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Religion plays a significant role in governance in sub-Saharan Africa. Shutterstock

Sub-Saharan Africa’s liberty deficit: can civil society help fill the gap?

There is something inherent in the idea of democracy that invokes expectations of valuing human dignity and thus freedoms. These include freedom of association, thought, belief, religion and speech, and freedom from government abuse.

Contemporary comparative politics scholars Christian Welzel and Ronald Inglehart argue that

liberal democracy is a manifestation of human freedom.

A liberal democracy is therefore understood as entailing two parts:

  • access to power on the basis of regular, competitive elections, where every citizen has political equality in selecting the government

  • constraints on that power through institutional controls such as a constitution and an autonomous, organised civil society, to protect personal freedoms.

The democracy part is fairly easy. It is the means of accessing power through elections and popular participation. But the liberal or constitutional component is more complex. Is is about allowing for restraint on that power and a commitment to protecting individual freedoms. This is often not so palatable to ruling political elites.

This is true for countries across the globe. “Pure” democracies – popular power without restraint – can be pernicious systems. They can be prone to corruption and infringe essential civil liberties. Examples can be found on every continent, including Africa.

This is borne out by the fact that there have been elections in a number of countries that deem themselves as democracies. But that’s where democracy ends. Only Botswana, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia and South Africa are considered to be “free” in terms of political and civil liberties. This is according to a measurement designed by Freedom House. Political liberties are measured according to the electoral process, political pluralism and participation, and the functioning of government. Civil liberties are measured in terms of freedom of expression and belief, associational rights, rule of law and individual rights.

The citizens of sub-Saharan African countries are aware of this. They recognise that, despite having regular elections, they are not getting the supply of the type of democracy they want. Based on surveys by Afrobarometer, the largest proportion (56%) of respondents understood democracy in terms of civil liberties and personal freedoms. These included freedom of speech, religion and movement. The second highest ranked understanding of democracy (only 17%) was in its procedural form, namely voting, elections and multiparty elections. Afrobarometer is a pan-African, non-partisan research network, which conducts public attitude surveys in up to 37 African countries.

In the latest (2016/2018) Afrobarometer survey, support for democracy was high. Seventy percent of the respondents indicated they wanted a democratic regime. But only 36% perceived a supply of democracy.

Most therefore didn’t feel they were getting the type of democracy they wanted.

My research engages with sub-Saharan Africa’s so-called “democratic deficit”, as identified by Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi.

I argue that the deficit in sub-Saharan Africa’s democracies is in the classical liberal tradition (accountability and civil liberties). It is less so in the democratic tradition (elections and political participation).

More a liberty deficit than a democratic deficit

Distinguishing liberal democracy from democracy is important as it allows for a better identification of the problem.

Liberal democracy is a compromise of two traditions. On the one hand, political power attained through popular participation. On the other, accountability and liberty ensured through informal and formal institutions.

The term “liberal” is derived from the philosophy of classical liberalism. It recognises the importance of limiting “arbitrary government by institutional controls”. It also recognises guaranteeing “specified rights of the individual against encroachment by government”.

The challenge is how to address this liberty deficit. How to restrain and make the ruling elite more accountable and how to protect civic freedoms.

A vibrant and independent civil society has become widely recognised as a core social requisite for the development of a liberal democracy. Philosopher and anthropologist Ernest Gellner argues that civil society – rather than elections – is the guarantor of civil liberties. Societies are vulnerable to arbitrary rule if there is an insufficient density, diversity and depth of associations.

My work noted that it is here that religion could potentially play its part, in terms of civil society development and engagement. Especially in a region with high religiosity. Afrobarometer data shows that only 5% identify as having no religious affiliation.

Numerous studies have noted religion’s propensity for the establishment and spread of civic groups. An example is a study about the influence of missionaries in the development of liberal democracy in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania by Robert Woodberry. He found that Protestants were catalysts in the initial development and then spread of voluntary organisations.

He noted that this influence then contributed to the dispersion of power due to the growth of associational life as well as protest tactics. This eventually provided the impetus for the formation of political parties prior to independence.

Religious affiliation and civic engagement

Afrobaromater surveys also provide some insights into the relationship between religious affiliation and civil engagement. These were conducted between (2016/2018) covering 32 sub-Saharan African countries.

They showed that, on an individual level, the religiously affiliated were more civically engaged than those not affiliated. Civic engagement included attendance of a community meeting membership of a voluntary association, and membership of a religious group outside normal worship meetings.

Civic engagement was not high overall. Nevertheless, the least civically engaged were those who weren’t religiously affiliated.

There are also some institutional examples that are instructive. In the run-up to Zimbabwe’s 2018 national elections, churches and faith communities under the Zimbabwe Council of Churches umbrella campaigned for peace through their iVote and iPray initiatives. They urged citizens to vote, but to do so without violence.

For its part the South African Council of Churches together with other civil society organisations held silent protests in response to corruption involving COVID-19 emergency funding.

I don’t go as far as to argue that civic associations are the panacea to the region’s liberty deficit. However, I argue that they can play an important role in holding political power to account and protecting freedoms.

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