Opinionista Chris Jones 20 May 2021

This Africa Day, let’s praise our speed in addressing Covid-19, but lament our slide from democracy

Although most Africans surveyed by Afrobarometer believe in elections as the best way to select leaders, popular support for elections has weakened in 15 countries over the past decade — and only a minority think elections help produce representative, accountable leaders.

Chris Jones

Dr Chris Jones heads the Unit for Moral Leadership at Stellenbosch University.

Celebrated annually on 25 May, Africa Day commemorates the founding of the Organisation of African Unity on this day in 1963.

In my reflection on Africa, I came across a well-known pan-African series of national public attitude surveys on democracy, governance and society, conducted by Afrobarometer. Although there are a number of survey results available, involving more than 30 countries, I have decided to briefly focus on eight of the most recent reports released.

African citizens’ message to unelected traditional leaders or chiefs is to stay in development, but keep out of politics. In 22 countries, 64% of citizens trust their traditional leaders, 72% believe that they are not corrupt, 64% approve of their performance, and 44% indicate that traditional leaders listen to them.

This is consistently higher than elected leaders such as the president of the country, local government councillors and/or MPs. Chiefs have support from not only elderly rural men, but also women, urban residents, young people and the most educated.

These traditional leaders have a lot of influence in their communities, particularly in terms of governance, conflict resolution and land allocation. Furthermore, people believe that they have their communities’ best interests at heart and are successful in working with local councillors to encourage local development.

In five West African countries (Benin, Liberia, Niger, Senegal and Togo) an average of only 30% of citizens received Covid-19 relief assistance such as food, cash payments, relief from bill payments or other support that they were not normally receiving before the pandemic.

Senegal, however, is the only surveyed country where a majority received such assistance.

Eighty-five percent of citizens of these five countries believe that Covid-19 relief was distributed unfairly, “and that a substantial share of resources intended for the Covid-19 response was lost to corruption”. Except in Niger, majorities said their government should spend more in preparing for emergencies such as Covid-19, even though it means fewer resources are available for other health services.

Having begun earlier in 2021, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is seen as a key stepping stone to accelerate development and growth, as well as poverty alleviation in the continent. Expected to cover 54 African countries, with a combined GDP of about $2.2-trillion, AfCFTA is projected to generate increased cross-border trade and investment volumes, technology transfers and income levels that could lift 30 million Africans out of extreme poverty by 2035.

However, about 65% of citizens who live in poverty in 18 countries indicated that it is difficult to cross international borders to work or trade in other countries.

In light of this, AfCFTA faces a multitude of hurdles to effectively implement its vision for Africa. These hurdles have been raised even higher by Covid-19 which has isolated African and other countries. In this respect, the World Bank states that every region across the world has been subject to growth downgrades. Development aid to the continent has also stagnated.

Although most Africans welcome the economic and political influence of the US, China and other international players when it comes to development, they would rather rely on their own abilities than on external loans and global interdependence.

In the aforementioned five West African countries, an average of 68% of citizens do not trust their government to ensure that a vaccine for Covid-19 that is developed or offered to them is safe, and 60% are not likely to try to be vaccinated.

In this regard, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) estimates that at least 60% of Africa’s population needs to be vaccinated to establish community immunity.

Another recent study (with more optimistic findings) led by the Africa CDC “found that four out of five respondents (79%) in 15 African countries said they would take a Covid-19 vaccine”.

In 18 countries respondents were asked how often, in their opinion, people avoid paying the taxes they owe the government. An average of almost 51% indicated that people avoid taxes. In Tunisia, Ivory Coast and Ghana it is more than 70%. Pointing the finger at corrupt and untrustworthy tax officials, many Africans questioned the way tax revenues are being used by their government.

Although most Africans believe in elections as the best way to select leaders, popular support for elections has weakened in 15 countries over the past decade, and only a minority think elections help produce representative, accountable leaders.

Afrobarometer found that democracy’s retreat around the globe also touched Africa, and that democracy on our continent is falling short in terms of democratic delivery rather than citizens’ aspirations, as Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi reminds us.

Africans experience growing corruption and poor government response, but they fear to report it. In 18 countries, 76% of the citizens said they fear retaliation or other negative consequences if they speak out. Most citizens in these 18 countries mention an increase in corruption and say the police and many healthcare providers are the main culprits.

Writing for the World Economic Forum, Sean Fleming points out that developing countries lose $1.26-trillion a year to corruption, theft and tax evasion, which is “roughly the combined size of the economies of Switzerland, South Africa and Belgium, and enough money to lift the 1.4 billion people who get by on less than $1.25 a day above the poverty threshold and keep them there for at least six years”.

Respondents in 18 countries were asked if the government could increase its spending on programmes to help young people, which given areas should be the highest priorities for additional investment. Fifty-one percent indicated that the government should do more about job creation; 17% said education; 12% job training; another 12% indicated business loans; and 6% said social services for young people.

The focus on job creation should not come as a surprise given that many young people in Africa, who make up more than half of the continent’s population, are unemployed and have considered leaving their country in search of better opportunities.

They are also much less likely than their older counterparts to vote, and they are much less involved in day-to-day political processes. African governments have failed to involve the young sufficiently in governance and decision-making processes.

On Africa Day, we can praise and celebrate the speed with which many African countries acted to address the spread of Covid-19, which otherwise could have been disastrous for the continent.

Unfortunately, there are still many hurdles to overcome regarding democracy, governance, development, economic conditions and related issues. DM

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