Plug sub-Saharan Africa’s liberty deficit with civil society's input

Tuesday November 02 2021
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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 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 percent) 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 percent) 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 3 percent perceived a supply of democracy.

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 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 therefore 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.