Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Africa's Muslim Democracies by Benjamin Bouchet

Throughout the news columns and scholarly journals of contemporary geopolitics, one question seems to loom especially large: are Islam and democracy compatible? This gives rise to a host of arguments and explanations which run the gamut from brilliant explanations to hateful screeds. Given the present state of the War on Terror and emphasis on the use of force to implement democracy in Muslim nations, this writer feels that the accepted explanations of affairs are too constricted.

Here is a pop quiz for all the fans of international relations: On which continent are the most majority-Muslim population electoral democracies located? The first answer to everyone’s mind is often Asia. This is natural since Islam and Asia are intimately linked in most minds. It would seem that everyone knows about Turkey. Insightful observers also know about Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia as well. Europe has one: Albania. Iraq and Afghanistan are too tentative to be called real democracies. The answer is Africa with six electoral democracies in Senegal, Mali, Niger, The Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Djibouti.

The War on Terror has expanded the global view of Islam past the Middle East, particularly to Central and Southeast Asia. Even in this day and age, however, many don’t associate Black Africa with Islam. It is assumed that Black Africa’s relationship with Islam is universally typified by crises such as the Sudan and religious tensions in Northern Nigeria. This is far from the truth. There are hundreds of millions of African believers of Islam, most of whom are outside these regions of conflict.

Africa’s Muslims are similar to Ralph Ellison’s the Invisible Man. They are rarely acknowledged by an outside world who considers itself an expert in such matters. Ironically, Africa’s Muslims, like most moderate Muslims around the world, may be invisible precisely because they are generally not causes of violence and extremism. Of course there are the tragedies in Darfur and the community riots in Northern Nigeria, but as a whole African Muslims are very peaceful and not really “newsworthy”.

Africa’s Muslims have steadily, country by country, been implementing a stern retort to the analyses of those who claim Islam is ideologically crippled in dealing with democratic institutions. However, they are rarely mentioned in such analyses. Arguments on Muslim democracies invariably focus on the Asian Muslim democracies. Even these analyses often focus on the problem of rising extremism rather than the part Islam has played in local success stories.

As mentioned earlier, Africa has seven majority Muslim electoral democracies. If one adds Nigeria which has a slight Muslim majority and Tanzania which has a plurality of Muslims (35%) you have eight countries. The Comoros, Chad, and Burkina Faso also hold elections but are still considered in transition. Of course, having elections isn’t all there is to democracy. Protections for individual rights and rule of law are also essential. However, most of these countries still stand up well to scrutiny. Both Senegal and Mali have had elections peacefully transition power to the opposition. Niger, recently in the news only for famine, in its last election returned a president who gave an opposition leader the prime minister job in an election whose outcome was agreed to be fair and transparent.

Of course, these countries are not perfect. The fact that they democratically elect their leaders does not preclude problems with corruption, some human rights violations, and some problems with rule of law. There is also much to be desired as far as economic growth is concerned. However, the Freedom House and Polity IV country guides generally acknowledge that these countries allow free elections of their leaders and generally respect individual freedoms and political opposition.

These democracies were established by local initiative. They weren’t forced into existence by years of crippling sanctions nor did military action establish them through regime change. The only one with a large presence of foreign troops is in Sierra Leone where UN troops were called in due to a violent civil war that had more to do with mineral wealth than Islam. In addition, many of these countries are among the poorest in the world demonstrating that democratic systems are not just the prerogative of the wealthy nations.

Why are these democracies bucking the theories on Islam and democracy? This is a question too large and complex for me to hope to answer in this article. However, there are places to start. First, we should not necessarily assume that democracy flourished here despite Islam but perhaps even because of it. Senegal, the Gambia, Mali, and Djibouti all have over 90% of their populations practicing Islam. Niger has 80%.If Islam was really only detrimental how could their embrace of democracy be explained? Many African Muslims, especially in West and East Africa, belong to Sufi Brotherhoods or Islamic sects heavily influenced by local culture. Could the local flavor of Islam be constructive to democracy?

I want to emphasize the purpose of the essay is not to castigate Arabs or other non-African Muslims and their culture by extolling African Islam as “superior”. I cannot claim to have enough knowledge to make such a statement, assuming that such a statement could even be made. In fact, this essay aims to defend Islam from those who would claim that the religion itself is necessarily authoritarian and “backwards”.

Africa is often disdainfully described by the rest of the world as if it were nothing more than humanity’s basket case. It would be quite ironic, like many of God’s mysterious works, if these humble and poor nations held a clue to the answer of a vital question that has eluded even the world’s greatest superpower.

Benjamin Bouchet can be contacted at

Sources and further reading:

Freedom House

Polity IV

Stepan, Alfred with Robertson, Graeme B. "An 'Arab' More than 'Muslim' Electoral Gap," Journal of Democracy 14, 3 [July 2003]

Haynes, Jett: “Religion and Democratization in Africa”, Democratization, 11, 4. [August 2004]

Benjamin Bouchet

Tuesday, August 23, 2005