According to the 2020 BTI report, Political and economic change in sub-Saharan Africa has remained largely stagnant since 2017. This is despite the 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. These are the three main areas of performance assessed by Nic Cheeseman 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. Also, there is 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). These numbers are 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.
Economic Changes by Country
In 2017, long-time Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe was removed from power in a coup and replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa promised a new political and economic dispensation after decades of stagnation. That proved a mirage. Especially 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. He also won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his early efforts at political liberalisation and regional peace-making. However, recent ethnic violence and a government crackdown 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. This is a sizeable increase of 1.31. However, the popular confidence in his reform credentials subsequently declined significantly, according to the BTI report.
The report further states that Cameroon, Chad, Kenya, and Tanzania have moved further away from lasting political and economic transformation. While Angola, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe initially appears to be making progress towards it. However, in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe this impression did not last beyond the end of the BTI reporting period. With the new governments of both countries now stand accused of committing similar human rights abuses to their predecessors.
“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
According to Cheeseman, 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.
“This means that the removal of a ‘Big Man’ is often greeted with great enthusiasm by citizens, civil society groups and outside observers alike. These transitions are viewed as an opportunity for far-reaching national renewal. In reality, the scope of what individual leaders can 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.”