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What an Authoritarian Africa Would Look Like

It is true that most of the continent is not fully democratic. Depending on how generous you want to be, there are between one and eight high-quality democracies in sub-Saharan Africa, if we take this to mean that the government respects a wide range of civil liberties and political rights. That’s less than 18% of all countries and – because most of these states are on the smaller side – less than 10% of the total population. But this doesn’t mean that the continent is wholly authoritarian. There are relatively few countries in which leaders have the kind of top-down control this implies. With the exception of Eritrea and eSwatini, multiparty elections are held, and although one-party dominance was common in the 1990s, it has fallen over the last decade. In countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, the opposition regularly wins more than 35% of the vote, even though the government rarely – if ever – loses. In other words, many African countries are not full democracies or full autocracies but sit somewhere in-between. This is more important than it may sound because governments in this middle-ground face many of the same pressures and incentives as their more democratic counterparts. Manipulating elections is harder the smaller support base you start off with, and so leaders have good reason to compete with opposition parties for popularity.