Political risks facing African democracies: Evidence from Afrobarometer

Michael Bratton and E. Gyimah-Boadi


Where are African countries headed politically? How resilient are Africa’s governments, regimes, and states? What are the characteristics of political risk? This paper looks at whether it is possible to identify early-warning (or “leading”) indicators of risk to African political systems.

As a proposed entry point, the authors suggest that Afrobarometer survey data may be used to measure emerging risks facing African polities, at least as reflected in the perceptions of African citizens. The authors recognize that public opinion is only one of many ways to assess the emergence of risk. But at a minimum, Afrobarometer data allows analysts to track systematically whether various dimensions of mass political support – such as approval for incumbent governments, satisfaction with political regime performance, and the popular legitimacy of state institutions – are growing or shrinking. Where trends in dimensions of popular disapproval turn sharply upward, the authors infer increasing political risk.

Key findings:

  • The opinions of ordinary citizens provide a lens for observing threats to political stability. Any strong and sustained upward trend in popular disaffection can be interpreted as an early-warning indicator of risk to some aspect of the political system. Types of political risk are arrayed on a scale of severity. Risk to the state is the most severe. This constitutes the greatest threat because it undermines the institutional bone structure of the body politic. When the coercive, extractive, and developmental agencies of state do not function effectively, they risk being regarded as illegitimate by the general public. If citizens become widely disaffected with the performance of state institutions, they may be tempted to disregard the commands of its officials or even transfer their loyalties to political groups espousing a rival claim to authority. It is under these circumstances that the structure of the state may become fragile or the state may even fail outright.
  • Africa possesses a variety of political regimes that are moving in multiple directions. Even within a restricted sample of four countries, one can find a resilient authoritarian regime (Zimbabwe), a former democracy that faces significant political risk (Mali), and a new democracy beginning to take root (Kenya). The status of the political regime in Ghana remains uncertain because its once-consolidating democracy faces a major stress test in the form of popular disaffection. Moreover, citizen attitudes toward political regimes are more volatile than the steady sentiments they evince toward the state. In other words, all types of regimes in Africa remain in flux; none is fully consolidated. For this reason, the central question in understanding the context of political risk in Africa is the status of political regimes. Stated simply, will democracies survive, thrive, or backslide?
  • Political risk is magnified when citizens become simultaneously disgruntled with both the incumbent government and the prevailing regime. The “spillover” of disapproval with rulers into lost confidence in the regime is perhaps the biggest popular risk to democracy in Africa. In retrospect, the Afrobarometer data shows that a rising tide of this sort preceded major political crises in Mali in 2012 and in both Kenya and Zimbabwe in 2008. To be sure, these political crises took different forms: an extremist insurgency in Mali, pre-election violence in Zimbabwe, and post-election violence in Kenya. But each crisis was sufficiently serious to challenge the viability of a democratic regime and to require urgent international intervention to constitute an inclusive government. In an important emerging lesson, the authors postulate that when popular disaffection with an incumbent group of leaders impugns the whole regime of government, political risk is especially high. Disaffection with an incumbent government alone is not an automatic signal of impending political instability. Much depends on the type of political regime.
  • The capacity of the state, even if less variable, also matters; a strong state is able to withstand the consequences of a sustained rise in governmental unpopularity. Popular confidence in a durable state can help to underpin satisfaction with democracy. But where state capacity perceptibly declines (culminating, in extremis, in a loss of state sovereignty), public dissatisfaction with all parts of the political system can lead to a multidimensional crisis.


Bratton, M. & Gyimah-Boadi, E. (2015). Political risks facing African democracies: Evidence from Afrobarometer. Working Paper No. 157. Accra: Afrobarometer.