verde displays Warning Signs. This signals the need for both quality leadership and good governance to secure sustained progress.