African economic and political change at a standstill, says BTI report

Despite the optimism generated by a number of political transitions in recent years, research institute BTI finds little improvement in sub-Saharan Africa's overall levels of democracy, economic management and governance. David Thomas reports


Despite the optimism generated by a number of political transitions in recent years, a report from a leading research institute finds little improvement in sub-Saharan Africa’s overall levels of democracy, economic management and governance. David Thomas reports the essential details

Political and economic change in sub-Saharan Africa has remained largely stagnant since 2017, according to new research, despite much-publicised political shifts in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. 

Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole witnessed no significant changes to the overall levels of democracy, economic management and governance – the three main areas of performance assessed by Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy and international development at the University of Birmingham, in the 2020 Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) report on Sub-Saharan Africa.

Analysing standardised data collected by BTI, Cheeseman finds that in the two years since the previous report the overall level of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa declined by just -0.04, a small shift on a 1-10 scale. There was an identical change in the status of economic transformation, and an even smaller shift in the average quality of governance of +0.01. The biggest gains in economic transformation came in Côte d’Ivoire (+0.21), Nigeria (+0.25), and Zimbabwe (+0.18), all relatively modest changes, while 28 out of 44 states remain in the “highly limited” category.  

The limited progress belied substantial political events in the reporting period which sparked optimism that African states long-resistant to change were on a new path towards democratisation and economic development.  

In 2017, long-time Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe was removed from power in a coup and replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa, who promised a new political and economic dispensation after decades of stagnation. That proved a mirage, with the country mired in an ongoing recession as the government reverts to a familiar crackdown against political opponents. 

In Ethiopia, prime minister Abiy Ahmed attracted international admiration and a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his early efforts at political liberalisation and regional peace-making, but recent ethnic violence and a government crackdown, which combined to take hundreds of lives, has cast doubt on the pace of change. 

Abiy’s initial actions led to an improvement in Ethiopia’s quality of governance score from 3.65 to 4.96, a sizeable increase of 1.31 – but popular confidence in his reform credentials subsequently declined significantly, according to the report.  

“While Cameroon, Chad, Kenya and Tanzania have moved further away from lasting political and economic transformation, Angola, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe initially appeared to be making progress towards it. However, in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe this impression did not last beyond the end of the BTI reporting period, and the new governments of both countries now stand accused of committing similar human rights abuses to their predecessors,” says the report.  

“Most notably, continued and in some cases increasing human-rights abuses in countries such as Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe suggest that we have seen ‘a changing of the guards’ rather than a genuine transformation of political systems.” 

Constraints on change

Optimism among African citizens following the removal of long-standing leaders should be tempered by a realisation that political change is constrained by vested interests, political patronage and security considerations, writes Cheeseman.  

“This means that the removal of a ‘Big Man’ is often greeted with great enthusiasm by citizens, civil society groups and outside observers alike, who view such transitions as an opportunity for far-reaching national renewal… in reality the scope of what individual leaders can – and want to – achieve is significantly constrained by the political and economic context within which they must operate… these pressures often make it difficult to deliver justice for past human rights abuses, escape winner-takes-all political dynamics, and establish more accountable forms of politics.” 

For further information, see A Changing of the Guard or a Change of Systems?, the 2020 Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) report on sub-Saharan Africa.

Want to continue reading? Subscribe today.

You've read all your free articles for this month! Subscribe now to enjoy full access to our content.

Digital Monthly

£8.00 / month

Receive full unlimited access to our articles, opinions, podcasts and more.

Digital Yearly

£70.00 / year

Our best value offer - save £26 and gain access to all of our digital content for an entire year!