At the onset of 2013, the occurrence of presidential and parliamentary elections was widespread across the African continent. Indeed, Afrobarometer research suggests that Africans now use the quality of elections as the main indicator of the development of democracy in their respective countries.(2) However, the emergence of elections as an institutionalised and central feature of African politics has not been accompanied by sufficient government accountability, which is another inherent characteristic of democratic governance. The fact that incumbent strongmen and ruling parties stubbornly remain in power and that public policies are largely unresponsive to the needs of the people bears testimony to the lack of government accountability in many African countries. Although elections are often conceived of as the main instrument for citizens to hold their government to account, public confidence in this mechanism across Africa remains low. Hence, Africa has been labelled the “continent where the problem of ‘accountable government’ remains most stark.”(3)
This CAI paper explores the notion of elections as a mechanism for government accountability in Africa. The relationship between elections and government accountability is critical for at least two reasons. Firstly, elections are often understood as the main vehicle for the public to hold governments and power-wielders to account. Secondly, the understanding of this issue is often obscured by an ill-founded faith in the role and prospects of electoral accountability. The paper starts with a brief discussion on the use and defining features of the concept of accountability, followed by some comments on the narrower notion of electoral accountability. The third section examines some aspects and issues particularly pertinent to the relationship between elections and government accountability in Africa.
The concept of accountability: The challenge of dealing with a buzzword
Before considering how elections relate to government accountability in Africa, the concept of accountability requires some elaboration in itself. In politics in general, and governance and development circles in particular, accountability has acquired the ambiguous status of a ‘buzzword’.(4) While accountability has been called one of the most vexing problems within contemporary democracies,(5) the conceptual inflation attached to the word has spurred widespread concern that it has become too wide, devoid of analytical content or practical relevance.(6) According to some commentators, the concept of accountability has become a ‘slippery’, ‘chameleon-like’, and notoriously ambiguous term,(7) now turning up everywhere, performing all kinds of analytical and rhetorical tasks and carrying most of the major burdens of the prevailing democratic governance agenda.(8)
“The magic wand of accountability,” write Weisband and Ebraim sceptically, “is regarded as a supervening force able to promote democracy, justice, and greater human decency.”(9) In this vein, a recent United Nations University publication, Accountable Government in Africa, for instance, points out that “[i]t is axiomatic that an accountable government is inherently good” because accountability is needed: to ensure fairness, equality and equity in public decision making; for governments to respond effectively to the needs of the people; in order to avoid abuses of power and corruption; and to break patterns and networks of neopatrimonialism.(10) While there is no doubt of an overwhelming need for government accountability in African politics (like everywhere else), the normative attractiveness and legitimising force of the word warrants a certain amount of scepticism towards the generalised and non-contextualised use of the word. Precisely because the word accountability has come to act as a stamp of legitimacy on a whole range of activities, on the supposition that agents, processes, and structures are being held to account, one cannot take for granted its underlying normative assumptions, including the notion that more is necessarily better.(11) Different accountability relations might, for example, affect or conflict with each other. In many aid-dependent African countries, for instance, governments are de facto more accountable to donor governments and international organisations than to domestic institutions and publics, giving rise to the potentially (democratically) problematic notion of ‘external’ or ‘outward’ accountability.(12) Hence, simply asserting that more is always better obscures the complexities and highly contextual nature of the practical operations of accountability systems and relations.
That said, government accountability is indeed a fundamental and inherent feature to democracy and democratic governance. In a stripped-down form, and simple terms, accountability describes a relationship where A is accountable to B when A is obliged to inform B about A’s actions and decisions, to justify them, and to suffer punishment (sanctions) in case of misconduct.(13) It is thus a relationship of power, and one in which we can distinguish between, on the one hand, two key aspects, and on the other hand, two main actors.(14)
The two aspects of accountability are often referred to as answerability and enforcement. The former involves the requirement of having to provide information about one’s actions, and justifications for their correctness, whereas the latter signals the obligation to suffer penalties or sanctions from those dissatisfied either with the actions or with the rationale invoked to justify them.(15) While in practise the two are often considered to be equally important, they can also be thought of as weak and strong forms of accountability (16) – a notion that becomes particularly interesting when considering the prospects of elections as an instrument for accountability. Because elections, at least ideally, comprise a very clear, formal, and powerful articulation of the enforceability aspect – the possibility of sanction through the ballot box, for example, voting an official out of office – they surely seem to carry the promise of a strong form of accountability.
The two actors of accountability are the ‘object’, the one obliged to account for his actions and to face sanctions, and the ‘agent’, the one entitled to demand answers or impose punishment.(17) In simple terms, when dealing with the issue of elections and government accountability, the government is thus the object of accountability while the agent is represented by the citizenry or voters. However, understanding this issue requires that attention be paid to a range of other institutions and bodies activated in the election-government accountability nexus. These include political parties and parliaments, many of which act as both objects and agents of accountability. Legislators are, for instance, accountable to voters, but are also legally empowered to hold the executive to account.(18) This notion is in fact crucial to understanding precisely how (and why) elections might (or might not) function as an effective mechanism for government accountability in Africa.
Delimiting electoral accountability
As mentioned in the introduction, elections are taking root in Africa. In an article based on evidence from Afrobarometer data, Michael Bratton concludes that although regular, open elections are now an institutionalised feature of African politics and the formal institution of democracy that enjoys the most public support, people still question the effectiveness and competitiveness thereof for two main reasons.(19) First, many still “harbour doubts that elections can bring about alterations of incumbent presidents and ruling parties,” and second, people are “realizing that an ‘electoral’ democracy alone does not ensure the presence of a responsive and accountable leadership between elections.”(20) These dual doubts among Africans are actually very indicative of the problems and prospects attached to the notion of elections as a mechanism of government accountability. As such, they highlight both the general limits of electoral accountability as well as some of the constraints particular to many African countries.
A relevant distinction in this context is that between horizontal and vertical forms of accountability. Horizontal accountability refers to restraints imposed by the state on itself, with its typical expression through the notion of ‘checks and balances’, exercised by, for example, the judiciary or the legislature.(21) Vertical accountability, in contrast, denotes the procedures through which citizens directly hold the powerful to account.(22) Electoral accountability is the classic form of vertical accountability, albeit not the only one. Besides electoral accountability, where citizens delegate power to representatives and hold them accountable through periodic elections, there is also societal accountability, where citizens check the use of government power via the use of, for example, media, civil society organisations and popular protests.(23)
Concerning the general functions and limitations of electoral accountability as a means for holding government to account, two points can be made. First of all, mechanisms of vertical and horizontal accountability are closely connected and mutually interactive. The relative importance of each mechanism is somewhat disputed. Some argue that “the linkage between voters and elected representations sets the tone for all other accountability relations,” while others contend that “electoral and intrastate accountability have strong mutual effects,” or that societal accountability through social mobilisation and media coverage “can trigger improved intrastate accountability.”(24) Nonetheless, it is clear that electoral accountability only constitutes one part in the wider government accountability drama. Second, even within the subcategory of vertical accountability, the role and potential of elections are restricted, and the inherent limitations of electoral accountability well known. Most significant is, of course, the infrequent nature of elections, which allows voters to resort to sanctions only after four or five years. Further limitations involve, for instance, the requirement for voters to compress a myriad of preferences into a single choice, and the possibility of incumbent leaders to break promises and resort to evasion.(25)
Hence, it is obvious even at this general level of analysis, that the postulation made above about elections as a potentially strong form of accountability (because of its heavy formal expression of the enforceability aspect) must be revised significantly, and perhaps viewed in a somewhat more sceptical light. And importantly, some of the concerns expressed by Africans concerning the ineffectiveness of the electoral boom in fostering accountable government across the continent does not necessarily stem from features particular to politics and democracy in Africa alone, but at least partly from the limitations inherent in elections as a mechanism of government accountability in general. At a time when democratisation has become the common linguistic currency for describing all sorts of political struggles, and democratic accountability, as well as being the largely undisputed normative prescription for perceived ‘deficits’ and ‘inadequacies’ of governance in Africa and elsewhere, this is a point worth noting.
Problems and prospects for electoral accountability in Africa
In addition to the general limitations mentioned, a number of features can also be noted that seem particularly prevalent in politics in many African countries, that serve to further limit the possibilities of citizens to hold their governments to account through the ballot box, and hence, to exercise electoral accountability. While not exhaustive in any way, the following discussion aims to highlight the most relevant and pertinent issues facing electoral accountability in Africa today.
Revisiting once again the concerns captured by the Afrobarometer surveys, probably the most notable issue is indeed the relative rareness by which elections in Africa “bring about alterations of incumbent presidents and ruling parties.”(26) In fact, it is commonly argued that in new African democracies “a first and primary reason for limited vertical accountability has been the relatively few cases of real political alteration in power.”(27) A key factor in this context is the advantage of incumbency. According to Cheeseman, for example, looking at a great number of presidential elections in Africa during the last two decades, it is clear that incumbency has an independent, negative impact on the performance of opposition parties and candidates.(28) The advantage of being in power involves the possibility of constructing durable patronage networks and political machines that reward supporters and punish enemies – a tactic that has been adopted by a number of regimes in Africa throughout the years, including, for example, the regime of Arap Moi in Kenya, Hastings Banda in Malawi, and Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo.(29) Consequently, the lack of alteration of power and dominance of single ruling parties tend to tilt the electoral playing field towards the incumbent, rendering opposition parties weak and voters without a real choice. For instance, this seems to have been the case in Uganda’s 2011 general election, where a number of Election Observation Missions unanimously highlighted “the compromised level playing field due to the extent to which the power of incumbency was exercised.”(30)
However, there are signs across the continent that the prerogative of incumbency and the popularly cited ‘big man rule’-paradigm is slowly giving way. Not only are elections held more frequently than before, but they are also becoming more intensely contested and robustly competitive. As Posner and Young have shown, the number of presidential elections held in Africa where the incumbent actually faced an opponent has risen from only 2 out of 26 elections in the 1960s, to a share of more than 90% in the 1990s and 98% in the 2000-2005 period.(31) This has been accompanied by a rise in the loss rate of incumbents from just over 6% before 1990, to a “modest but nonetheless meaningful” 14% in 2005.(32) Although incumbents continue to win, the increased contestability and competitiveness of elections points to significant changes in the effectiveness and legitimacy attached to elections as a vehicle for political change. Furthermore, it underlines the need to recognise changing political dynamics playing out in the midst of, and despite, continued incumbent dominance. The latter point is showcased in a recent piece from the Africa Research Institute on Sierra Leone’s November 2012 presidential election. Looking beyond the mainstream media coverage typically limited to who’s winning (and possibly the risks of violence), the article reveals that this election, while constituting yet another case of victory for an incumbent president,(33) also displayed extremely high turnout and very close results.(34) Interestingly, these are all characteristics that the Sierra Leonean election shared with its significantly more celebrated December 2012 counterpart in Ghana.(35)
Another important factor impeding the effectiveness of elections as an instrument for government accountability, is the relative weakness of opposition parties in many African countries. Parties are essential to the process of electoral accountability because they serve to aggregate and voice citizen preferences, draw attention to abuses of government power, and convince citizens to use their vote and actually enforce electoral accountability.(36) However, opposition parties generally remain weak and poorly institutionalised as many of them are mired in clientelist networks and linkages to voters, and therefore fail to effectively mobilise voters on issues of importance to society.(37) A problem in this context is the lack of issue-based or ideological positions and platforms. In Kenya, for example, where ethnic divisions have compelled parties and their representatives to frequently use ethnic-based arguments to pursue office, this might create a problem of decreased incentives to work in the interest of all citizens.(38) Consequently, as expressed recently in an International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) report: “If voters do not base their decisions on performance, but rather on ethnic belonging or clientelist relations, it is hard to see how elections can have any sort of disciplinary effect on the elected representatives. In the long run, these tendencies can reduce the effectiveness of elections as a channel for accountability.”(39)
A glance at Afrobarometer data from 2012,(40) reveals some interesting, albeit slightly contradictory, trends in public opinion concerning the role and importance of multiparty competition. First, a large shift has occurred regarding public confidence in the merits of multiparty competition, now placing this institution in second place behind elections as the most strongly endorsed democratic institution. However, the gap between institutional promise and perceived performance is wider for political parties than for any other institution rated. According to the survey, “fully three-quarters of survey respondents worry that multiparty competition will all too easily degenerate into discord, intimidation, and violence.” Second, and perhaps related, while support for multiparty competition in general has risen, popular trust in opposition parties is lower than for any other institution. Crucially, a majority think that opposition parties should “concentrate on cooperating with the government” rather than “examining and criticizing its policies and actions.”(41) Indeed, for the prospects of enhancing electoral accountability, these findings come off as highly problematic.
A third factor constraining electoral accountability, of particular relevance to many aid-dependent countries in Africa, concerns the impact of multilateral and bilateral donors. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) has highlighted that “sustained aid-dependence skews accountability outwards towards donors by creating incentives for governments to be accountable to donors rather than to their own citizens.”(42) This in turn weakens the social contract between citizens and the state, as governments no longer need to gain popular support for their policies.(43) The tendency among donors to primarily engage with the executive in recipient countries also serves to limit the institutionalisation and effectiveness of key accountability and oversight bodies such as parliament, civil society organisations and audit institutions.(44) Moreover, limited oversight, which may also result from a lack of transparency in the aid management process, undermines electoral accountability because it restricts the possibility for voters to assign responsibility and evaluate performance based on what and how resources are used. Without this clarity of responsibility, the answerability aspect of accountability is effectively undermined.
According to a number of studies, such distortions in recipient country accountability systems have been observed in, for example, health sector support in Zambia and Uganda.(45) Furthermore, similar dynamics might be at play at local government level, as in Tanzania, where one study found that donor influence “crowds out the ability of citizens to participate meaningfully in local government” as well as “makes local governments more attentive to donors than their own constituents.”(46)
The dark irony here is that many of the detrimental effects of aid on domestic accountability in recipient countries are direct results of donors’ attendance to accountability relations in their own countries – to their own home constituencies and voters. As put by Thandika Mkandawire on the subject of aid, accountability and democracy in Africa, “the more accountable a donor is to its own voters, the more onerous and invasive will be its intervention in the receiving economy, and the more likely it is to undermine the recipient democratic government’s accountability to its own voters.”(47) Indeed, some have found in this relation nothing less than a shocking double standard.(48)
As this paper has sought to show, the notion of electoral accountability and the relationship between elections and government accountability are complex issues. Perhaps more so than is sometimes conveyed in certain development and governance discourses, where the promises of democratic and ‘free and fair’ elections remain as virtuous as they stay vague, and the ‘magic wand of accountability’ is all too often in swing. A critical attitude is certainly advisable. Crucially, there are many important aspects, factors, and actors omitted in the preceding discussion, such as the vital role of parliaments, positioned at the nexus of vertical and horizontal accountability mechanisms, and the important monitoring and advocacy function of civil society organisations. This is in addition to the more diffuse influence and power exercised by actors through the discursive construction of certain roles and ideas, such as ‘agents’ and ‘subjects’ of accountability, legitimate power-holder and passive citizen. These are all important factors in the accountability drama, highly significant for the problems and prospects of elections as a mechanism of government accountability in Africa. Moreover, it is essential to recognise the necessarily contextual and case-specific nature of the issues discussed here. As has recently been pointed out: “One person’s accountability is another’s persecution. Where one stands on these issues depends on where one sits.”(49) Any general conclusions (like the ones presented here) should probably be treated with some circumspection.
(1) Contact Fredrik Bruhn through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Elections and Democracy Unit (
). This CAI discussion paper was developed with the assistance of Fritz Nganje and was edited by Liezl Stretton.
(2) Bratton, M., 2010. “Formal versus informal institutions in Africa”, in Diamond, L. and Plattner, M.F. (eds.). Democratization in Africa: Progress and retreat (2nd edition). The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, MD.
(3) Chirwa, D.M. and Nijzink, L., 2012. “Accountable government in Africa: Introduction”, in Chirwa, D.M. and Nijzink, L. (eds.). Accountable government in Africa: Perspectives from public law and political studies. United Nations University Press: Tokyo.
(4) See for example: Cornwall, A., 2007. Buzzwords and fuzzwords: Deconstructing development discourse. Development in Practise, 17(4/5), pp. 471-484.
(5) Burnell, P., 2008. The relationship of accountable governance and constitutional implementation, with reference to Africa. Journal of Politics and Law, 1(3), pp. 10-24.
(6) Goetz, A.-M. and Jenkins, R., 2005. Reinventing accountability: Making democracy work for human development. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.
(7) Weisband, E. and Ebrahim, A., 2007. “Introduction: Forging global accountabilities”, in Ebrahim, A. and Weisband, E. (eds.). Global accountabilities: Participation, pluralism, and public ethics. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
(8) Mulgan, R., 2000. ‘Accountability’: An ever-expanding concept? Public Administration, 78(3), pp. 555-573.
(9) Weisband, E. and Ebrahim, A., 2007. “Introduction: Forging global accountabilities”, in Ebrahim, A. and Weisband, E. (eds.). Global accountabilities: Participation, pluralism, and public ethics. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
(10) Chirwa, D.M. and Nijzink, L., 2012. “Accountable government in Africa: Introduction”, in Chirwa, D.M. and Nijzink, L. (eds.). Accountable government in Africa: Perspectives from public law and political studies. United Nations University Press: Tokyo.
(11) Weisband, E. and Ebrahim, A., 2007. “Introduction: Forging global accountabilities”, in Ebrahim, A. and Weisband, E. (eds.). Global accountabilities: Participation, pluralism, and public ethics. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
(12) Mkandawire, T., 2010. Aid, accountability, and democracy in Africa. Social Research, 77(4), pp. 1149-1182; Adibe, E. A., 2010. Accountability in Africa and the international community. Social Research, 77(4), pp. 1240-1280; Lekvall, A., ‘It’s the peoples ownership: Why the aid agenda needs democracy in the post-Busan era and how to start supporting it’, International IDEA discussion paper, 2011, www.idea.int.
(13) Schedler A., 1999. “Conceptualizing accountability”, in Schedler, A., Diamond, L. and Plattner, M.F. (eds.). The self-restraining state: Power and accountability in new democracies. Lynne Reinner Publishers: London.
(14) Goetz, A.-M. and Jenkins, R., 2005. Reinventing accountability: Making democracy work for human development. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.
(17) Ibid.;Without digging deeper into terminological issues, it should be noted that what is here referred to as the ‘object’ and ‘agent’ of accountability, is also known as the ‘agent’ and ‘principal’ respectively, giving rise to the so-called principal-agent problematique.
(18) Goetz, A.-M. and Jenkins, R., 2005. Reinventing accountability: Making democracy work for human development. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.
(19) Bratton, M., 2010. “Formal versus informal institutions in Africa”, in Diamond, L. and Plattner, M.F. (eds.). Democratization in Africa: Progress and retreat (2nd edition). The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, MD.
(21) O’Donnell, G.A., 1994. Delegative democracy. Journal of Democracy, 5(1), pp. 55-69.
(23) Hydén, G., ‘Political accountability in Africa: Is the glass half-full or half-empty?’, Africa Power and Politics Programme Working Paper No. 6, 2010, http://www.institutions-africa.org.
(24) Mainwaring, S., 2003. “Introduction: Democratic accountability in Latin America”, in Mainwaring, S. and Weina, C. (eds.). Democratic accountability in Latin America. Oxford Scholarship Online.
(25) Bratton, M. and Logan, C., ‘Voters but not yet citizens: The weak demand for vertical accountability in Africa’s unclaimed democracies’, Afrobarometer Working Paper No. 63, 2006, http://www.afrobarometer.org.
(26) Bratton, M., 2010. “Formal versus informal institutions in Africa”, in Diamond, L. and Plattner, M.F. (eds.). Democratization in Africa: Progress and retreat (2nd edition). The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, MD.
(27) McKie, K. and Van de Walle, N., 2010. Toward an accountable budget process in Sub-Saharan Africa: Problems and Prospects. Social Research, 77(4), pp. 1281-1310.
(28) Cheeseman, N., 2010. African elections as vehicles for change. Journal of Democracy, 21(4), pp. 139-153.
(30) ‘Synthesis of final reports of election observation missions on the 2011 general election in Uganda’, European Union, Commonwealth, East African Law Society, Uganda Human Rights Network, September 2011, Unpublished.
(31) Posner, D.N. and Young, D.J., 2010. “The institutionalisation of political power in Africa”, in Diamond, L. and Plattner, M.F. (eds.). Democratization in Africa: Progress and retreat (2nd edition). The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, MD.
(33) Although, as noted in the same article, like in the case of Ghana’s 2012 presidential election, the opposition party challenged the credibility of the electoral process.
(34) Bhalla, J., ‘Comparing elections in Sierra Leone and Ghana’, Africa Research Institute Blog, 10 January 2013, http://africaresearchinstitute.blogspot.co.uk.
(36) McKie, K. and Van de Walle, N., 2010. Toward an accountable budget process in Sub-Saharan Africa: Problems and Prospects. Social Research, 77(4), pp. 1281-1310.
(38) Jelmin, K., ‘Democratic accountability in service delivery: A synthesis of case studies’, International IDEA, 2012, www.idea.int.
(40) Bratton, M., ‘Trends in popular attitudes to multiparty democracy in Africa, 2000-2012’, Afrobarometer Briefing Paper No. 105, October 2012, www.afrobarometer.org.
(42) Hudson, A., ‘Aid and domestic accountability’, OECD DAC Network on Governance, Background paper, 30 March 2009, http://www.oecd.org.
(43) McKie, K. and Van de Walle, N., 2010. Toward an accountable budget process in Sub-Saharan Africa: Problems and Prospects. Social Research, 77(4), pp. 1281-1310.
(44) Horner, L. and Power, G., ‘The democratic dimension of aid: Prospects for democracy building within the contemporary international architecture of development cooperation’, Literature Review for International IDEA, March 2009, http://www.idea.int; Rocha Menocal, A. and Sharma, B., ‘Joint evaluation of citizens’ voice and accountability’, DFID and ODI, Synthesis report, 2008, http://www.odi.org.uk.
(45) Jelmin, K., ‘Democratic accountability in service delivery: A synthesis of case studies’, International IDEA, 2012, www.idea.int.
(46) Tripp, A.M., ‘Donor assistance and political reform in Tanzania’, UNU-WIDER, Working Paper No. 2012/37, April 2012, http://www.wider.unu.edu.
(47) Mkandawire, T., 2010. Aid, accountability, and democracy in Africa. Social Research, 77(4), pp. 1149-1182.
(48) For example: Easterly, W., 2010. Democratic accountability in development: The double standard. Social Research, 77(4), pp. 1075-1104.
(49) Fox, J., 2007. The uncertain relationship between transparency and accountability. Development in Practise, 17(4/5), pp. 663-671.