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BIPR | A Democratic Future for Africa?
A Democratic Future for Africa?

April 20, 2022 - 19:00

Nic Cheeseman - Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi - Peter Lewis - Chiedo Nwankwor - Obiora C. Okafor

Event Recap

In his introduction, Professor Peter Lewis argues that democracy in Africa remains resilient. Although he concedes that African democracies face major challenges, Lewis claims that the tectonic shift from autocracies to democracies that many African states witnessed in the 1990s has plateaued but has not reversed. He underscores that despite recent coups in Guinea-Bissau, Mali, and Guinea, the number of coups has steadily decreased in Africa.

Professor Nic Cheeseman supports Professor Lewis's argument by suggesting that given the economic difficulties and other negative trends observed in Africa, experts should be asking why Africa is not more authoritarian. He analyzes four key components of African democracy: popularity, institutions, strategy, and supranational actors. On popularity, Cheeseman cites the fact most Africans still support democracy and do not want military rule, including countries that are experiencing coups. To add to this, Cheeseman observes a trend in some countries like Malawi and Zambia where the military is now seen as guardians of constitutions. Additionally, other democratic processes are being respected and even institutionalized. Cheeseman argues that this fits into the strategy of political elites who see competition and the multi-party system as the only feasible way to ensure their chance for the top job. Thus, these elites prevent leaders from their own parties from removing term limits. Finally, the overall support from regional organizations such as the African Union (AU) and ECOWAS, including their interventions after coups, as well as the nominal Western states' preference for democracies creates a favorable supranational environment for African democracies. In his conclusion, Professor Cheesman points out that these forms of resilience are more pronounced in some states than others, which results in further bifurcation between a set of stronger and a set of more authoritarian countries in years to come.

Professor Chiedo Nwankwor emphasizes that democratic deliverance on goods and gender quality should be centered in the debate about African democracy. She argues that we need to dig deeper to understand how representation is working and impacting people's daily lives. Professor Nwankwor recommends that democracy indexes and experts take into consideration the prevalence of male domination of politics and how masculinity contributes to the military being seen as the only viable alternative during times of crisis.

Professor Obiora Okafor wonders if African democracies are starting to trend in the wrong direction. Okafor analyzes the situation on three levels: pressure from below (civil society), pressure from within (legislature), and pressure from above (ECOWAS). Using Nigeria as the primary example, Okafor highlights that labor and student movements which have historically fought for democracy "from below" have been weakened. This coincides with a weakening of the legislature as the ruling parties legislators who have traditionally kept executive branch leaders in check and have instead recently become more "yes men" than checks. As for pressure from above, Professor Okafor claims that regional organizations such as ECOWAS and the AU which have taken robust corrective action, stiff suffer to an extent from a legitimacy deficit because of the democratic credentials of some of the leaders that take decisions on their behalf, and that this will make it increasingly challenge for the capacity of these regional organizations to respond optimally to threats to democracy.

Finally, Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi from Afrobarometer claims that democracy in Africa suffers from a supply problem and a lack of recognition of demand gaps. By referring to Afrobarometer survey results, he demonstrates that the number of Africans who support democracy remains high, but Africans are increasingly distrustful of key state and democratic institutions. When examining these survey results Gyimah-Boadi cautions that we must always consider context including destabilizing factors such as the overthrow of regimes in neighboring countries and climate change. He also underscores the need to build the capacity of institutions to ensure the effective execution of policies and the routine examination of constitutional designs in countries.

Full Audio:

A Democratic Future for Africa?

hosted by Professor Peter M. Lewis

Nic Cheeseman
University of Birmingham, UK
Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi
Afrobarometer, Ghana
Peter Lewis
Johns Hopkins University SAIS, US
Chiedo Nwankwor
Johns Hopkins University SAIS Women Lead, US
Obiora C. Okafor
Johns Hopkins University SAIS, US

The event will be held in hybrid mode. SAIS Europe students, faculty, and staff are allowed to attend in person in the Penthouse. External guests are welcome to participate by registering for the online webinar using the link below.


Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and was formerly Director of the African Studies Centre at Oxford University. Cheeseman works mainly on democracy, elections and development and has conducted in-country research in a wide range of African countries including Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, but has also published on Latin America and post-communist Europe. Cheeseman is the author or editor of 10 books, including Democracy in Africa (2015), Institutions and Democracy in Africa (2017), How to Rig an Election (2018), Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective (2018), and Authoritarian Africa (2020), The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa (2020) and the Handbook of Kenyan Politics (2020). In recognition of his academic and public contributions, the Political Studies Association awarded him the Joni Lovenduski Prize for outstanding professional achievement by a mid-career scholar in 2019. The same year, his efforts to promote better understanding of democracy and how it can be protected and strengthened around the world won the prestigious Celebrating Impact Prize of the Economic and Social Research Council. A frequent commentator on African and global events, Cheeseman's analysis regularly appears on the BBC and in the Economist, Financial Times, Le Monde, Guardian, and Washington Post. He writes columns for the Africa Report and the Mail & Guardian.


Professor Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi is co-founder of Afrobarometer and served as CEO from 2008 to March 2021, when he became chairman of the board of directors of the registered non-profit corporation. He is also founder and former executive director of the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana). A former professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Ghana, Legon, he has held faculty positions at universities in the United States, and fellowships at the Center for Democracy, Rule of Law and Development (Stanford University), the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the US Institute of Peace, and the International Forum for Democratic Development (all in Washington, DC). Gyimah-Boadi is a fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Democracy and the Advisory Council of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (London), among others. He received his doctorate from the University of California (Davis) and undergraduate degree from the University of Ghana, Legon. Gyimah-Boadi's articles have appeared in various publications, including the Journal of Democracy and UNU-WIDER. He is co-author of Public Opinion, Democracy, and Market Reform in Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and has received myriad awards, including the 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for Peace and Social Justice for advancing democracy, good governance, and economic opportunity. In 2021 New African named him one of its "100 Most Influential Africans".


Peter M. Lewis is Warren Weinstein Chair of African Studies and Director of Africa and Middle East Programs at SAIS Europe. Lewis, who served as SAIS Associate Dean for Academic and Faculty Affairs from 2015 to 2018, has directed the school's Africa Studies program since joining Johns Hopkins SAIS in 2006, and currently oversees the school's Middle East program. Lewis' research and teaching focus on economic reform and political transition in developing countries, with particular emphasis on governance and development in sub-Saharan Africa. He has written extensively on economic adjustment, democratization, and civil society in Africa; democratic reform and political economy in Nigeria; public attitudes toward reform and democracy in West Africa; and the comparative politics of economic change in Africa and Southeast Asia. His most recent book, Coping with Crisis in African States, examines sources of resilience and fragility across African countries and presents a series of critical cases. His previous book, Growing Apart: Politics and Economic Change in Indonesia and Nigeria is concerned with the institutional basis of economic development. Lewis has published several other co-authored and edited books, numerous book chapters, and articles in World Politics, World Development, the Journal of Democracy, the Journal of Modern African Studies, African Affairs, and others. Lewis is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the editorial board of the Journal of Democracy. He has consulted for the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Carter Center, the Council on Foreign Relations, Freedom House, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the World Bank. He received a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and masters and doctorate degrees from Princeton University.


Chiedo Nwankwor serves as a Lecturer and Director of SAIS Women Lead (SWL). Her primary areas of specialization are Comparative Politics with a focus on African politics, and Women and Gender Studies. Within women and gender studies, her research and teaching interests include women's political participation with an emphasis on ministerial level politics in Africa, women's health and health policy, feminist international relations, and the political economy of gender in Africa. As Director of SAIS Women Lead, Dr. Nwankwor develops and teaches SWL's practicum courses; facilitates collaboration with SAIS Women's Alumni Network (SWAN), SWL's Women Who Inspire Lecture Series, and Global Women in Leadership to co-sponsor programming; strengthens alumni mentoring activities affiliated with SWL; and advises students.


Professor Obiora C. Okafor is the Edward B. Burling Chair in International Law and Institutions at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC. He is also the UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and International Solidarity and a former Chairperson of the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee. He has held the York Research Chair in International and Transnational Legal Studies at the Osgoode Hall Law School of York University, Toronto, Canada, and the Gani Fawehinmi Distinguished Chair in Human Rights Law at the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. He has also served as a visiting professor at a number of universities and institutes around the world. He was conferred the Award of Academic Excellence of the Canadian Association of Law Teachers in 2010 and the Gold Medal for Exceptional Research and Major Contributions to Jurisprudence of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in 2013. He is the author or co-editor of seven books and over one hundred and twenty articles and other scholarly pieces.
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