68% of Africans are not confident that their vote is secret, according to a new survey published by Afrobarometer, the continent’s leading polling organisation. “The vote is supposed to be secret, but increasingly we find that people are scared that authorities might find out how they vote,” said Boniface Dulani, a fieldwork operations manager for Afrobarometer.
Levels of distrust were notably high in what are supposed to be some of the continent’s most established democracies. In Senegal, some 89% of respondents said they had to be cautious about how they vote in an election. In Kenya that figure is 80%; in Tanzania it is 79%. In South Africa, where elections are scheduled for May 8, it is 68%.
Afrobarometer surveyed more than 50 000 people across 34 African countries between late 2016 and late 2018. “We are very confident that our surveys are truly representative of the countries where we do them,” said Dulani.
More broadly, the survey reveals that the space for civil and political rights in Africa is shrinking. For example, when it comes to freedom of expression: “Two-thirds (67%) of Africans say they are ‘somewhat’ or ‘completely’ free to say what they think, but this represents a 7-percentage-point decline across 31 countries tracked since 2011/2013.”
The survey concludes: “We uncover two troubling trends. First, consistent with the alarms sounded by Freedom House and others, citizens generally recognise that civic and political space is indeed closing as governments’ supply of freedom to citizens decreases. But the results also reveal a decline in popular demand for freedom, in particular the right to associate freely.
“Moreover, we find considerable willingness among citizens to accept government imposition of restrictions on individual freedoms in the name of protecting public security. In a context where violent extremists are perpetrating attacks in a growing number of countries, the public may acquiesce to governments’ increasing circumscription of individual rights and collective freedoms. Fear of insecurity, instability, and/or violence may be leading citizens of at least some African countries to conclude that freedoms come with costs as well as benefits, and that there may be such a thing as too much freedom.”
Commenting on the survey, David Kode, head of advocacy for civil society coalition Civicus, said that its results come as no surprise. “It’s in line with our own findings at Civicus.”
Freedom House’s Tiseke Kasambala said that the shrinking space for civil and political rights in Africa is at least in part a reflection of global trend. “I would argue that partly we are seeing the fruits of the world’s shift to the right…When we see a decline in the big, respected democracies, we see a decline here.”
Deprose Muchena, Southern Africa regional director for Amnesty International, said that the Afrobarometer findings should galvanise civil society on the continent to work harder: “We have to rethink whether the strategies we use are potent enough to deal with the challenges of the day,” he said.
Afrobarometer’s Dulani agrees. “Have we become complacent? Over the years, we have stopped persuading people that these freedoms matter and that we should jealously guard them, playing into the hands of the continent’s authoritarian leaders.”