Confidence in Institutions: Africans Speak on the Meaning of Being Well Governed

By Rheault, Magali; Tortora, Bob | Harvard International Review, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Confidence in Institutions: Africans Speak on the Meaning of Being Well Governed


Rheault, Magali, Tortora, Bob, Harvard International Review


Although Africans are governed, there is little evidence they are well governed. This appears to be the conclusion of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, when for the second year the awards committee did not select any former African leader to receive its good governance award. The Ibrahim Prize recognizes former heads of state on the continent for their outstanding service to their country. Joaquim Chissano, former president of Mozambique, was the prize's first laureate in 2007. Festus Mogae, Botswana's former head of state, received the award the following year. But could it be that the continent is already running out of potential contenders? Gallup's research conducted in 26 countries across sub-Saharan Africa suggests the answer is yes. In fact, Africans' low levels of confidence in their government and institutions do not bode well for most current leaders to receive the Ibrahim Prize again.

In the years following independence, term limits on executive power were an integral part of African constitutions. Those were also the years of the "Big Man," when the president could disregard institutional rules with impunity and stay in office for decades or until a rising "Big Man" would overthrow him in a coup d'etat. But since the end of the Cold War, African countries have implemented institutional reforms to provide their citizens with greater political and civil liberties. This transition from autocratic to democratic rule required African governments and their leaders to be more accountable to their people. At the same time, many researchers have shown that development in Africa is linked to accountability and governance. As such, international donors, especially those in Western countries, now tie aid to recipient countries' good governance agendas.

In any geopolitical context, public confidence in national institutions is an essential element of governance. Such confidence can be thought of as an evaluation of how well a government is being run. The concept of confidence can also serve as a gauge of a nation's population to trust that national institutions provide socioeconomic services and behave with a minimum level of fiduciary responsibility. Against this background, public confidence in national institutions is a vital tool to measure progress toward building efficient, accountable societies across sub-Saharan Africa. However, there is little published empirical research on what predicts confidence in national government in the region.

A Profusion of Poor Scorecards

In 2008, Gallup asked Africans whether they had confidence in several national institutions in their countries. By covering more than 70 percent of the subcontinent's adult population, from countries where democracy consolidation has made great strides to nations where political liberties still present a challenge, the study provides a baseline from which progress (or lack thereof) for each of the 26 countries surveyed can be ascertained. So how do Africans view their national governments and institutions? Public confidence in institutions varies considerably not only across all countries surveyed, but also within individual countries. Overall, it is a civil society institution (religious organizations) that elicits the most confidence, while Africans are the least likely to express confidence in the honesty of elections.

Out of all institutions tested in Gallup's surveys, religious organizations elicit the most widespread confidence, with a median of 81 percent; this means that in one half of the countries, such confidence stands above the median, and in the other half, it falls below the median. Although such confidence ranges from a low of 50 percent in Togo to a high of 93 percent in Senegal, at least seven in ten Africans express confidence in religious organizations in most countries. At the other end of the spectrum, the electoral process is the institution in which confidence is the least widespread, with a median of 38 percent. …

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