External Intervention to Strengthen Democracy in Africa

Although more competitive forms of authoritarianism and electoral democracy are today prevalent in most African countries, democratisation has slowed and in some places reversed. This coincides with an ever-growing rift between African citizens who are demanding further democratic rights and rulers who want to preserve their prerogatives. Western actors need to support those who hold the greatest democratic aspirations more fervently: African citizens themselves.

Read more in our most recent GIGA Focus Africa in English and German. This is an outcome of a joint project with Dr. Christian von Soest at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA).

  • Western support has contributed to democratic development in Africa via two channels. First, political conditionality and “democratic sanctions” have increased the costs for leaders who severely infringe human and democratic rights. Second, Western intervention has helped to increase citizens’ awareness and their opposition to their regimes. Yet, the effect of external intervention has clear limits: no African country that has been subject to Western democratic sanctions since 1990 has become fully democratic.
  • Despite the discussions about a specific African variant of democracy – for instance, one which places greater emphasis on traditional authorities – the majority of African citizens support the procedural tenets of liberal democracy and universal human rights. This sentiment largely holds across countries with different levels of democracy and with varying exposure to external intervention.
  • The majority of Africans consider local elites to be primarily responsible for democratic progress; Africans value national sovereignty more highly than regional responsibility. In particular, the absence of one specific African democratic model and African citizens’ high regard for national sovereignty renders context-sensitive external support all the more important.

Policy Implications

Seen against the rise of China and other authoritarian powers, Western influence is declining in relative terms. However, Western countries still have an important role to play in supporting democracy in Africa. Western assistance should be citizen-centred and involve consistent support for civic education and common training programmes for young leaders across the political divide.

This is what Christian von Soest and I find in our most recent GIGA Focus Africa available in English and German


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