John W. Harbeson
Nairobi — One of the most but least explored questions about democracy is what do citizens think about their democracies. Over the last 10 years, the AfroBarometer sample surveys have made an important contribution by asking that question in considerable depth and breadth in 20 African countries.
The AfroBarometer surveys have been conducted by a team of distinguished African and Non-African scholars with the support of the Centre for Democratic Development in Ghana, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy in Benin, the University of Capetown, and Michigan State University.
Several things are important to note about the survey results. Opinion surveys capture citizens' views at a point in time. In Kenya, the surveys were conducted in 2008, six months into the life of the present power-sharing government.
The surveys offer comparisons of Kenya to 19 other countries, all of which necessarily have reached a certain threshold of democracy, or it wouldn't be possible to conduct the surveys! What's a critical threshold number for any given question above which serious consequences may flow? A majority of only 51 per cent elects someone to office, but what would it mean if only 51 per cent report trust in the leaders they have elected?
With these qualifications, the survey results for Kenya and its neighbours are revealing, suggestive, and arguably troubling in the long run. Overall, the surveys report that Kenyans believe deeply in the desirability and the principles of democracy with numbers somewhat above average for the countries in the survey.
On the other hand, the surveys, also reveal deep dissatisfaction with the quality of democracy in Kenya, substantially deeper dissatisfaction than do citizens of other countries in the survey. Many of my political science colleagues tend to call incomplete democracies "hybrids" - countries exhibiting both democratic and non-democratic features.
I'm tempted to suggest a distinction between countries that retain some authoritarian features along with democratic ones and those that retain characteristics that aren't so much authoritarian as badly, even very badly, functioning democratic processes.
On the one hand, 78 per cent of Kenyans interviewed by AfroBarometer reported that they preferred democracy to any other kind of government, just a bit behind Botswana (85 per cent) and Benin (81 per cent) and essential tied with Uganda and Ghana. Morever, 80 per cent of Kenyans surveyed preferred multiparty democracy to legally one-party democracy advocated and enforced in the past, and effectively tied with Botswana and Ghana behind only Senegal (90 per cent).
Kenyans (at 83 per cent) were second only to Tanzanians in upholding two-term presidential term limits. Kenyan were about average among these 20 democracies in allowing the media to publish freely (76 per cent) and that people should be free to speak their mind, no matter how unpopular their views might be (77 per cent) but slightly below average (57 per cent vs 66 per cent) in their support for freedom to join any organisation they choose, regardless of what the government might think about it - one might suspect that countries in the survey may vary considerable in terms the presence of organisations that severely test public tolerance.
One striking finding of the surveys is that almost all African democracies feature constitutions investing presidents with substantial powers in relation to parliaments. Every country in the surveys produced super-majorities for the proposition that parliaments should make laws for the country even if the president does not agree. On this question, Kenya, Benin, and Senegal produced the largest majorities at just under 80 per cent.
By comparison with other countries in the survey, Kenyans were more patient with the shortcomings of their democracy than others, with 58 per cent agreeing that the "present system should be given more time to deal with inherited problems" versus the 50 per cent average for all countries.
On the other hand, Kenyans expressed substantial dissatisfaction with the state of their democracy. No democracy is perfect, of course, but at what level over what period of time, if any, does popular dissatisfaction with the quality of democratic performance try the patience of citizens beyond endurance? It is probably safe to say that no one knows the answers to these question, in general or for any specific country.
Overall, however, at 43 per cent, Kenya joined Nigeria, Lesotho, Senegal, and Madagascar as the only countries surveyed where less than half of those surveyed believed that the country had a full democracy or one with only minor problems.
Those same four countries were joined by six others in which only a minority of those surveyed pronounced themselves very satisfied or at least fairly satisfied with the way in which their democracies worked. At 43 per cent, Kenya was closer than several of the others to the overall average of 50 per cent for all countries.
The tantalising thing about these is findings is that they can mean diametrically different things - those dissatisfied may be motivated to redouble efforts to strengthen democracy or their dissatisfaction over the long-term may sap public patience with democracy's shortcomings. The AfroBarometer surveys apparently did not probe that question.
Questions about political trust and political legitimacy probe citizen beliefs about as deeply as any. On these questions, the results are not particularly encouraging for most of the countries in the survey, including Kenya, particularly since these are the countries of the continent that have taken the largest strides toward democracy, in institutional terms.