Freedom House released an analysis of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa showing that the region has experienced notable increases in freedom over the past generation, although more setbacks than gains were seen in 2006.

“Sub-Saharan Africa in 2007 presents at the same time some of the most promising examples of new democracies in the world—places where leaders who came to power through fair elections provide real opportunities for their citizens to live in freedom—as well as some of the most disheartening examples of political stagnation, democratic backsliding, and state failure,” said Thomas O. Melia, deputy executive director of Freedom House. “One of the least reported, least appreciated stories in recent years may well be the ongoing advance of freedom across the African continent, notwithstanding the setbacks that receive much more attention,” said Melia.

The new Freedom House publication, Freedom in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2007, provides data outlining changes in political rights and civil liberties since 1980 for each of 48 sub-Saharan countries. The report also contains an overview essay summarizing trends in freedom in 2006, as well as charts outlining the region’s progress relative to that of the world. Data were drawn from Freedom House’s annual survey, Freedom in the World.

The report points out that the wave of democratization that spread through Africa from the mid-1970’s through the mid-1990’s is still evident today. A number of former one-party socialist states, such as Mali, Benin, Niger and Cape Verde, have since the collapse of the Soviet Union successfully established durable political systems based on electoral accountability and alternance in government.  “These remain poor countries,” noted Mr. Melia, “though it is a terrific advantage that debate and discussion about the proper way forward can now take place in the media and in parliaments.” Other countries, including important regional actors such as Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal and Ghana, have seen less dramatic but substantial political improvement over the past decade.

Nonetheless, the fate of freedom and the future of democracy in the region cannot be taken for granted. Though Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa) have emerged from strife and appear to be securing stable political foundations, civil wars continue to disrupt several countries. As for the continent’s major powers, South Africa and Nigeria, Mr. Melia noted that “it is hugely important for the entire continent that Nigeria is no longer suffering under military dictatorship and that apartheid has been vanquished – though troubling trends are present in both countries, where corruption casts long shadows and political competition is hobbled.”

In 2006, sub-Saharan Africa suffered a number of setbacks. One country, the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), saw its status decline from Partly Free to Not Free due principally to a heightened lack of transparency on the part of the government. Others suffered declines as well, including a number that had made promising gains in the recent past, such as Chad, Madagascar, Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritius, Somalia and South Africa.  The causes of sub-Saharan Africa’s setbacks in 2006 varied from country to country. A region-wide analysis, however, suggests that weak rule of law and lack of government openness play critical roles.

The report notes that, among the 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, 11 were rated Free for their performance in 2006, 22 were rated Partly Free and 15 were rated Not Free.

View the Full Report