A tale of two regions

Over the last 20 years, we observe two very different political and economic trajectories. Whereas stable democracies and continued socioeconomic progress have made their mark in southern Africa, states in the continent’s east have had a rougher time of it on both fronts. However, recent changes in the leadership of eastern African autocracies have opened these countries up a bit, while growth in the south’s strongest economies has slowed.

In the early 1990s, following the reintroduction of multiparty politics in Africa, the quality of democracy was relatively similar in both southern and eastern Africa. Since then, however, we’ve seen two different trajectories: In addition to Botswana, which has held multiparty elections since its independence in 1966, a number of relatively stable democracies have emerged in southern Africa.

States in eastern Africa, however, have struggled to democratize. In the 1990s, many of the subregion’s states began to feature competitive-authoritarian political systems in which elections were held but the opposition was prevented from being able to compete on a level playing field. The overall quality of democracy in eastern Africa has been further undermined by the presence of five countries in which multiparty elections have either not been held (Eritrea), been interrupted by conflict (Somalia, South Sudan), or serve as a cover for what is effectively a one-party state (Djibouti, Rwanda).

Of course, there is also considerable variation within both subregions. In the continent’s east, Kenya and Tanzania have engaged in considerably more open politics than have Djibouti, Eritrea and Rwanda. Similarly, southern Africa also has a number of more autocratic states alongside its democratic lights, most notably Angola, Eswatini and Zimbabwe. Ultimately, none of this alters the striking fact that eight of this BTI region’s total of nine democracies are found in the subregion of southern Africa, and nine of the region’s 13 autocracies are in eastern Africa.

At the same time, the autocracies of Angola, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe recorded the greatest relative improvements in terms of democratization. These improvements are attributed to the fact that these countries’ long-standing autocrats have been replaced by leaders who demonstrate – at least rhetorically – a stronger will to reform. A small number of countries also moved in the opposite direction, for the most part as a result of ongoing political controversies related to elections and constitutional amendments.

Kenya, as a result of the controversy surrounding the 2017 presidential elections and the subsequent political impasse, suffered the largest drop in democracy score of any country in this BTI region. In terms of economic transformation, Burundi suffered the largest losses, though this decline is rooted in the political crisis triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s efforts to amend the constitution and thereby allow for an extension of his term in office. Zambia, as well, is under the leadership of an incumbent who is unwilling to play by the rules: Since the disputed 2016 elections, President Edgar Lungu has relied on more authoritarian tactics, as a controversial Constitutional Court decision rendered him eligible to run for a third term. As a result, Zambia’s governance score has fallen significantly.

Despite its lack of a comparable controversy, Tanzania has also recorded a significant decline in terms of its political transformation score. Much of this is associated with President John Magufuli’s inability to accept criticism, even though he won the 2015 elections by a comfortable margin of nearly 20%. As a result, political rights and civil liberties have suffered. At the same time, while Magufuli initially impressed the international community with his determination to introduce rapid reform, which included his anti-corruption drive, his highly personalistic style of government has now undermined the independence of key democratic institutions. Tanzania has therefore suffered the largest governance-score decline of any country in the entire Southern and Eastern Africa region.

The picture looks somewhat different when it comes to economic transformation. For example, thanks to rising government revenues from domestic taxation, effective regional integration and recent discoveries of natural resources, such as gas and oil, economies in eastern Africa have achieved higher growth rates during the period under review than have those in southern Africa. It should be noted, however, that economic growth in eastern African countries started from a lower baseline. By contrast, economic growth in the continent’s south continues to flatline, in large part because of the stagnant growth in its regional hegemon, South Africa, and the continued negative impact of lower oil prices on Angola, the region’s second largest economy.

Nevertheless, a number of southern African states continue to receive higher scores for economic transformation. This is in part because they tend to perform better when it comes to monetary stability, overall market and competition frameworks, the protection of property rights, the provision of welfare, and the level of socioeconomic development. At the same time, eastern Africa features several countries with some of the lowest levels of human development in the world, including Burundi, Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan.

Political transformation

New faces, old problems

As an advocate of reform, Ethiopia’s prime minister represents a more moderate course – at least in terms of rhetoric – taken by some autocrats. Among the region’s democracies, Tanzania and Zambia are currently struggling the most in terms of political transformation.

The contrast between the open and competitive nature of politics in the continent’s south and the confrontational nature of politics in the continent’s east is reflected in the BTI 2020 findings. The regions’ two consolidating democracies and all of the highly defective democracies – excepting Tanzania – are in southern Africa. At the same time, with the exception of the Kingdom of Eswatini, all hard-line autocracies are located in eastern Africa.

The average political-transformation score for the two subregions confirms this: Whereas southern African states achieve on average a score of 5.99 points, their counterparts in eastern Africa average just 3.78. This means that a “typical” state in southern Africa sits on the border between a defective and highly defective democracy, while the standard eastern African state sits on the threshold separating the moderate from the hard-line autocracies.

In this year’s BTI edition, the average political-transformation score for the Southern and Eastern Africa region (5.24 points) lies below the global average of all BTI countries surveyed since 2006 (5.58). If we add the more recently included BTI countries of Djibouti, Eswatini, Lesotho and South Sudan to the calculation, the regional score falls to 4.99. Nonetheless, the 2018-2020 period bucked this overall trend, registering the first two-year period in over a decade without further deterioration. This stabilization was the result of improvements in the quality of stateness and, to a lesser extent, to gains made in political participation as well as political and social integration. It is important to note, however, that the region also saw a deterioration in the rule of law and the stability of democratic institutions. Given that these factors are important for ensuring good-quality elections and effective anti-corruption efforts as well as securing a country’s attractiveness to foreign investors, this is in many ways a worrying development.

Ethiopia achieved the single greatest improvement in political transformation during the period under review (+ 0.98 points) After taking office as prime minister in 2018, Abiy Ahmed rapidly ordered the release of political prisoners, promised free and fair elections, and appointed a gender-balanced cabinet. However, these efforts have been strained as a result of continued political instability in some parts of the country, reprisals against the opposition that intensified in late 2018, and a failed coup attempt against the regional government in the Amhara Region in June 2019. As a result, it looks like the same political turbulence that enabled Abiy to secure the premiership will also constrain his ability to transform the country.

The gains made by Ethiopia were more than offset by losses in Kenya, which recorded a decline of 1.40 points in terms of political transformation. This is largely a result of the 2017 elections and their aftermath. Following the Supreme Court’s nullification of President Kenyatta’s controversial victory in the general elections held on August 8, 2017, a “fresh” election was scheduled for October 26 of the same year. This was ultimately boycotted by the main opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, who argued that there had been insufficient time to make the changes that would have been required to hold a free and fair election. Attempts by his supporters to disrupt the elections led to clashes with security forces, setting the scene for a period of prolonged political confrontation.

After Odinga and his allies rejected the legitimacy of Kenyatta’s victory, and his supporters held a parallel swearing-in ceremony to inaugurate him as the “people’s president,” the heavy-handed response of the security forces resulted in over 100 deaths. The Supreme Court ultimately declared Kenyattas victory “null and void”, which in turn led to verbal attacks on the judiciary by Kenyatta and other members of the government. As a result, Kenya is no longer classified by the BTI 2020 as a defective democracy, but as a moderate autocracy.

Overall, political-transformation trends in southern Africa have also been mixed, with further democratic backsliding in Zambia under President Edgar Lungu being balanced out by gains in Zimbabwe. Zambia’s trajectory under Lungu has been troubling for some time, with contested elections in 2016 and the arrest of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema on charges of treason in 2017. Growing signs of authoritarian abuse include sustained government efforts to intimidate and marginalize critical voices and a successful bid by Lungu to have the Constitutional Court – whose members he appoints – deem him eligible to run for a third term in the 2021 presidential election, despite a constitutional two-term limit.

Slow-motion erosion: Tanzania and Zambia in Kenya’s footsteps? 

Democracy Index, BTI 2008-2020

Zimbabwe is the only country in southern Africa to register clear progress in political transformation during this period under review. The improved score, which helped Zimbabwe graduate from a hard-line to a moderate autocracy, reflects the greater political openness surrounding the country’s 2018 elections, in which the main opposition candidate, Nelson Chamisa, was allowed to campaign in rural areas in a way that would have been unthinkable just five years earlier. However, hopes of a major change of course were dampened when opposition-led protests against alleged electoral manipulation were subject to violent suppression and resulted in at least six deaths.

Economic transformation

Growth is weak, or even absent

The recent oil and gas discoveries in eastern Africa are not exclusively good news. Burundi is currently demonstrating how an authoritarian political style can harm a national economy. Overall, the economy is growing in eastern Africa. By contrast, southern Africa’s growth engines – Angola and South Africa – are sputtering.

For the majority of the countries that make up the BTI region of Southern and Eastern Africa, even the most recent history of economic transformation is characterized by continuity rather than change. Even what appear at first glance to be the two most significant changes in fact reflect only very minimal shifts. Mauritius’ downward reclassification means that there is no longer a single country in either subregion accorded the status of a highly advanced economic transformation. However, Mauritius’ reclassification was driven by a very small decline, of only 0.07 points, and the country remains the top scorer in Africa. Conversely, thanks to the reforms begun under President Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe has emerged from the group of countries whose economic transformation is classified as rudimentary. However, this resulted from a gain of just 0.18 points.

Burundi (-0.86 points) is the only country to have shown genuinely significant change. It provides a clear illustration of how political instability and a drift into authoritarianism can hinder a country’s economic transformation. Here, the decline began in 2015, when President Nkurunziza forced the Constitutional Court to clear the way for his unconstitutional third term in office, which prompted the opposition to organize protests and even led to an attempted coup. Among its other actions, the Nkurunziza regime reacted with massive interventions in the economy. New taxes, in combination with an inflation rate that has risen from 4.4% (2014) to 16.1% (2017), have further stalled the beleagured economy. The Finance Ministry obliged some institutions in the struggling financial sector to pay their year-end dividends to the state rather than to their employees. At the same time, a number of banks have fallen into economic difficulties after being pressured by the government to offer greater quantities of loans.

These misguided policies have further undermined what were already intolerable living conditions for many people. For this reason, the BTI 2020 assesses Burundi’s level of socioeconomic development as deserving just a single point – the worst possible rating. It goes nearly without saying that the country’s environmental-policy record is also catastrophic – a clearly troubling sign in a country where average temperatures are forecast to rise by around three degrees Celsius by 2050.

Given its slide back into authoritarianism, and in the absence of an effective strategy for dealing with international donors and investors, Burundi has suffered on two fronts. Citizens’ quality of life has declined, while government debt has risen from 33.1% of GDP to more than 50% in just four years. The budget deficit was 8.8% in 2018.

In this regard, Burundi is not the only country in eastern Africa in which the national budget has slipped deeply out of balance. For example, in recent years, Djibouti and Eritrea have regularly posted deficits in the double-digit percentage range. This is additionally worth mentioning because China – here as well as elsewhere – is taking over from the countries of the West as a primary lender and core development partner. The BTI country reports for Angola, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia also, mention the key role that Beijing has come to play as investor and lender. However, it would be too simple to attribute the lack of long-term development strategy and financial stability solely to the flow of funds from China.

As one example, South Africa’s economic deterioration has resulted from Zuma-era mismanagement, culminating in a GDP decline of 0.7%. Lesotho and Namibia have also suffered as a result of South Africa’s continuing weakness. Angola, southern Africa’s second economic engine, has been struggling in its own right. Here, the persistently low price of oil led to negative economic growth rates in 2017 and 2018. According to the African Development Bank, the overall growth rate in southern Africa was just 1.2%. With its recently estimated growth rate of 5.7%, eastern Africa is significantly ahead in this regard. However, far too few of the benefits of this growth are reaching the population.

As a whole, the Southern and Eastern Africa region experienced declines in economic performance (-0.30 points), level of socioeconomic development (-0.20 points), and currency and price stability (-0.23 points) during the review period. As a consequence, the region falls significantly below the global average in each of these areas. If one takes into account the new BTI members Djibouti and Eswatini, who are marked by poverty, the results are even worse.


Democracies govern better

Although some autocracies appear to be moving in the right direction, BTI findings once again demonstrate that authoritarian rule doesn’t bode well for good governance. The best governance scores are exclusively found among democracies.

Unsurprisingly, the performance of governance in the region is similar to that of political transformation. But there are a number of notable differences. For one, some autocratic governments scored above-average in terms of governance, which improved the regional quality of governance by an average of 0.10 points.

This is most obviously the case in Djibouti and Rwanda, where hard-line authoritarian regimes have recorded some impressive development achievements, including high economic growth. And there are other autocracies featuring governance scores higher than their political transformation scores. This includes the hard-line autocracies of Burundi and Eswatini, which feature weak – but not failed – governance, and the non-democratic states of Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Uganda, which achieve a moderate level of governance.

The three countries that have managed to move up the ladder in terms of governance classifications in the BTI 2020 – Ethiopia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – are also autocracies. The patterns of development observed in each of these states has been similar. Improvements in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe illustrate the emergence of new leaders who are rhetorically committed to reform and have reached out to international partners. Zimbabwe’s new head of state, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has adopted a much more constructive tone in his dealings with the United States and the United Kingdom than did his notorious predecessor, the late Robert Mugabe. He has also hinted at the possibility of Zimbabwe’s rejoining the Commonwealth and, during the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, he held a speech in which he promised that “economics and trade cooperation would be my priority.” Although economic difficulties and popular frustration later resulted in Mnangagwa’s government changing course and, in a Mugabe-era-like move, accusing Western governments of seeking to orchestrate “regime change,” the country’s governance score remained encouraging until the beginning of 2019.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy also sought to strike a new note by promising to open the country's heretofore tightly guarded financial sector to investors. Surprising many observers and Ethiopians, he also arrested a number of high-ranking military officials accused of human rights violations and corruption. His willingness to release political detainees, including opposition leader Andargachew Tsege as well as his willingness to accept the ruling of a 2002 border commission and give disputed territory to Eritrea, which subsequently brought the conflict with Eritrea to a close, demonstrated a newfound willingness to build consensus. While the pace of change slowed toward the end of his first year in power, Ethiopia still showed the most remarkable progress made in governance during the period under review.

Mozambique has been following a similar path since 2015. Under the leadership of President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi, the fight against corruption has been made a priority at all political levels in the country. In addition, the government has rigorously sought to integrate civil society and build a consensus involving the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO), whereas until recently there had been fears that the country might be heading for a return to all-out civil war.

Angola's new head of state, João Lourenço, whose former career as an army general and handpicked loyalist offered little cause for optimism, has pleasantly surprised many observers and Angolan citizens. Just weeks after taking office in the fall of 2017, he denounced the corruption that had spread under his predecessor, José Eduardo dos Santos, and fired some of dos Santos’ allies. This move has strengthened relationships with international financial institutions and led to an improved governance-quality score for Angola in this year’s BTI (+0.63 points).

Democratic governments still tend to outperform autocracies:

Governance scores, BTI 2020

However, two of the region’s democracies – Tanzania and Zambia – have suffered worrying losses. In both cases, the uncompromising strategy adopted by an intransigent president account for each state’s plummeting scores. In Zambia. President Edgar Lungu anticipates an uphill battle heading into the 2021 elections and has set out to maintain his hold on power through a series of repressive tactics. This includes marginalizing the opposition, chipping away at the sovereignty of key institutions, and engaging in unsustainable public spending. Lungu’s failure to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a much-needed multi-billion-dollar stimulus package has only further exacerbated the country’s growing debt-burden problem. The combined result of these measures is a loss of 0.58 points in Zambia’s governance score.

We see a similar trend, but for entirely different reasons, in Tanzania. After his election in 2015, President John Magufuli, leader of the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), Tanzania’s ruling party since independence, was initially lauded for his direct and down-to-earth political style. But as his presidency has continued, he has taken increasingly aggressive actions. Members of the opposition have been subject to intimidation and in some cases arrested, while the president’s harsh tone toward international donors has resulted in lower levels of foreign investment. Ostensibly in an effort to reduce government spending, Magufuli has avoided many of the international meetings attended by his predecessors, which has led some critics to describe his foreign policy as isolationist. Overall, no country in the BTI region of Southern and Eastern Africa has lost more ground in terms of its quality of governance than Tanzania (-0.60 points).

While these examples are an important reminder that democratic states do not have a monopoly on good governance and that authoritarian leaders can also pursue sensible policies, the BTI data underscore one thing quite clearly: In most cases, authoritarian rule is not conducive to good governance. Each of the four best-governed states – Botswana, Malawi, Mauritius and South Africa – are democracies. The countries with the weakest governance – Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan – are hard-line autocracies. Even among mid-level or defective democracies, governance is mostly moderate, while autocracies generally feature weak or failing governance.


Small adjustments or genuine reform?

On the whole, the region of Southern and Eastern Africa faces a number of challenges in the years ahead. In eastern Africa, for example, the political outlook suggests that there will be further threats to political rights and civil liberties. And while little is to be expected of the subregion’s hard-line autocracies, authoritarian rulers in Burundi, Djibouti, Rwanda and Uganda are also likely to respond with repression to any challenge to their lifelong claim to power. Tanzania remains considerably more politically competitive than this set of states, but President Magufuli has already demonstrated his unwillingness to accept criticism and his appetite for intimidating opposition parties and civil society groups.

There is also a significant risk of democratic backsliding in other states. While Kenya is currently politically stable as a result of the “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and long-time opposition leader Raila Odinga – which ended the political impasse following the 2017 elections crisis – political tensions are sure to rise in the runup to the 2022 elections. In particular, competition over the position as Kenyatta’s successor threatens to split the government in two. If Deputy President William Ruto is not selected as the ruling party’s presidential candidate, he will leave the party to form a new alliance. This would represent a significant threat to national unity, as the coalition between Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and Ruto, a Kalenjin, has helped maintain an uneasy peace between the two communities that fought each other violently in the post-election crisis of 2007/2008.

Against this gloomy backdrop, Ethiopia offers a ray of hope following the country’s recent efforts to open itself politically. Prime Minister Abiy now faces a major challenge in maintaining a stability that is threatened by local uprisings while pushing ahead with his reform agenda. General elections scheduled for May 2020 will put the government's new direction to the test. In the absence of the time needed to make wholesale institutional changes, much will depend on Abiy’s charisma, political acumen and ability to retain the confidence of both the opposition and the different factions of the governing coalition.

The situation is considerably more promising in southern Africa. With Cyril Ramaphosa instead of Jacob Zuma as president, South Africa now has the potential to renew its democratic vigor. However, other countries’ democratic credentials will be tested in the next few years. Malawi needed most of 2019 to recover from the controversy surrounding the May presidential election. Street protests against what the opposition claims were manipulated elections have turned the spotlight on the country’s fragile democratic gains. Upcoming elections in Zambia are also likely to generate fresh tensions. Observers expect a very close presidential race in 2021, and President Lungu has already demonstrated a lack of tolerance for dissent.

Improvements are more likely to occur in countries that have recently been subject to a change in leadership. But even in these cases, there are good reasons to be cautious. In Angola, it is unclear whether President Lourenço is genuinely committed to reform or simply determined to replace the corrupt personalist networks that underpinned the dos Santos regime with those of his own. In Zimbabwe, the government has consistently repressed popular protests while failing to effectively address alleged human rights violations by members of the security forces, which suggests that Emmerson Mnangagwa’s regime rests on foundations very similar to those of Robert Mugabe's former regime.

These political conditions are bound to influence economic developments in the region, just as economic trends will also affect political developments. Over the coming years, eastern Africa will continue its transformation from a predominantly agricultural to an increasingly resource-rich region. As the historical record shows, oil and gas have tended to encourage more authoritarian systems of government – with Ghana as a notable exception here. In southern Africa, the economic outlook heavily depends on whether Angola can continue to recover from the impact of lower oil prices and whether South African President Ramaphosa can re-energize the country’s economy. In both cases, battling corruption will be a crucial measure of progress.