In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Public Opinion in Africa

  • Introduction
  • Origins of Survey Work in Africa

Political Science Public Opinion in Africa
Jeffrey Conroy-Krutz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 September 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0318


Projects to measure public opinion in Africa have increased considerably in the last two decades. Earlier data-collection efforts focused on health and economic development, with limited attempts to gauge public opinion before the late 1990s. Possibilities expanded as a wave of political liberalizations swept the continent after the Cold War, and as government limitations on speech freedoms and survey research loosened. Knowledge about public opinion remains uneven, however; more surveys are conducted in wealthier, more stable, and more democratic countries. Various actors are leading these efforts. Academic and research organizations have been at the forefront, with Afrobarometer, which has conducted surveys in about two-thirds of African countries since 1999, the most prominent. The majority of studies are conducted by for-profit companies, media houses, and political campaigns, and many results are never publicly released. The growth in surveys of public opinion in Africa has had important ramifications across a number of realms. Academics have developed and tested new theories on how Africans respond to and shape their political and economic systems, and some long-standing theories have been challenged with newly available empirical evidence. Candidates and parties attempt to measure public opinion as they develop mobilizational and persuasive campaign strategies. Election observers have used survey data collected before and after voting to assess whether official results comport with citizens’ preferences. And international and domestic policymakers have increasingly used public opinion data from Africa to determine economic and political development priorities, and to assess the effectiveness of various programs. However, there is evidence that the survey enterprise in Africa is becoming increasingly politicized, with some officials attempting to block the release of potentially embarrassing results, or preventing surveys from being conducted altogether, and other political actors attacking survey organizations when they do not like what the data show. As organizations conducting public opinion surveys in Africa modify their strategies in the face of new technologies and changing political contexts, the ever-increasing availability of data on what Africans think about how their countries are and should be governed continues to fundamentally change academic understanding, policymaking, and actual political competition.

Origins of Survey Work in Africa

In the first decades after the end of European colonization of Africa, academic work took on a decidedly elite-centric focus. Scholars focused primarily on questions of institutional development, party formation and organization, and nation building. Presidents and party leaders were more likely to be the focus of inquiries than the average citizen. Before the peak of the behavioral revolution, such emphases were common across the social sciences and were not limited to Africa. However, the dearth of public opinion data was both an effect and a cause of this focus on elites. The collection of individual-level data in Africa predates the post-Cold War era, with governments and colonial administrators organizing censuses, and social scientists conducting ethnographies and focus groups. Scholars and policymakers focusing on economic development and public health collected individual- and household-level data as well. Survey firms such as Marco Surveys Ltd. and Market Research were working in East Africa as early as the 1950s, but increasing authoritarianism quashed these efforts in countries like Kenya. Masipula Sithole organized an early survey in post-independence Zimbabwe in 1985, marking an important moment in the measurement of public opinion in southern Africa. And texts such as Melson 1971, Barkan and Okomu 1974, Hayward 1976, Kasfir 1976, Peil 1976, Berg-Schlosser 1982, and Beckett and Alli 1998 during this period also collected microdata to shed light on newly independent countries’ politics. However, the regular collection of public opinion data using standardized questionnaires and large-N samples is a more recent development.

  • Barkan, Joel D., and John J. Okomu. Political Linkage in Kenya: Citizens, Local Elites, and Legislators. Occasional Paper, Center for Comparative Legislative Research 1. Iowa City: University of Iowa, 1974.

    One of largest and earliest surveys on political attitudes conducted in Africa by social scientists. Despite large sample (N=4000), generalizability limited by small number of constituencies (about a dozen).

  • Beckett, Paul A., and Warisu O. Alli. Democracy and the Elite in Nigeria: Perspectives from Survey Research. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

    Early example of a longitudinal study of public opinion in Africa. Focuses on support for different regime types in Nigeria.

  • Berg-Schlosser, Dirk. “Modes and Meaning of Political Participation in Kenya.” Comparative Politics 14.4 (1982): 397–415.

    Study of political participation in Kenya, through a survey of 572 respondents in urban and rural regions.

  • Hayward, Fred M. “A Reassessment of Conventional Wisdom About the Informed Public: National Political Information in Ghana.” American Political Science Review 70.2 (1976): 433–451.

    Important early study of political knowledge, with survey in Ghana. Challenged conventional wisdom that those in “peasant societies” would be less knowledgeable about politics.

  • Kasfir, Nelson. The Shrinking Political Arena: Participation and Ethnicity in African Politics, with a Case Study of Uganda. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

    Innovative use of microdata on education, police employment, and the bureaucracy to study patterns of ethnic favoritism and discrimination in early post-independence Uganda.

  • Melson, Robert. “Ideology and Inconsistency: The ‘Cross-Pressured’ Nigerian Worker.” American Political Science Review 65.1 (1971): 161–171.

    Uses survey of organized laborers in Nigeria in an important early study on how different types of identity (i.e., ethnic and ideological) cross-cut.

  • Peil, Margaret. 1976. Nigerian Politics: The People’s View. London: Cassell.

    Early example of a book-length treatment of African politics using large-N survey as main data source. Focuses on many topics that became mainstays in the literature, including participation, regime support, and intergroup relations.

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