Election poster in Winneba, Ghana, in 2012. Elections matter, but not for the reason you may think; people actually distrust electoral institutions. (Photo/ Flickr/ Andrew Moore)

The Ideal African President: You Could Run Mad Trying To Figure Out What The People Want

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LAST week, we at Africapedia discovered that although Africans broadly support presidential term limits, they would also readily vote for a candidate who extends his time in office beyond what the constitution allows.

Support for term limits is the majority view in the 29 countries surveyed, including those that have never had term limits, and – surprisingly – even in those that have removed them from their constitutions.

‘Third termer’ presidents often argue that their staying in office is driven by the popular will, and it is what the people want. But the data reflected such a large gap between popular wishes, the letter of constitutions, and voting behaviour that it almost renders elections meaningless.

We find some hints of the sources of this puzzling gap, in a survey about institutional trust, conducted by Afrobarometer, a pan-African, non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues across more than 30 countries in Africa.

The survey asked respondents: How much do you trust each of the following?” and then provided a list of 12 common political institutions found in African countries.

The most trustworthy institutions are religious leaders (72% of respondents said they trusted them “somewhat” or “a lot”), and in second place is the national army, at 64%. Traditional leaders come in third at 61%, and the president is not far behind, at 57%.

The least trusted institutions – believe it or not – are opposition parties, at just 36%.

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This pattern of public opinion is cross-nationally consistent: Institutions rank in the same order in almost every country surveyed. Across institutions, however, the range of responses is considerable; the most trusted institution attracts twice as much popular confidence as the least trusted institution.


Broadly speaking, the trend is that Africans have far more trust in informal or  non-state institutions, such as religious leaders (priests, pastors, and imams) and traditional leaders (chiefs, elders, and headmen) than in the formal institutions of the state.

And second, people trust agencies of the executive branch (presidency, army, and police, even including the tax department) even more than the legislative branch (National Assembly and local government councils), which supposedly is the representative of the people and their interests.

The most distrust is reserved for electoral institutions, including the electoral commission and political parties.

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If you are scratching your head here, you are forgiven.

The fact that people would trust unelected officials more than elected ones, and distrust the electoral mechanism itself most of all (but hold the president elected via it in esteem) would seem to confirm that democracy in Africa is a hopeless cause.

That is, at least, in its so-called liberal, so-called Western, checks-and-balances model.

Virtually every country in Africa holds elections these days, even if it is just to tick the requisite box.

Of all the elements of a functioning democracy (including the rule of law, legislative oversight of the executive, civilian control of the military, a vibrant civil society), elections are probably the most broadly and deeply institutionalised elements in Africa.

“And yet citizens seem to be saying they have least confidence in this sector, at least when they compare electoral institutions to a political regime in which decisions are made by informal elites or state executives,” the paper states.


But perhaps there is meaning behind all this, and Africans are not just secretly longing for a prayerful soldier from a noble bloodline to lord over them for life.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 80s to early 90s ushered in multiparty politics all over Africa, which was supposed to herald freedom, democracy and accountable government.

Multiparty politics, riding on that fiery wave of popular demand, burned through that old political system, and first on the funeral pyre was ideology.

During the Cold War, the lines were clear – there were people who wanted free markets and free trade, and there were others who wanted to nationalise things.

The argument of the Left collapsed around them in this brave new world. Post-1989, there was little substantial difference, ideologically, between the different parties.

Everyone became a free market liberalist championing social justice, and that was okay.

In fact, one survey showed that most voters are unable to solidly distinguish between the ruling and opposition parties (possibly because the opposition disappointingly behaves just like the ruling party when they win).

But it has given rise to the kind of political ship-jumping that would have been unthinkable in those bad old days, such as is now virtually de rigeur in Kenyan politics today, where political parties rise and sink with every election.


It was witnessed in the 2015 Tanzanian general election, where the deep-pocketed former Prime Minister Edward Lowassa dramatically decamped to the opposition from the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, accusing it of “oppressive leadership”, less than three months ahead of a general election.

It put opposition party Chadema in an ethical bind – here was someone they had denounced for years, accusing him of having very sticky fingers.  In 2007, at the height of opposition rallies against corruption, Chadema publicised a “List of Shame”, with Lowassa topping it – and now he was to be their flagbearer.

In the words of CCM’s January Makamba, the “opposition tore up their trump card – a powerful narrative against corruption.”

In the end, Lowassa lost, Magufuli won; it was Magufuli who then quickly charmed Africa with his tough, anti-waste, anti-corruption stance.

It means that the opposition in Africa today is a collection of grievances and people who lost nominations in the ruling party or fell out with the Big Man of the day, and not necessarily an alternative world-view. And naked greed for power, plus lack of principles, make you worthy of contempt – as Lowassa and his enemies-turned-friends in Chadema found out.

This possibly explains why opposition parties are so despised in Africa today.


Two and a half decades after the multiparty “revolution”, authoritarian and semi-authoritarian strongmen have become more adept at political survival, offering some concessions on one hand – such as stability and economic growth – and suffocating any political challengers on the other; simultaneously co-opting and coercing.

But this still doesn’t mean that elections are a pointless farce.

Everyone knows, intuitively, that “outsiders” want to be in so that they can benefit from access to power. And there is local consensus on this – that the mere circulation of power is good.

But there is a popular saying in African politics – that better the crooks you have in power, than take a chance with the angel you don’t. The seeming contradiction above, is that probably, Africans are controlling for risk and expectations rationally.  Surely, is there anything Robert Mugabe, for example, could still do to surprise or break Zimbabweans’ hearts? Unlikely.

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