In This Article Democracy and Authoritarianism in Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals and Periodicals

Political Science Democracy and Authoritarianism in Sub-Saharan Africa
Douglas A. Yates
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0062


The end of colonial rule in Africa brought into existence new independent states which lacked both effective government institutions and modern national identities. Postcolonial African leaders therefore immediately faced the dual challenges of state building and nation building. Most started out by adopting democratic constitutions copied from their European colonizers, but then quickly descended into various forms of authoritarianism. Many reasons account for this, including the legacy of authoritarianism inherent to colonial rule, the ideological battles of the Cold War, the organizational advantages of the military, ethno-political competition, and even traditional patterns of political culture. Authoritarian rule thus became the central tendency of African politics during the Cold War, until the “Third Wave of Democratization” in the 1990s ushered in a new age of constitutionalism, rule of law, multiparty elections, and alternance of power. Today the norm is democracy, albeit flawed, with most African governments coming to power through competitive elections, and most rulers following civilian rather than military careers. But the struggle for democracy has not been entirely successful, with major reversals appearing frequently in every region. First there are certain rulers who have successfully established family dynasties, or ethnic clan-based systems of neo-patrimonial rule. Next there are new military rulers who have come to power through coups d’état, or as warlords in failed or collapsed states. Finally, there are parties and presidents who have learned how to survive the advent of multiparty elections. Denying basic freedoms of association, speech, and the press are instruments of such “illiberal” democracies. Others are manipulating registration lists, denying voters’ rights, and fraudulent counts. Political scientists working on the continent today do recognize that many authoritarian rulers have simply learned how to master the new environment of democracy. Foreign electoral observer missions and international sanctions have each become a constant. New thinking about democracy is focusing attention on the development of “civil society,” and in its more radical variant, support for social movements. The possibility that western democracy may not be suitable for Africa has also resulted in scholarship on alternative forms of government based on indigenous cultural experience. Perhaps the synthesis of democracy and authoritarian rule in Africa will come through the contemporary focus on “governance,” or what government does, rather than on “government,” or what it is.

Reference Works

A beginning researcher on African politics would be wise to begin with general reference sources that have been made available in the library. There are a very large number of thematic dictionaries and topical encyclopedias which attempt to survey the subcontinent south of the Sahara, such as Europa Publications 2014; Uwechue 1996; Elischer, et al. 2015; Middleton and Miller 2008; and Seddon and Seddon-Daines 2005. There are also many major institutional sources that publish regularly updated reports on the politics and government of individual countries, such as the Amnesty International Library and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Country Reports. Finally, there are some thematic sources that deal generally with the issues of governance, rather than African governments specifically, such as Freedom House and the World Bank’s Governance Databank.

  • Amnesty International Library.

    E-mail Citation »

    This site is maintained by the Amnesty International Secretariat in London and contains an archive of most of this nongovernmental human rights organization’s publications, including annual country reports and press releases. Access is free, and full-text versions of documents published since 1996 are available in English. Searches can be made by country or region as well as by theme. This is an excellent source for research on human rights abuses.

  • Economist Intelligence Unit. Country Reports.

    E-mail Citation »

    Published by the group famous for its magazine The Economist, the EIU Country Reports provide detailed monthly surveys of the government, politics, society, and economy of all African countries. Following a tradition set by the magazine, the writers of all Country Reports are anonymous. With excellent forecasts of the following year’s data combined with insider analysis of domestic politics and government policies, EIU is very expensive, but worth it.

  • Elischer, Sebastien, Rolf Hofmeier, Andreas Mehler, and Henning Melber, eds. Africa Yearbook 11: Politics, Economy and Society South of the Sahara 2014. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004205567.i-550E-mail Citation »

    Providing country-specific articles on fifty-two states in sub-Saharan Africa organized into four regional sections (West, Central, Eastern and Southern Africa), each written by a prominent country specialist, this yearbook covers three topics: domestic politics, foreign affairs, and socioeconomic developments. It focuses exclusively on the calendar year under review. Based on scholarly work, it is oriented toward a wider target readership, including students, politicians, diplomats, administrators, journalists, and development practitioners.

  • Europa Publications, ed. Africa South of the Sahara 2015. 44th ed. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a comprehensive guide to all fifty-two countries that comprise Africa south of the Sahara, alphabetically arranged, including essays by specialists on selected topics of interest. Sections include physical and social geography, recent history, economy, statistical surveys, directory, and bibliography. The directory provides full listings of all members of government, ministries, political parties, and other agencies, with contacts.

  • Freedom House

    E-mail Citation »

    Since 1980 this annual report has tracked trends in political liberty and press freedom. Country reports are available online for thirty-seven African countries. Ranking political rights and liberties, the annual reports provide information about censorship and repression of the mass media, the legal environment for media, and political pressures that influence reporting.

  • Middleton, John, and Joseph C. Miller, eds. New Encyclopedia of Africa. Vols. I–V. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    This two-million-word, five-volume encyclopedia includes coverage of the entire continent (including North Africa). Although alphabetically arranged, this is not a dictionary but has an integrated structure of 1,121 articles, of which 821 are essays on specific topics and 305 are biographies. There are over 650 maps, diagrams, portraits, photographs, and tables, as well as three appendices, including one outline chronology.

  • Seddon, David, and Daniel Seddon-Daines. A Political and Economic Dictionary of Africa. London: Routledge, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    A topical dictionary that focuses on selected personalities, places, and topics concerning politics and economics in Africa. Using short entries, it cross-references subjects for ease of use and provides definitions of terms, concepts, names, and organizations, including information on the countries, regional and international organizations, political parties, prominent politicians, and businesses useful for understanding African politics.

  • Uwechue, Raph, ed. Makers of Modern Africa: Profiles in History. 3d ed. London: Africa Books, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    Written by African historians, this thick reference work consists of 640 life histories of eminent people who occupy a special place in African history. A very useful source for biographical research on African statesmen; each entry provides a photograph of the subject and a short biographical entry.

  • World Bank. The Governance Databank.

    E-mail Citation »

    Regularly updated by the World Bank Governance Group, which promotes good governance and anti-corruption policies, this much-used website provides indicators on governance for hundreds of countries worldwide, with 140 databases available. These include data taken from World Bank publications and projects, many of which are in Africa. Key governance indicators are political stability, government regulation, political corruption and accountability, government effectiveness, and rule of law.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.