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Sub-Saharan Africa: politically more stable, but still fragile



To the Sub Saharan Africa overview page 

  • Sub-Saharan Africa has made significant progress on political stability in the past two decades
  • Stability in the region remains fragile due to structural factors such as resource dependence, poverty and a ‘youth bulge’
  • There are regional differences: Southern Africa, the south of East Africa as well as Mauritius and Cape Verde stand out as more stable and democratic
  • But overall, institutional quality in Sub-Saharan Africa remains weak

Significant progress on political stability

Sub-Saharan Africa is a continent of young nation states, as most countries gained their independence from European colonisers between 1960 and 1980. Autocratic regimes and civil strife were widespread in the first part of the post-colonial period. Many countries subsequently introduced multi-party political systems in the early 1990s and stability has improved since. This progress should be conducive to economic and political development since political instability is detrimental to economic growth and self-reinforcing (Alesina et al, 1992).

Sub-Saharan Africans have managed to bring down the number of armed conflicts (Figure 1). Combined with a lower number of coups - from twenty per decade in the period 1960-2000 to six in the 2000s and four so far in this decade - this has contributed to greater stability and stronger states. According to the State Fragility Index, most African countries have improved their resilience since 1995, bar a few exceptions such as Uganda. That should translate into a better capacity to manage conflict, develop and execute public policy, deliver public services and sustain progressive development (Systemic Peace 2014).

Figure 1: Fewer armed conflicts in Africa than a decade ago
Figure 1: Fewer armed conflicts in Africa than a decade agoSource: Centre for Systemic Peace

Progress has also been made on democratic institutions, particularly on the cornerstone of democracy – free, fair and peaceful elections. In all Sub-Saharan Africa, only Mauritius had a peaceful change of rule in the period 1960-1991 (be it presidents or ruling parties). Multi-party systems have flourished since and many rulers have been peacefully voted out of office. Only a few leaders in present Sub-Saharan Africa have not been elected by the people (e.g. Ethiopia), though that does not mean that elections are free and fair everywhere. Many political systems are still dominated by one party and opposition is still repressed in some countries. Nevertheless, Sub-Saharan Africa hosts fewer authoritarian regimes and there are green shoots of democracy (Figure 2). Afrobarometer surveys show that half of Africans perceive their country to be democratic and are satisfied with the functioning of democracy. In 13 out of 27 countries surveyed, people perceived elections as reasonably free and fair. Besides, the majority of the population feels free to vote on the candidate of their choice. Nigeria and Zimbabwe are exceptions.

But stability is fragile and risks are still high

Nevertheless, Sub-Saharan Africa comes from a low base and stability cannot be taken for granted. Despite improvement, there are still a significant number of armed conflicts and the risk of cross-border contamination is high as most countries have a conflict-torn neighbour. Moreover, there have still been spikes of violence, sometimes widespread, in recent years and even in more stable countries. In 2008, post-electoral violence cost more than 1000 lives in Kenya and in 2012 people died during strikes/conflicts between unions in South Africa, two of the few fairly democratic countries on the continent. One year later, grievances around political inclusiveness reignited an old conflict in Mozambique.

Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa is scarce and flawed (Figures 2 and 3). Only 8 of the 44 countries included in the Democracy Index are classified as fairly democratic, while 22 are labelled as authoritarian. Besides, progress between 2006 and 2014 was scant, being held back by poorly functioning governments. Resilience is also sparse, as countries with a high degree of fragility dominate the continent and the region has the highest average Fragility Index (Figure 3).

Figure 2: Green shoots of democracy
Figure 2: Green shoots of democracySource: EIU
Figure 3: But state fragility of most African countries is above average
Figure 3: But state fragility of most African countries is above averageSource: Centre for Systemic Peace

History indicates that non-consolidated democracies are vulnerable to setbacks (EIU, 2014). An example is the Central African Republic; two coups in 2003 and 2013 followed a peaceful change of power in 1993. Stability can deteriorate around events that can facilitate power change such as elections (Rabobank, 2012). From that perspective we are worried about the fact that almost a third of Sub-Saharan Africa still has to undergo such an event, as 13 country leaders in the region have been in charge for more than a decade (Figure 4). The exit of these long-standing hegemons could lead to a political vacuum and threaten stability, especially as past tensions have been repressed in some of these countries (e.g. Rwanda, Uganda). A sobering observation is the fact that even countries which have changed their president and are labelled as democratic, such as Namibia and South Africa, still have not witnessed a shift of power between parties.

Figure 4: Africa still hosts many long-standing rulers whose exit could threaten stability
Figure 4: Africa still hosts many long-standing rulers whose exit could threaten stabilitySource: CIA World Factbook

There is no ‘one Africa’

Figure 5: There are regional differences in political and security risk
Figure 5: There are regional differences in political and security riskSource: IHS

While political and stability risks in Sub-Saharan Africa are generally high, there are notable regional differences, as revealed by a combination of political and security risk indicators (Figure 5). Most countries have an average score. Still, some countries are particularly strong (the green square), while others are particularly risky (the red square). Southern Africa and the south of East Africa stand out according to all indicators used (Figures 2, 3, 5), so they are less prone to conflict, have higher resilience, are dominated by democracies and hardly host any long-standing rulers. In contrast, the centre of the continent still struggles with violent conflict whilst non-democratic regimes persist.


Looking forward the fragility of stability and democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa means there is a real risk of relapse, which can be exacerbated by certain factors.

The resource curse

Sub-Saharan Africa is a resource-rich continent. While a blessing for USD revenues, resources can be a curse for economic development and peace, especially when governance is poor. Franke et al. (2007) link resource revenues to conflict, a relationship shaped by the quality of resource governance. Commodity price volatility can also trigger instability (Why people rebel, 2012) and a high proportion of food and fuel in the consumption basket is a bad spell, while an unequal society exacerbates the risks. Collier and Hoeffler (2015) conclude that ‘the risk of conflict increases the lower is the level of income, the lower is the rate of growth and the greater is the dependence on primary commodities’, especially when institutions are weak. Therefore, the persistence of commodity dependence, poverty (Hayat and Kalf, 2015) and weak institutions (see below) are a fragile base for building on the progress made on stability in the past two decades.

No melting pot

Strong links between conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa and ethnic identities suggest ethnic diversity might be conducive to conflict. And Sub-Saharan Africa is a very ethnically diverse continent. ‘While the rest of the world's regions average between 3.2 and 4.7 groups per country, the African countries' average is greater than 8’ (Fearon, 2003). Nevertheless, according to literature the relationship between ethnic diversity and conflict or political instability is not straightforward. Barrows (1976) rejects a direct relationship. Collier (2001) shows that a correlation only exists when one ethnic group is dominant. Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2011) show that it is the random drawing of borders as a result of European colonisation in particular that fosters conflict. Moreover, highly diverse societies are safer and conducive to economic growth when political rights are not restricted. Thus, progress on democracy could actually allow Sub-Saharan Africa to benefit from its diversity.

The ‘youth bulge’

Andrey et al. (2011) also warn for the dangers of the ‘youth bulge’ and urbanization which can be destabilising even in conditions of high economic growth and increasing GDP per capita. Sub-Saharan Africa’s demographic dynamics (lower mortality, persistently high fertility rates, see Hayat and Kalf, 2015) can lead to the formation of a ‘youth bulge’. Urbanisation is also taking place at a fast pace - half of the world’s fastest growing cities are in Africa. This translates into conflict risk, which can be mitigated by job creation. But current developments do not bode well. The officially reported youth unemployment rate in Sub-Saharan Africa is 14%, twice the total unemployment rate. South Africa stands out with youth unemployment at 54%.

To sum up, Sub-Saharan Africa remains a continent prone to conflict given the fragility of recent progress and structural factors that could endanger this progress. Fortunately, most literature points to strong institutions as a means to escape this vicious circle.

Institutional quality is weak

Good-quality institutions are an important precondition for sustainable long-term GDP growth (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012). That partially explains the weak development of Sub-Saharan Africa. Its institutional quality is in fact weak from a global perspective (Figures 6 and 7). For a significant part this is due to high levels of corruption, which leads to weak rule of law, a difficult business environment and weak government effectiveness. Zimbabwe, Angola and Nigeria, for example, score very poorly on corruption, while armed conflict increases instability in countries such as Burundi, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are also outperformers; South Africa is the most well-known example, but also Mauritius (due to its stable democracy and friendly business environment) and Botswana (due to a stable democracy and relatively low corruption levels).

Unfortunately, however, the improvement in Sub-Saharan institutional quality has lagged behind the world average. The overall score has deteriorated rather than improved, from -0.63 in 2002 to -0.67 in 2013, which mainly reflects a lower score on political stability[1]. This does not mean political stability has not improved. As we have illustrated above, the number of conflicts has gone down and general political stability has improved. But political stability has fallen relative to that in the rest of the world. In that sense, Sub-Saharan Africa has seen its own political stability improving compared to previous years, but still cannot be considered politically stable compared to the rest of the world.

Figure 6: Institutional quality is weak
Figure 6: Institutional quality is weakSource: World Bank
Figure 7: Some outperformers present
Figure 7: Some outperformers presentSource: World Bank

[1] These scores are Z-scores, based on a comparison with the global average level of governance quality. A score of -0.67 therefore indicates that the institutional quality of Sub-Saharan Africa is 0.67 standard deviations lower than the global average.

Corruption underlies much of institutional weakness

As we mentioned above, there is a common factor that underlies much of the weak institutional quality of Sub-Saharan Africa, namely corruption. This is because corruption acts as a tax on conducting transactions, which via various channels affects a country’s institutions as well as its economy. Corruption (i) reduces FDI (Sanyal and Samanta, 2008), (ii) reduces the efficiency of governments since they maximise rents from bypassing red tape rather than welfare, (iii) reduces the tax-raising ability of governments because it fuels the size of the underground economy (Tanzi and Davoodi, 2000), (iv) increases inequality as tax systems, for example, are biased to benefit the wealthy (Gupta et al., 2002) and (v) reduces confidence in public institutions and political processes (such as elections), which hinders democracy.

Despite these detrimental effects, corruption is still a major problem in Sub-Saharan Africa (Figure 7). A very large proportion (85%) of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa scores poorly on the World Bank’s measure Control of Corruption (which measures how well corruption is contained, thus the inverse of corruption). Figure 8 also gives an empirical example of how a reduction in corruption might improve government effectiveness. The figure shows that Government Effectiveness (which measures how well governments spend their money on public welfare) correlates positively and strongly with Control of Corruption.

Figure 8: Corruption levels are high
Figure 8: Corruption levels are high Source: World Bank
Figure 9: Strong correlation between control of corruption on government effectiveness
Figure 9: Strong correlation between control of corruption on government effectivenessSource: World Bank


Table 1: Elections in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 and 2016
Table 1: Elections in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 and 2016Source: IHS


Acemoglu, D. and J. Robinson (2012), Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, Crown Business.

Africa Progress Report (2015), Power, People, Planet, Africa Progress Panel

Afrobarometer – African democracy update 2015

Alesina et al (1996), Political Instability and Economic Growth, Journal of Economic Growth 1(2): 189-211

Andrey et al. (2011), A Trap At The Escape From The Trap? Demographic-Structural Factors of Political Instability in Modern Africa and West Asia, Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution, UC Riverside

Barrows (1976) – Ethnic Diversity and Political Instability in Black Africa, Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 9 no 2.

Collier and Hoeffler (2015), Resource Rents, Governance, and Conflict, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 49 No. 4, August 2005 625-633

Collier (2001), Ethnicity, Politics and Economic Performance, World Bank

Collier (1998), The Political Economy of Ethnicity, Centre for the Study of African Economies WPS/98-8

The Economist (2011), It’s progress even if it’s patchy, The economist print edition of 1 October (retrieved on 21 October 2015)

EIU (2014) – Democracy Index 2014

Fearon (2003), Ethnic and Cultural Diversity by Country, Journal of Economic Growth, Vol. 8, No. 2 (June 2003), pp. 195-222

Franke et al. (2007), In Control of Natural Wealth? Governing the resource-conflict dynamic, Working Paper Bonn International Centre for Conversion

Green (2012), Explaining African Ethnic Diversity, International Political Science Review

Gupta, S., H. Davoodi and R. Alonso-Terme (2002), Does corruption effect income equality and poverty? Economics of Governance, 3(1), pp. 23-45.

Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2011), The Long-Run Effects of the Scramble for Africa, NBER Working Paper No. 17620

Rabobank (2012), Why people rebel, Economic Research Department

Sanyal, R. and S. Samantha (2008), Effect of perception of corruption on outward US Foreign Direct Investment, Global Business and Economics Review, 10(1), pp. 123-140.

Tanzi, V. and H. Davoodi (2000), Corruption, Growth and Public Finances, IMF Working Paper WP/00/182.

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This study is a publication of Economic Research (KEO) of Rabobank.

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Abbreviations for sources: FAO: Food and Agriculture Organization of de United Nations, FAOstat: The statistics division of the FAO  USDA: US Department of Agriculture

Abbreviations used for countries: Angola: AO, Benin: BJ, Burkina Faso: BF, Botswana: BW, Burundi: BI, Cameroon: CM, Cape Verde: CV, Central African Republic: CF, Chad: TD, Comoros: KM, Congo (Democratic Republic): CD, Congo: CG, Djibouti DJ, Equatorial Guinea: GQ, Eritrea: ER, Ethiopia: ET, Gabon: GA, Gambia: GM, Ghana: GH, Guinea: GN, Guinea-Bissau: GW, Ivory Coast: CI, Kenya: KE, Lesotho: LS, Liberia: LR, Madagascar: MG, Malawi: MW, Mali: ML, Mauritania: MR, Mauritius: MU, Mozambique: MZ, Namibia: NA, Niger: NE, Nigeria: NG, Rwanda: RW, Sao Tome & Principe: ST, Senegal: SN, Sierra Leone: SL, Seychelles: SC, South Africa: ZA, South Sudan: SS, Swaziland: SZ, Tanzania: TZ, Togo: TG, Uganda: UG, Zambia: ZM, Zimbabwe: ZW

Abbreviations used for currencies: AOA: Angolan kwanza, ETB: Ethiopian birr, KES:  shilling, MZN: Mozambican Metical, RWF: Rwandan franc TZS: Tan shilling UGX: Ugandan shilling, ZAR: South African Rand, ZMW: Zambian kwacha

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Alexandra Dumitru
RaboResearch Netherlands, Economics and Sustainability Rabobank KEO
Raphie Hayat
RaboResearch Global Economics & Markets Rabobank KEO

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