In Africa, Contrasting Coups and Elections Underscore the Benefits of Democracy

Key elections last year led to peaceful rotations of power, even as authoritarian power grabs in other countries drove sharp declines in political rights.

A voter educator with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission in Mombasa, Kenya assists a voter to confirm their voter status and voting station during a Civic Engagement Forum at Majengo Village Hall

A voter educator with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission in Mombasa, Kenya assists a voter to confirm their voter status and voting station during a Civic Engagement Forum at Majengo Village Hall. Photo: Alex Kamweru/USAID Flickr


Written by
Arya Patel, Freedom in the World junior fellow for Africa.


The findings from Freedom in the World 2023, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties around the globe, show that some of the year’s most dramatic shifts took place in Africa, where several countries underwent changes in leadership.

There was a stark contrast between the new governments in the region that seized power through irregular means and those that entered office through free and fair elections. Authoritarian power grabs led to rapidly worsening freedom conditions in Burkina Faso and Tunisia, for example, while political rights improved following opposition victories at the ballot box in Kenya and Lesotho. The juxtaposition of these cases illustrates the importance of fostering orderly democratic change and avoiding a vicious circle of authoritarian misrule.

Amassing power without public consent

Military coups in 2021 and 2022 have left Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan, Chad, and Guinea without elected governments and stymied opportunities for any alternative political force to win power through democratic means. Burkina Faso, which suffered back-to-back military coups in 2022, was downgraded to Not Free status in Freedom in the World and experienced the year’s largest score decline, losing a total of 23 points on the report’s 100-point scale. The military dissolved the parliament, limited the ability of political parties to function, and eliminated mechanisms for accountability and transparency. Millions of Burkinabè, who already faced displacement, insecurity, and violence from Islamist militant groups, now lack any political agency to hold their government accountable for its performance.

Tunisia registered the second-largest score decline in Africa due to President Kaïs Saïed’s ongoing efforts to dismantle the country’s democratic institutions and consolidate his own power. The president unilaterally dismissed the prime minister and suspended the parliament in 2021, and in March 2022 he formally dissolved the legislature, continuing to rule by decree. Through a tightly controlled, low-turnout referendum in July, Saïed enacted a new constitution that increased the authority of the presidency while diminishing legislative and judicial checks. December elections for a new, restructured parliament drew exceptionally low voter turnout and were boycotted by most opposition parties.

While Burkina Faso and Tunisia faced acute new declines in political rights during 2022, other countries in Africa remained trapped by political systems that protect long-standing authoritarian leaders while boxing out political challengers. Sixteen countries in the region received a score of 0 out of 4 on the Freedom in the World indicator measuring opportunities for the political opposition, meaning that a third of African countries lack any meaningful space for alternative leaders to gain power through elections. In fact, five African heads of state have been in power for more than three decades, while seven others have been in power for at least 10 years.

In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame has maintained power for nearly 30 years by rigging elections, benefiting from political patronage systems, and eliminating political dissent. In 2022, the Kagame regime continued its attempts to silence political opponents, with suspicious disappearances of Rwandans reported both within the country and abroad. By suppressing critical views, authoritarians leave little room for policy innovation, effective anticorruption efforts, or free expression, all of which are required for a healthy democracy that delivers individual liberty and will remain stable beyond the tenure of the current leader.

Elections enable peaceful transfers of power

Despite these challenges elsewhere on the continent, some African countries held generally free and fair elections that afforded increased opportunities for the political opposition to gain power. In Kenya, which is rated Partly Free and registered the largest score improvement in the region, general elections featured greater transparency, fresh evidence of judicial independence, and a peaceful handover of the presidency from one political bloc to another. The process represented a stark improvement over previous contests, which had been marred by opposition boycotts, violence, and electoral misconduct.

In Lesotho, which earned a status improvement from Partly Free to Free, general elections resulted in a governing coalition led by the newly established Revolution for Prosperity (RFP) party. The elections were hailed as peaceful, fair, and safe by various international observers. Lesotho’s shaky legal framework, coalition infighting, and corruption may present challenges to the new administration, but the RFP has promised to carry out political reforms that will make it easier to maintain coalition governments. Reforms in general are more likely to come from new political leaders with an interest in changing the status quo, highlighting the importance of regular rotations of power.

In another example of this phenomenon, the ripple effects from Zambia’s 2021 elections led to an improvement in the country’s scores for 2022. While restrictions on independent media and conditions of economic exploitation persist, opposition candidates won the presidential and legislative elections in 2021 and have accelerated the implementation of anticorruption programs, increased transparency on the budget-making process, and generally respected freedom of assembly since taking office.

Leveling the electoral playing field

Upcoming elections in Zimbabwe, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo could be pivotal for democracy in the region. However, a number of these votes run the risk of being disputed, strictly controlled, or marred by violence. Nigeria’s recent elections were expected to be the most competitive and open in decades, yet they ultimately suffered from widespread voter intimidation, violence at polling stations, and alleged fraud.

Free and fair elections, with a genuine opportunity for opposition gains, are essential to democracy and good governance over the long term. Existing democratic governments in Africa and all those with an interest in freedom and security on the continent should continue to advocate for competitive, transparent balloting in every country. Each state should also be encouraged to reform harmful electoral laws, protect media independence, and ensure that election observers and nongovernmental organizations are allowed to operate without interference.

For democracies to be resilient and responsive to new policy challenges, incumbents must be held accountable to voters for their performance, and the political landscape must be accessible to a diversity of potential leaders. Wherever this system of peaceful renewal is allowed to break down, repression and conflict all too frequently follow.