In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Digital Resources
  • Political Anthropology
  • Classic Works in African Political Anthropology
  • Postcolonialism and the Transition to Independence
  • Civil Society and State Building in Africa
  • Political Economy and Democracy
  • Citizenship and Ethnicity
  • Pan-Africanism, Race, and Independence
  • Gender, Sexuality, and the State
  • Human Rights and Western Liberalism
  • Local Negotiations of Democracy
  • Spiritual Insecurity in Democratic States

Anthropology Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa
Amber Reed
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0135


Independence from colonial governments happened in rather quick succession across the African continent, roughly from the 1960s to the 1990s. Thus democratic movements in Africa in the early 21st century can only be understood through close attention to postcolonial politics and their role in social and economic life. New forms of nationalism took root alongside deeply entrenched colonial practices that often contributed to local understandings of democracy. Furthermore, the transitions to independence in most African countries both coincided with and were deeply influenced by global Cold War politics and the scramble for power by both Soviet and American governments. Thus the push for democratic forms of governance on the continent included political parties often backed by one of these two competing ideological and military forces. As the Cold War ended and Soviet influence on the continent declined, democratic movements coupled with new forms of capitalism began to dominate African politics. Meanwhile the push for Pan-Africanism and celebrations of black personhood had a profound effect on political movements across the continent, particularly as evidenced in the governments of Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, and Senegal’s Leopold Senghor, to name a few. Such instances of grassroots democracy and cultural and racial pride counter larger structural narratives of the global hegemony of Western liberalism. While the anthropology of democracy as its own area of study is relatively new, pioneers in the field such as Julia Paley have opened important and stimulating debates about local appropriations of democracy, the colonial legacy, problems with cultural translation of rights discourses, issues of multicultural citizenship, and the potentials of the ethnographic method in investigating these diverse arenas. The readings in this article draw on a wide variety of scholarship and related resources, incorporating both classic Africanist explications of particular native political systems as well as more recent works that question the intersections of spiritual insecurity, neoliberal capitalism, postcolonialism, and attempts at democracy in 21st-century African states.

General Overviews

These resources give the reader a sense of how social theorists and philosophers have grappled with the concept of democracy both on the African continent and more broadly. De Tocqueville 1951 and Habermas 1996 provide a philosophical orientation to the concept of democracy, outlining its strengths, weaknesses, and requirements in terms of law and morality. In order to provide readers with a comprehensive history of democracy and its ties to legacies of colonialism on the African continent, Cheeseman 2015, Joseph 1998, and Comaroff and Comaroff 1997 are included. A volume on social democracies, Edelman, et al. 2007 allows for consideration of the specific challenges of democracy in peripheral countries vis-à-vis their industrialized counterparts. Moving specifically into anthropology, Paley 2002 calls for focused ethnographic attention to democratic systems of governance, particularly those that began in precolonial or colonial periods and are potentially mislabeled as antidemocratic. Paley 2008, the author’s edited volume, brings together a diversity of regional foci to show the strengths of anthropological methods and theory in investigations of democracy. Cheeseman 2018 suggests we reconsider Western notions of African democracies as reliant upon local custom, instead showing the strength of formal institutions in Africa.

  • Cheeseman, Nicholas. 2015. Democracy in Africa: Successes, failures, and the struggle for political reform. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139030892

    A very useful resource in understanding the history of democracy on the continent in terms of politics, economics, society, and culture.

  • Cheeseman, Nicholas, ed. 2018. Institutions and democracy in Africa: How the rules of the game shape political developments. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An edited volume that pushes back against Western narratives of “failed” formal democratic institutions in Africa. Instead, the combined voices here suggest that African states, while diverse, all rely on informal institutions that work to strengthen formal ones in the pursuit of successful governance.

  • Comaroff, John L., and Jean Comaroff. 1997. Postcolonial politics and discourses of democracy in Southern Africa: An anthropological reflection on African political modernities. Journal of Anthropological Research 53.4: 123–146.

    DOI: 10.1086/jar.53.2.3631274

    A central contribution to earlier anthropological investigations of postcolonial democracy, this seminal article uses Bostwana’s one-party democracy as an example of the role of precolonial and colonial influences in early-21st-century political realities. See also Postcolonialism and the Transition to Independence.

  • de Tocqueville, Alexis. 1951. De la démocratie en Amérique. Paris: Gallimard.

    While not traditionally an anthropology mainstay, this classic philosophical and political science text on the merits of representative democracy and dangers of tyranny remains influential in studies of 20th-to-early-21st-century democratic states across the social sciences. Originally published in 1834 (Paris: Pagnerre).

  • Edelman, Marc, Richard Sandbrook, Patrick Heller, and Judith Teichman. 2007. Social democracy in the global periphery: Origins, challenges, prospects. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This interdisciplinary text argues for the possibility of social democracies in the periphery, despite the hegemony of core industrial countries and neoliberal economics. Compares four cases: India, Costa Rica, Mauritius, and Chile. Argues for the ability to work within neoliberalism and build a democratic state based on social principles.

  • Habermas, Jürgen. 1996. Between facts and norms: Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy. Cambridge: Polity.

    DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/1564.001.0001

    English translation of Faktizität und Geltung: Beiträge zur Diskurstheorie des Rechts und des demokratischen Rechtsstaats, first published in 1992 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp). A landmark philosophical text that examines the social and moral requirements for democracy and argues for the modern role of law as a universalizing force in society.

  • Joseph, Richard, ed. 1998. State, conflict, and democracy in Africa. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

    Comprehensive collection of scholarly conference papers on contemporary African political systems and their colonial origins. Deals with topics such as—but not limited to—economic liberalization, power, conflict, and electoral politics.

  • Paley, Julia. 2002. Toward an anthropology of democracy. Annual Review of Anthropology 31:469–496.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.31.040402.085453

    Argues that anthropology is uniquely situated to investigate questions of democracy because of its commitment to alternative perspectives and the ethnographic method. Cites early approaches within the discipline, demonstrating these were mainly through the guise of related issues. Suggests modern democracies are hampered by power inequalities best understood through attention to precolonial and colonial histories, and shows some alternative approaches. Lastly, shows how anthropology itself might “democratize” its methodology.

  • Paley, Julia, ed. 2008. Democracy: Anthropological approaches. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press.

    Edited volume compiling different anthropologists’ approach to the study of democracy in a variety of local contexts using ethnographic methods. See Political Anthropology.

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