In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 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: 10 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0062


The end of colonial rule in Africa brought into existence new independent states that 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 in 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, certain rulers have successfully established family dynasties, or ethnic clan-based systems of neo-patrimonial rule. Next, new military rulers have come to power through coups d’état, or as warlords in failed or collapsed states. Finally, parties and presidents 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 engaging in fraudulent counts. Political scientists working on the continent today recognize that many authoritarian rulers have simply learned how to master and manipulate the new environment of democracy. Articles, conference papers, and books about the growing phenomenon of post-election violence, both as an outcome of discontent and as a campaign technique, are becoming something of a new sub-literature bridging the disciplines of conflict resolution and electoral studies, joining other more positive new thinking about democracy that has focused attention on the development of “civil society,” and in its more radical variant, “social movements,” in democracy building. The critique that Western democracy may not be suitable for Africa, as well as responsive scholarship on alternative forms of government based on indigenous cultural experience, raises the possibility that elections may not be the only democratic game in town. Looking at recent elections, more countries in Africa are experiencing democratic decline than democratic gains: part of a current global trend. Yet many of the most important states in Africa are consolidating their democracies, demonstrating that democratic suitability to African conditions depends on the quality of leaders, political institutions, and continued external support.

Reference Works

A beginning researcher in African politics would be wise to begin with general reference sources that are available in the library. A large number of thematic dictionaries, handbooks, and topical encyclopedias attempt to survey the subcontinent south of the Sahara, such as Cheeseman and Scheibler 2015; Europa Publications 2018; Uwechue 1996; Adetula, et al. 2019; and Middleton and Miller 2008. In addition, many major institutional sources publish regularly updated reports on the politics and government of individual countries, such as the Amnesty International Library and the Economist Intelligence Unit: Country Reports. Finally, some thematic sources deal generally with the issues of governance, rather than African governments specifically, such as Freedom House and the World Bank: The Governance Databank.

  • Adetula, Victor, Benedikt Kamski, Andreas Mehler, and Henning Melber, eds. African Yearbook 15: Politics, Economy and Society South of the Sahara in 2018. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2019.

    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 affordably priced 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.

  • Amnesty International Library. London: Amnesty International.

    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.

  • Cheeseman, Nic, and Andrea Scheibler, eds. Routledge Handbook of African Politics. New York: Routledge, 2015.

    Surveys major issues in Africa’s politics. Each chapter deals with a specific topic, providing an overview of main arguments, theories, and evidence. A wide range of topical issues, including terrorism, the growing influence of China, civil war, and transitional justice, featuring both established and emerging scholars.

  • Economist Intelligence Unit: Country Reports. London: Economist Intelligence Unit.

    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.

  • Europa Publications, ed. Africa South of the Sahara 2019. 48th ed. New York: Routledge, 2018.

    At 1,582 pages, this is a truly comprehensive, albeit expensive, guide to all fifty-four recognized states 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. Washington, DC: Freedom House.

    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. 1–5. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2008.

    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 appendixes, including one outline chronology.

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

    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. Washington, DC: World Bank.

    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.

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