Democratization in West Africa


Democracy in Africa has often been perceived as a complex issue (World Views 1). In the continent, democracy is perceived as a special form of governance because of the unique dynamics of the continent. Many westerners have experienced a lot of difficulties trying to understand the nature of Africa’s political institutions (World Views 1). However, findings derived from research studies investigating democracy in Africa have led to the enrichment of the understanding of democracy in its entirety. From an African perspective, the concept of democracy (such as that practiced in the West) is very alien to the African context. Moreover, the western concept of democracy is sometimes perceived as too narrow to be applied in the African context. Rev. Jose Belo Chipenda (cited in World Views 1) explains that, “Democracy is not the right to vote and seize power; it is about a whole complex of rights and duties which citizens must exercise if a government is to be open, accountable, and participatory” (World Views 1).

Countries in Africa have often been characterized by repressive regimes which have perfected the art of suppressing any attempts to make leadership a democratic or competitive process. However, most researchers who have examined the quest for democratic space in Africa have not shied away from affirming that the spirit of democracy has not died with the people (World Views 1). Despite the current quest for democracy across the continent, Africa has suffered from a lack of democracy in the continent, with many countries experiencing years of authoritarian rule and conflict. It is no surprise that most African countries have suffered endless periods of civil war, post election violence and other related events associated with elections.


Since Africa is a large continent, there exists many dynamics about how democracy works across the continent. For instance, in North Africa, democracy has for long been an alien concept, with many of the countries across the region operating under authoritarian rule. It is only recently, that democracy has started to be entrenched in the region, starting from the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya. Most of the Northern states are Arabic and therefore many countries follow the leadership model of other Arabic states (World Views 1). A country such as Libya has been ruled by Mohamed Gadaffi for close to four decades, without any significant democratic process in place. The recently ousted Egyptian president has ruled the North African state for more than two decades. As expected, any attempts of establishing true democracy have been thwarted. Tunisia also suffered the same predicament, with it’s recently ousted ruler serving several decades, without any democratic space (New York Post 1).

In southern Africa, democracy is also young, but most states still grapple with episodes of authoritarian regimes trying to suppress democracy. For instance, Zimbabwe has never had any other presidency apart from Robert Mugabe who has ruled the country since it attained its independence. The country has witnessed repeated episodes of political suppression, with the incumbent ruler constraining any attempts at establishing a true democratic political process in the country. However, within that part of the continent, Africa’s strongest democracy exists. South Africa is probably the strongest democratic country in the continent and indeed, the biggest economic power house of the continent. The country has seen successive presidents peacefully hand over power, without any episodes of violence.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, democracy is still at its infant stage, but many countries in the regions do not have a democratic culture in place. For example, countries such as Somalia, Sudan and Congo have not recovered from decades of civil war and therefore, the stability of existing governments has not even been established. Countries which have a relative stability experience unstable forms of democracy with successive regimes supporting democracy half heartedly. For instance, Rwanda which has experienced the worst form of genocide in the world does not have a strong opposition because the incumbent president is allegedly threatening opposition rulers. This is the reason the country has seen its opposition leaders seek asylum in other countries (World Views 1). Uganda has also been ruled by one president since it came from decades of war. Here, accusations of political persecutions have also been witnessed (World Views 1). Perhaps, the relatively stable countries in the region, is Tanzania and Kenya which have operated under democratic principles for several years. For instance, Kenya has witnessed a peaceful transition of power from its former president to the current president, through a democratic process. Tanzania has also witnessed the same transition from the first president of the country, Julius Nyerere, to Benjamin Mtwapa and now the current president (World Views 1).

In West Africa, attempts to establish democracy or implement democratic principles have been suppressed by successive regimes. Military rule has also been characteristic of the region, with many countries being run by military governments, without any significant democratic process in place (World Views 1). The recent Cot D’voire post election violence is a true example of the quest for democracy in that part of the continent because despite an election defeat, the incumbent ruler refused to step down. However, probably, the most stable democracy in West Africa is Ghana. Ghana has recently witnessed a peaceful transition of power from an incumbent president into another (Ofosu-Appiah 1). Nigeria is also another example of an emerging democracy, but collectively, these democracies are still young.

From the above analysis, clearly, Africa is a unique continent, with regards to its democratic processes. However, this paper focuses on the democratization processes in West Africa by assessing the current state of democracy, the forces for democracy, the impact of democratization processes, and the challenges affecting the democratization of West Africa. To come up with a correct assessment of democratization in West Africa, this paper analyzes democracy from the perception of Nigeria, Ghana, and Cote D’voire.

Current State of Democracy

As mentioned in earlier sections of this paper, democracy in Africa is unique. In Nigeria, democracy is indeed unique because successive presidents have risen to power through recommendations or endorsements (Kokori 5). For instance, since the post-independence period, starting from the 1950s to the recent general election, democracy has been practiced within the confines of presidential approvals. In other words, successive presidents have been recommended by incumbent presidents and therefore ascended to power in this manner (Kokori 5). Some researchers note that, democracy in Nigeria is moving from bad to worse, in the sense that it is slowly gaining the nature of a monarchy, where presidential candidates are predetermined through presidential recommendations (Kokori 5). For instance, in the latest Nigerian elections (of 2010/2011), the incumbent president, Goodwill Jonathan won. He was the vice-president at the time the former president died. To further undermine the system of democracy, elections have been marred with instances of rigging and voter manipulation. Figures are therefore “cooked” and released to the public as official election results (Kokori 5). From this understanding, presidents have come from a closely knit group of elites. Democracy in Nigeria is therefore not practiced in its ideal form.

Ghana is probably the most stable democracy in West Africa. However, this stability is only comparable to other western Africa states such as Nigeria and Cot D’voire, but not to the rest of the world. This is true because though Ghana has witnessed peaceful transitions of power through democratic processes, the country still suffers from extreme poverty, illiteracy, socio-economic inequality and similar factors which should have been eliminated as a result of the entrenchment of democracy (Kokori 5). These socio-economic parameters have threatened the stability of democracy in the Western Africa state.

Cot D’voire has suffered periods of abuse of the democratic process. Incumbent presidents have successfully managed to sabotage elections and tilt the outcomes in their favor (Kokori 5). The current state of democracy in the West African state shows a very fragile country which is only starting to embrace democracy. However, this change has come at a price. The 2010 election saw the incumbent president refuse to give up power to the UN recognized winner of the election. This saw the country fall into months of violence which was only resolved after the forceful eviction of the country’s president. The current president is therefore just beginning to entrench democracy in the state.

Forces for Democracy

There are many factors that have pushed for democracy in West Africa. However, many of these factors have not been successful for many reasons. For instance, international pressure has been a sole contributing factor to the push for democracy in Africa (Kpundeh 3). This push has mainly been spear-headed by foreign powers operating in West Africa. For instance, the establishment of democracy has for long been cited as a prerequisite for the distribution of donor funds in Africa. Governments have therefore been required to ensure there is absolute democracy in their governance structures before donor aid is given to these countries (Kpundeh 3).

Another push for democracy has been the citizens of West Africa. Considering most regions of the world operate under democratic governance structures, many West African citizens have not relented in their quest to push for democracy (Bartlett 510). This push for democracy has been motivated by the economic and social gains which citizens from other countries (where democracy is practiced) have gained. Citizens who still suffer under undemocratic governance structures therefore see the difference between both sets of countries (democratic and undemocratic countries), and therefore perceive democracy as a way of overcoming most of their social, economic and political problems (Bartlett 510). For instance, a lack of democracy in West African states has been associated with increased levels of corruption and poverty (Bartlett 510). These social ills have been identified by citizens and technocrats alike that they are products of undemocratic governance structures (Bartlett 510). Many citizens are therefore pushing for democracy in their countries, and leaders are slowly starting to listen to them.

Democratization Processes in Africa

Democracy is seen to bring about several social, economic and political gains. Most researchers have documented that, democracy is a strong catalyst of economic, social and political gains of a country (Tocqueville 233). Evidence has been given of several Western countries such as the US and UK which enjoys tremendous economic and political gains, brought about by democracy (Tocqueville 233). In fact, some researchers have noted that, it is almost difficult for any country to achieve true economic and political gains if democracy is not practiced in its ideal form (Spagnoli 327). However, this observation has been contested by some researchers who note that, democracy is not the only cause of political, social and economic gains (Juan 1). These studies have given examples of undemocratic countries such as China and other Middle Eastern nations which have achieved tremendous economic and social gains without embracing democracy (Juan 1). However, from a general standpoint, democracy is evidenced to bring about several economic, political and social gains. This is the same framework which is used to assess the impact of democratization processes in Africa.

West Africa has for long suffered under episodes of poverty, corruption, illiteracy and other social ills. Most of these problems have been brought about by a lack of democracy in most of these countries. Leaders have often perfected the “seat-tight” syndrome where they do anything to retain power. Often, the strategies they used to retain power are carried out at the expense of social, political and economic gains (Misra-Dexter 47). For example, many leaders in Africa have limited the economic opportunities of their citizens to achieve proper economic gains because an economically empowered population can easily make its own decisions without being brainwashed. For example, a population suffering from extreme poverty is easily vulnerable to its leaders. These leaders often promise them a better life, but fail to deliver on their promises (Misra-Dexter 47). A lack of democracy has also been associated with bribery, violence and such like incidences, which often occur because the citizenry is suffering from poverty, illiteracy and unemployment (Misra-Dexter 47). Such population groups are bound to be very vulnerable to their leaders. Leaders who are hell-bent on retaining power and constraining any attempts to entrench democracy ride on the backs of poor people by paying them to fight for their personal agendas of retaining power. Surprisingly, they succeed in this manner because many people fail to see the impact of their actions on the social and economic growth of the country (Misra-Dexter 47).

It is very difficult for democracy to thrive in an environment of illiteracy, unemployment and poverty because with democracy comes accountability, and with accountability comes economic, political and social gains (Misra-Dexter 47). The impact of democratization in Africa is therefore bound to amount to intense economic, social, and political reforms. For instance, if democracy is practiced in any given state, leaders are bound to be highly accountable to their citizens because they are aware that they will be judged, based on the contribution they have made to their countries (Glasbergen 194). Here, a good track-record of economic, social and political growth will be the return-ticket to power. Accountability to the citizenry is therefore improved.


The challenges facing democracy in West Africa are numerous. However, top in the list of such challenges is a lack of true freedom of the media (Van Belle 68). Most of the media companies operating in such countries are strongly under the influence of the state, and therefore, little can be done to expose government ills. The media has been used to pursue state agendas, and sometimes, the personal agendas of some leaders (Van Belle 68). The media has therefore been run in such a manner that, little interest has been shown regarding the quest for democratic leadership in West Africa. Many citizens therefore do not know the true benefits of a democratic state, and little is also done to show them the negative impact of an undemocratic state (Van Belle 68). At the centre of any democratic state is true media freedom because the media acts as a watchdog of the citizens.

Another major challenge to the entrenchment of true democracy in West Africa is the high levels of illiteracy and unemployment plaguing most of these states (Jucker 48). For instance, Cot D’voire has suffered many years of civil war and therefore, little progress has been made on the social or economic front. Many of the country’s citizens are therefore easily brainwashed by their leaders to support undemocratic systems of governance because they do not easily understand the positive impact of democracy, or even how democracy works in the first place. There is therefore very little push for democracy from the citizens and leaders have a field day holding on to power, based on undemocratic principles of governance.

Another major challenge to the adoption of democracy in West Africa is the social division that exists among various communities of the region. For example, religion has been a dominant and divisive issue in West Africa (Odell-Scott 1). In countries where there are deep religious divisions such as Nigeria and Cot D’voire, it has been very difficult trying to entrench true democracy because people often vote along religious lines. Moreover, people fight to ensure their leaders stay in power, regardless of if the leaders are in power through democracy or not (Odell-Scott 1). Apart from religion, tribalism also exists, and this makes people tolerate various leaders because they represent certain ethnic interests (Kataria 92). This is done at the expense of national interests. It is therefore easy for a leader to hold on to power if he or she comes from a majority ethnic group because of the easy majority support to stay in power. Moreover, ethnicity softens the resistance of the people towards undemocratic principles because they assume that, if one of their own is in power, they will almost always gain.


Democratization in West Africa has suffered endless periods of social and political challenges. Many countries in this region have increasingly witnessed repeated episodes of an abuse of the democratic systems, which are bound to safeguard the national interests of the states. In this regard, successive governments are hell-bent on abusing political institutions to retain power. This paper however notes that, most of the countries in West Arica are only starting to practice democracy in its ideal form, after coming from decades of war, corruption and poverty. Though there is still a lot to be done, tremendous gains in democracy have been undertaken in West African states. However, this does not mean that, there are no elements of undemocratic leadership in the region. Nonetheless, the region is making tremendous progress in entrenching democracy in their structures of governance.

However, a great force changing the democratic landscape of West Africa is technology. More so, e democracy is changing the way democracy is evolving in West Africa, and indeed, other regions of the continent. Considering the unique challenges facing democracy in Africa, it would be interesting to determine the impact e democracy has on this part of the continent. This would be a new frontier for future research studies. Concepts such as e government would be pivotal in understanding how democracy evolves in West Africa, and how it has changed the attitude of leadership in that part of the continent.

However, several challenges stand in the way of understanding democracy in this context. For example, there are various legal dynamics existing in West Africa that complicate the understanding of e democracy. Also, the level of technological penetration in West Africa varies from one country to another and therefore, e democracy has different impacts on this part of the continent. For instance, it may be very difficult to generalize the findings of one country (or several countries) to stand true for the entire region. This area of study will nonetheless be useful in understanding democracy in present-day West Africa.