The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
In 2019, over a dozen national elections are due to take place across Africa. Nigeria, one of the continent’s giants is leading the way on 16 February with a general election. By the end of the year, elections will be held in countries including Guinea Bissau, Malawi and South Africa.
This means that millions of African citizens from across the continent will be heading to the polls to exercise their democratic right to vote. But what impact does this have on political participation?
Better elections, but not a better participatory environment
The 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) includes the category Participation & Human Rights, which measures civil and political rights and freedoms by assessing citizen participation in the political and electoral process, respect for basic rights, and the absence of gender discrimination through the sub-categories Participation, Rights and Gender. This category is the second most improved in the IIAG over the past decade, showing an African average improvement of +2.9 points since 2008.
The IIAG captures the ever-changing landscape of political participation and elections across the continent through the Participation sub-category which includes indicators such as Democratic Elections, Political Participation and Civil Society Participation. This is the one of the most improved sub-categories of the IIAG.
As highlighted in the IIAG, at least two out of three Africans live in a country where Participation has improved over the last decade. However, the majority of countries that have improved (23 out of 38) have lost momentum over the last five years, either experiencing ‘slowing improvement’, or even recent deterioration (‘warning signs’).
Average progress in this sub-category has largely been driven by improvements in African Democratic Elections. Over the last ten years, free and fair elections have progressed in 33 African countries, predominately in Tunisia (nearly +70.0 points) and Côte d'Ivoire (over +50.0 points).
Though positive, this improvement in the number of free and fair elections that have taken place across the continent does not necessarily mean more inclusivity and access to electoral processes. The IIAG shows that progress in Democratic Elections has not always translated into a better participatory environment for African citizens. In fact, the IIAG points to the closing of the civil and political spaces of citizens.
As highlighted in the IIAG, between 2013-2017 the African average score for Political Participation declined by -0.6 points. In this period, over half of Africa’s citizens have registered a decline in the freedom to participate in their countries’ political process or to join a political organisation.
This finding is a cause for great concern because despite frequent elections, Political Participation on the continent is threatened.
The IIAG also points to a shrinking civil space across the continent with declines in Civil Society Participation in some of Africa’s most populous countries. This means that almost three out of four African citizens (72.9%) have seen this decline over the past decade, and one in two have seen it deteriorate even further between 2013-2017.
What to consider
When assessing the progress African countries are making in holding more frequent free and fair elections, it is important to consider the participatory environment. A conducive environment enables all citizens to exercise their political freedoms.