Five things we learnt about democracy in Africa in 2017



5. Western companies are part of the problem

The last year has revealed the extent to which Western companies have become involved in helping political leaders in Africa run divisive public relations campaigns to boost their electoral prospects.

The most high profile example of this was Bell Pottinger, a British “reputational management agency” that was accused of designing a campaign to stir up racial tensions in South Africa as a way of deflecting attention away from the poor performance of the African National Congress government.

The company was paid £100 000 a month, although this proved to be little compensation when the scandal broke and it was forced into administration.

While Bell Pottinger has gone, many of the multinational companies who do this kind of work continue to operate – although exactly what they do remains unclear. Given the lucrative nature of these contacts, we can assume that Western companies will continue to play a questionable role in African elections in the future, unless their activities are exposed.

2018 and beyond

The next 12 months are not likely to be kind to African democracy. Very rarely has the continent seen so many elections scheduled in such unpromising contexts. Early elections in Sierra Leone have the best prospects of going well, but after that a series of general elections will be held in particularly challenging contests: Cameroon, Mali, South Sudan and Zimbabwe.

The great challenge facing Mali and South Sudan is to organise a credible contest against a backdrop of political instability and weak institutions.

The situation is markedly different in Cameroon and Zimbabwe, where entrenched regimes that tightly control the political landscape will hold elections that they have no intention of losing.

But it’s important not to be defeatist. In the last few years the most significant democratic breakthroughs – in Gambia, Nigeria, Kenya and beyond – have been unanticipated. The next great democratic moment could be just around the corner.


By Nic Cheeseman. This article first appeared in The Conversation



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