This paper suggests that the Arab Spring is a trigger for further democratic reforms in Africa, rather than a driver. There are few linear relationships linking events in North Africa to specific shifts in democratisation on the continent. However, the frustration propelling the protests in North Africa resonates with many Africans. The Arab Spring is instigating changes in the expectations that African citizens have of their governments.
Democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, while at different stages of progress, is not starting from scratch, unlike in most of the Arab world. Sub-Saharan Africa has been experiencing its own democratic surge with important advances in Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Nigeria, and Zambia, among other countries. This progress builds on nearly two decades of democratic institution building on the continent. Even so, regime models remain highly varied, ranging from autocracies, to semi-authoritarian regimes and democracies.
The Arab Spring is serving as a spur for further democratic reforms in the region. There have been protests in more than a dozen African capitals demanding greater political pluralism, transparency and accountability. Some have even explicitly described the Arab Spring as a model. At the same time, a number of African governments are so fearful that they have banned mention of the Arab Spring on the Internet or in other public media.
As well as changing citizens’ expectations of their governments, the democratic protests in North Africa are teaching important lessons that democracy is not bestowed on, but earned by, citizens. The changed expectations are especially potent since they combine with more fundamental drivers of change that are likely to spur further democratic advances in Africa in the next several years. These drivers include the following:
- Access to information technology has grown, enhancing the capacity for collective action and accountability. Rapid urbanisation is further facilitating the capacity for mass action.
- A youthful and better educated population is restive for transparency from public officials and expanded livelihood opportunities. They are aware of governance norms elsewhere in the world and want the same rights.
- Rising governance standards are placing greater value on legitimacy, heightening intolerance of unconstitutional transitions of power. Civil society has grown in sophistication. Democratic institutions have put down roots.
- Parliaments have become more capable and autonomous, and independent media are more accessible. Elections are increasingly transparent and meaningful.
Despite the noteworthy progress, however, significant obstacles to further democratic progress persist:
- Nearly half of Africa’s states are authoritarian. Most of them are sustained by hydrocarbon revenues and politicised security sectors. Patrimonial forms of governance remain strong.
- In many countries a common national identity is threatened by civil conflicts and the intercommunal differences they have reinforced.
While positive outcomes are not assured, prospects for further democratic advances in Africa are promising. These advances will not be as sudden as in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya but are likely to be widespread, depending on the starting point of each given society. To realise these gains:
- Civil society and other reformers will need to champion change in the face of vigorous pushback from vested interests.
- Regional and international bodies must reinforce democratic norms.
- Election commissions should become more capable and independent.
- Access to independent media will need to continue to grow.
- Africa’s security sector will need to become more aligned with the interests of the state than with incumbent political leaders.