Africa's Weak Giants

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"Building Democracy in Africa’s Weak States" by Michael Bratton, in Democracy at Large (2005: No. 3), 1101 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005.

Though elections have become commonplace in sub-Saharan Africa since 1990, only a minority of that region’s states qualify as genuine democracies. Why? Bratton, a political scientist at Michigan State University, points to two e x p l a n a t i o n s .

The first is population size: Small is better. Eleven (or 23 percent) of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries are functioning democracies. And six of those 11 have populations under two million. Among the large countries, with populations of 30 million or more, only South Africa can claim to be fully democratic.

Though the small sub-Saharan states may not be as tiny as the ancient Greek city-states, they’re still small enough, Bratton says, to encourage direct communication between rulers and ruled. They’re also "likely to be socially and culturally homogeneous (like Botswana and Lesotho), thus preempting ethnic conflict." And three of the small democracies (Cape Verde, Mauritius, and São Tomé and Príncipe) are on islands, with no worries about secessionists or irredentists.

Most sub-Saharan Africans, however, live not in the subcontinent’s 14 small countries but in its seven large or 27 medium-sized ones. Sub-Saharan Africa’s six other large countries are either "partly free" (Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Nigeria) or "not free" (Congo-Kinshasa and Sudan). Indeed, when viewed in terms of people rather than countries, the condition of democracy on the subcontinent appears even bleaker: Only 15 percent of its residents live in freedom.

However much it affects a state’s democratic status, says Bratton, population size is not nearly as significant a factor as what he terms the state’s "strength." Using the World Bank Institute’s numerical gauges of political stability, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and control of corruption in each country, Bratton created a total state strength score for each sub-Saharan African country. On a scale of -2.0 to +2.0, the countries varied widely: from -1.84 for mediumsized Somalia to +0.78 for small Botswana (which boasts an exceptionally honest and effective civil service). The median sub-Saharan state (represented by Tanzania and Eritrea) scored -0.67. All 11 full-fledged democracies in the subcontinent were above that median.




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