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Presidential Rule Still Dominates African Politics

Presidential Rule Still Dominates African Politics

by Magali Rheault

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- After almost two decades of institutional reforms, political regimes across sub-Saharan Africa are shifting away from autocratic rule. But Gallup finds that even in countries with a certain level of political freedoms and civil liberties, majorities of respondents say their country's military is primarily loyal to the president, rather than to the national constitution.

Last year, Freedom House identified 24 electoral democracies on the African continent, up from just three in 1989. While the pace of institutional reforms varies greatly across the continent, Freedom House classifications of "freedom" based on indicators such as the electoral process, the functioning of government, individual rights, and the rule of law provide a useful means for comparison.

In "free" countries, Ghana is the only one where a majority of respondents (56%) say the military is primarily loyal to the constitution. Senegalese respondents are divided as 45% tell Gallup that the military is primarily loyal to the constitution and 41% say the allegiance is to the president. Similarly, 43% of Beninese say their military is loyal to the constitution, while 38% say it's loyal to the president. Majorities say the military's allegiance is to the president in Mali (65%), Botswana (55%), and Namibia (52%). But in South Africa, a plurality (45%) say the military's loyalty is to the president, 22% believe it's to the constitution, and 33% say they don't know.

In the Journal of Democracy, Daniel Posner, associate professor of political science at UCLA, writes that "although every African country has a constitution as well as a body of laws and administrative procedures that place formal limits on executive power, the long-held consensus among observers has been that these rules play little role in actually constraining leaders' behavior." Against this backdrop of personal rule that pervaded post-independence African politics, the allegiance of the armed forces is a critical element of countries in transition.

Most sub-Saharan African countries where the polls are conducted fall under the "partly free" designation. In this cluster, majorities of respondents in three countries, Liberia (67%), Sierra Leone (62%), and Malawi (58%), say their military is primarily loyal to the constitution.

Such perceptions, in the case of Liberians and Sierra Leoneans, may reflect hope that after years of armed conflict, their future military will adhere to their country's institutional rules. In all other "partly free" countries, public opinions of the armed forces' allegiance lean mainly toward the president and range from a high of 83% in the Central African Republic to a relative low of 48% in Tanzania.

In countries designated as "not free," public perceptions of military loyalty lean heavily toward the ruler. However, in countries where respondents say their country's military is primarily loyal to the president, opinions vary substantially and range from a high of 90% in Chad to a relatively low 46% in Angola.

Considering that the median presidential tenure in this group of countries is 16 years, such findings are not surprising. Beyond autocratic rule, several countries in the "not free" cluster have been marked by years of civil war. And armed conflict is still present in some countries. But in Rwanda, 50% of respondents say their country's military is primarily loyal to the constitution. In the wake of the 1994 genocide, when the army and militia killed more than 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in a 100-day period, such a finding seems implausible. But perhaps Rwandans may be expressing hope that their military will no longer be used to kill their own people.

Bottom Line

Although the military is the institution that elicits the second highest level of confidence after religious organizations across sub-Saharan Africa, those surveyed (with some noticeable exceptions) say their country's military establishment is primarily loyal to the president. Most respondents still perceive presidentialism to be a feature of African politics. And while political power is becoming more institutionalized with rulers operating within constitutional democratic systems, the poll findings suggest that governance reforms have yet to permeate public opinion.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews conducted in 2006 and 2007. Randomly selected sample sizes typically number 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older, in the 30 countries polled. Surveys were conducted in urban areas in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Surveys in Chad exclude the eastern part of the country, and surveys in Sudan exclude the Darfur region. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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