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Belief in democracy is on the decline in Africa. Traditional institutions can help restore its importance

Men seated in a group holding staffs
Traditional authorities are a key part of the daily lives of millions of Africans. Michel Porro/Getty Images

Democracy in Africa has not had a good year. Military juntas from Mali to Niger appear to have cemented their grip on power. Sudan’s democratic dreams were dashed when the country’s two most powerful strongmen opted for war. And there’s now evidence that ordinary Africans may be losing faith in democracy as the best form of government.

Afrobarometer, an organisation that polls respondents from over 30 African countries, has found that no more than two thirds of Africans say they prefer democracy to any other form of government. In Angola, Lesotho, Mali, Mozambique, and South Africa, support for democracy has now dipped below 50%.

At least some popular support for democracy appears to be quite sticky, however. My research as a scholar of traditional authorities and their link to democratic governance shows that attitudes towards democracy in many African countries are also shaped by interaction with traditional leaders. These include chiefs and traditional institutions such as chiefs’ councils and customary courts.

Could African traditional leaders be good for democracy? The answer is complicated. Relatively democratic traditions could help keep a young democracy alive even when formal institutions are weak. But hereditary traditional monarchies could serve as a potent reminder of how undemocratic a political system can be.

A novel method

Political scientists have long speculated that political attitudes are a result of social learning and socialisation. Until recently, we lacked the data to examine whether traditional institutions influenced this process.

I used a statistical software package that connects datasets with varying definitions of ethnic groups. This approach has been used in a number of studies of African politics, ranging from ethnicity in politics to the legacies of colonialism and female empowerment.

The results show that individuals from ethnic groups with more democratic traditional institutions are more likely to support democracy in general. The effect is even more pronounced for respondents who claim to have regular contact with their traditional leader.

This finding may be surprising, because chiefs are rarely seen as encouraging their followers to support democratic governance.

Traditional leaders

In Afrobarometer surveys, citizens in 19 of the 22 countries that were covered repeatedly ranked chiefs as more trustworthy than elected politicians. Chiefs remain popular, even among those who endorse democratic rule. In every country where the question was asked, the majority of citizens believed that chiefs either strengthened democracy or did not affect it at all. Only small minorities reasoned that traditional leaders could be bad for democracy.

My research suggests that many African citizens, like those in Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Lesotho, take cues from traditional institutions when making sense of formal politics.

I linked over 50,000 Afrobarometer survey respondents to information about local traditional institutions. Specifically, I linked survey data to a novel measure of how democratic those institutions are. This metric was developed by a team of German political scientists who recently surveyed hundreds of local experts to classify the “democraticness” of local traditional institutions in Africa.

Some traditional institutions include features associated with democracy, such as equal empowerment, broad participation and inclusive decision making. Ethnic groups with institutions like this were coded as relatively democratic. Traditional institutions lacking these features were coded as relatively autocratic. Each ethnic group received a score for the “democraticness” of its traditional institutions.

I examined whether that score was associated with political attitudes expressed by survey respondents. To measure support for democracy, I used a survey question about a scenario in which elections and parliament were abolished and the president could decide everything. The analysis also controlled for other factors likely to affect political attitudes. They included age, education, gender, urban residence, news consumption, whether the respondent voted in the last election, and whether they saw themselves as members of their president’s ethnic group.

Citizens whose traditional institutions were more democratic were more supportive of democracy. The effect was stronger among respondents who reported having contact with their chief in the past 12 months.

Chiefs shaping attitudes

Why should ordinary Africans be affected by their experience with traditional institutions when thinking about formal politics?

For one, traditional institutions represent for many African citizens the most immediate form of governance that they experience on a daily basis. Traditional leaders continue to allocate land, preside over customary court cases, and even resolve marital disputes. All politics is local and in most parts of Africa, local politics is often traditional.

Second, traditional institutions often rely on unwritten norms and customs. That includes norms that are relevant for thinking about politics. This does not mean that attitudes towards politics are somehow culturally determined or that they can’t change. It just means that traditional institutions are one of the factors shaping attitudes towards politics.

But my findings can also be interpreted in a less positive light. Relatively undemocratic traditional institutions can potentially perpetuate attitudes that are at odds with democratic politics. Indeed, my and my colleagues’ past research indicates that citizens who belong to ethnic groups that were organised as centralised states in the precolonial era are more comfortable with handing all power to their country’s president. My newest work confirms this. It shows that traditional political systems with an absolute monarch may weaken citizens’ commitment to democracy.

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