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January 31, 2017

What the Data Says About Elections and Governance in North and Sub-Saharan Africa

American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) governance programs pertain to the development of independent and accountable judicial institutions. Electoral justice and participatory constitution-drafting are also at the forefront of ABA ROLI’s governance-related reform efforts, several of which are taking place in Africa.

Whether rule of law programs are designed to protect human rights, ensure access to justice or increase economic opportunity, they are often built on the idea that achieving these goals requires better governance. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) defines governance as “the provision of the political, social, and economic public goods and services that every citizen has the right to expect from his or her state, and that a state has the responsibility to deliver to its citizens.”[i] Good governance requires effective, legal and transparent delivery of these services, both during and between elections.[ii]

Good governance has not always been easy to achieve quickly. The potential of elections to foster greater accountability in African societies certainly changed for the better at the end of the Cold War, when sub-Saharan Africa experienced a rapid increase in multiparty elections. Between 1989 and 1994, popular protests in countries like Mali, Benin and Kenya fostered the rewriting of constitutions to allow for multiparty, democratic elections and a broad range of civil liberties needed to ensure elections could be free and fair. According to Professors Michael Bratton and Nicolas Van de Walle, not a single de jure one-party state remained in sub-Saharan Africa by 1994 and the percentage of parliamentary seats that opposition parties won in an average election rose from 10 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 1995.[iii]

Yet after this swift wave of political liberalization, African governance trajectories varied. Some countries, like Senegal and Ghana, became democracies with elections that were regular, free, and fair and with governments that did not systematically deny citizens the fundamental freedoms needed to interact with their elected officials and demand their accountability. Other countries, like The Gambia and Equatorial Guinea, remained dictatorships, holding multiparty elections that were marred by fraud, intimidation or state-sponsored violence. Although some dictators continued to cling to power, an increasing number left office through regular means, including death, voluntary resignation or loss of an election.[iv]

In theory, legitimate transfers of power through free and fair elections should be accompanied by better governance. In countries where governments hold transparent elections and respect human rights, citizens can cast votes and communicate needs to elected officials at low political and social cost. Likewise, elected officials in such contexts are more apt to deliver public services to their constituents, who are motivated to stay informed about public policy and willing to use their vote to sanction elected officials who do not deliver on their promises. From 2006-2015, 37 of the 54 North and sub-Saharan African countries included in the IIAG have increased their overall governance scores, which take into account safety and rule of law, participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunity and human development.[v]   

However, even over the last few years, problems with electoral integrity and legitimacy have created challenges for rule of law reform in several countries. On some occasions, election results and electoral rules were ultimately respected. In Burkina Faso in 2014, President Blaise Compaoré sought to pass a Senate bill that would allow him to run for an additional presidential term. He was met with massive popular protest and stepped down that October. Albeit additional protests in 2015 after another coup attempt, Burkina Faso was ultimately able to hold elections and inaugurate the country’s first leader independent of a military coup.

On other occasions, election rules did not prevail. In Burundi in 2015, incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a third term despite the two-term limit in the constitution. With their lives reportedly threatened while considering the issue, members of the Constitutional Court decided that Nkurunziza’s first term did not count towards his two-term limit.[vi] A flawed election, whose campaign period was characterized by state-sponsored political violence, resulted in a win for Nkurunziza, whose regime continued to engage in targeted killings of opponents.

Despite impediments to transparent elections and good governance, there is great potential for long term progress. In terms of citizens’ demands, Afrobarometer public opinion polls show that in both Burkina Faso and Burundi, the majority of citizens support democratic ideals about government accountability. In both places, respondents were asked which of two statements they agree with: First, “It is more important to have a government that can get things done, even if we have no influence over what it does,” or second, “It is more important for citizens to be able to hold government accountable, even if that means it makes decisions more slowly.” The second statement indicates a greater citizen demand for good governance and 63.2 percent of Burkinabe and 64.5 percent of Burundians selected it as the idea with which they “agreed” or “strongly agreed.”[vii] On the government’s supply side, the IIAG is one of several reputable indices that scores all African countries annually. The Index reports that average subscores have increased over the last decade for the “Participation and Human Rights” portion of the index.[viii] Although “Safety and Rule of Law” subscores have declined overall, 33 of 54 countries have improved on rule of law from 2006-2015.[ix]  

ABA ROLI programs seek to work in several ways to improve electoral integrity and promote accountable governance in Africa. Elections are the main focus of governance programming in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we assist civil society organizations in building capacity to provide legal aid to citizens involved in election-related disputes. We design programs to make constitution-making processes more participatory, whether by using information campaigns to communicate the content of draft constitutions in the Central African Republic, or by facilitating women’s participation in constitution drafting in Libya. The support of anti-corruption institutions in Morocco is a third approach shaping ABA ROLI’s theory of change on how good governance comes about. All three approaches have the potential to foster changes in the political practices of leaders and citizens that influence the quality of governance.

To learn more about our work in Africa, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at [email protected]

[i] “Methodology,” Mo Ibrahim Foundation,

[ii] Larry Diamond, “Advancing Democratic Governance: A Global Perspective on the Status of Democracy and Directions for International Assistance,”

[iii] Michael Bratton & Nic Van de Walle, Democratic Experiments in Africa (New York: Cambridge University Press), 1997, p. 7-8.

[iv] Daniel Posner & Daniel Young, “The Institutionalization of Political Power in Africa,” Journal of Democracy 18:3 (July 2007), p. 129,

[v] Mo Ibrahim Foundation, “A Decade of African Governance 2006-2015: 2016 Ibrahim Index of African Governance Index Report,” p. 18.

[vi] “Burundi court ‘forced’ to validate leader’s third term,” Al-Jazeera 14 May 2015,

[vii] These statistics can be calculated through the online data analysis function for Round 6 (2014-15) at

[viii] Mo Ibrahim Foundation, “A Decade of African Governance 2006-2015: 2016 Ibrahim Index of African Governance Index Report,” p. 42.

[ix] Ibid, p. 34.