In the last twenty years there has been an information revolution in Africa. I am not talking about the rise of the internet or the increase in mobile phone penetration. Instead, I am referring to the remarkable increase in information about what ordinary people want, think and believe.
Given the high-profile presence of opinion polls and surveys in countries such as Kenya and South Africa it is easy to forget that just two decades ago this kind of public opinion data was extremely rare. As a result, authoritarian leaders and political commentators could speculate on what the public wanted without worrying about being contradicted by hard evidence.
The rise of opinion polling across the continent, combined with the introduction of multiparty politics, means that leaders are now less able to ignore the hopes and desires of their electorates.
However, these gains are under threat. One of the best quality and most respected sources of African public opinion, the Afrobarometer, has not yet been able to secure the financial backing it needs and is fighting for its life. If the Afrobarometer ceases to exist, it will be a blow not just to academic researchers and civil society activists, but also to democracy in Africa more generally.
Authoritarian leaders in Africa are very fond of justifying their activities on the basis that they are only doing what their people want. A classic example is when presidents flout democratic term-limits.
In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame recently implied he did not really want to stay on for a third term but felt compelled to do so by the strength of opinion in favour of changing the constitution within his party and the population at large.
President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda has made similar arguments in the past, arguing that his prolonged stay in office is legitimate because it represents the will of the people.
This is an age-old strategy. Back in the 1980s, when the restrictions on research meant there were no public opinion surveys, it was extremely difficult to disprove the claims of political leaders. As a result, many of the statements made by the likes of President Eyadema in Togo and President Mobutu in Zaire went relatively uncontested.
Today, the presence of surveys and opinion polls means that African citizens get to have their say. It turns out that President Museveni is wrong. Some 92 per cent of Ugandans support democratic term-limits — a much bigger majority than any of his recent election victories.
Surveys can also help to amplify the voices of the historically marginalised. For example, as in many other parts of the world the opinions and ideas of women have often been marginalised on the continent. Africa has only had two female heads of state and men dominate the majority of legislatures on the continent.
The situation is similar at the local level, where a combination of predominantly male bureaucracies and traditional leadership structures has often served to stifle the voice of young women.
By collecting data on the political, social and economic attitudes of the whole society, survey data can enable civil society groups, journalists and political parties see whether women have specific beliefs, concerns and needs that are not being addressed by the political system.
The reintroduction of elections inspired a new wave of opinion polls across the continent, but while some were high quality and provided valuable information, others have been accused of suffering from faulty methodologies and political bias.
In Kenya, elections are now accompanied by the publication of a range of surveys in the run up to polling day, which tend to be conducted in very different ways and to predict almost every possible outcome, leaving the public unsure as to their validity and accuracy.
This is an important point, because unreliable surveys can undermine public confidence in the value of opinion polls, especially if it becomes clear that surveys are being funded by political parties to generate the results they want.
In this context, the foundation of the Afrobarometer survey in 1999 was particularly significant. Initially formed as a collaboration between the Centre for Democratic Development (CDD) in Ghana, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa), and Michigan State University in the United States, the Afrobarometer team has run hundreds of surveys, always collecting public opinion data according to international best practice. Significantly, the survey asks questions about a broad range of social, political and economic questions in an increasing number of countries — 36 in the last round.
The presence of the Afrobarometer is important for three main reasons. First, it has generated high quality data based on a reliable methodology, and so we can have confidence in its results. This has established a valuable precedent for how surveys should — and should not — be conducted. Second, in many cases the Afrobarometer asks the same questions in different countries and over a number of years.
This makes it possible to see whether citizens think that the quality of democracy (and education, healthcare, water supply…) in their country is increasing or decreasing.
Third, the Afrobarometer is one of the only major research tools and datasets to be run in Africa by Africans. At present, the Executive Director is the widely respected Ghanaian scholar Dr E Gyimah-Boadi, and the survey is conducted by a network of more than 35 partner organisations across the continent.
At every step of the way, the focus of the project has been on how to ensure African researchers have the skills, knowledge and resources to design, conduct and analyse surveys for themselves. Most multinational operations pay lip-service to the need to exchange skills and build capacity between partners, but for the Afrobarometer these principles have been a critical touchstone right from the start.
Efforts to empower researchers and inform the public debate have included making the data freely available to all, and creating a website where you can analyse the surveys online for free without the need for any specialist software. So, if you want to find out what Kenyans or Nigerians or Senegalese or Tanzanians or Zambians think about politics, all you need to do is go to www.afrobarometer.org.
As a result, Afrobarometer data is now heavily used by a remarkable plethora of policy makers, academics and civil society groups.
Unfortunately, the fate of the Afrobarometer currently hangs in the balance. Despite delivering one of the most popular sources of information on Africa in existence, the organisation does not have the funds that it needs to conduct the next round of surveys.
It seems funding priorities have changed and the organisations that supported the Afrobarometer in the past such as the Department for International Development (DFID) of the UK government and the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) have not yet committed to its future, despite their considerable budgets.
The only funder to significantly respond to the Afrobarometer’s fundraising efforts to date is the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), which was also a core funder of the last round of surveys.
In part, the unwillingness of other donors to follow Sida’s example appears to reflect changes in the way that donors are structuring and managing their funds. However, I can’t help but wonder whether it is also a result of the faddish nature of the international development community, which tends to prefer to fund new ventures rather than to provide the resources needed to ensure that existing — and thus less glamorous — projects continue.
The Afrobarometer’s funding crisis means that it is unclear whether we will be able to enjoy high quality public opinion data in years to come. It is true many other organisations run their own opinion polls, but none do it on anything like the same scale. This is a real shame.
Survey data is not infallible and always needs to be carefully collected and thoughtfully interpreted, but to have significantly less data would be a major setback. Those who want to promote democracy and development in Africa need to know whether people think that elections are free and fair, and whether civil liberties are being respected.
They also need to know whether people still have patience with multiparty politics or whether they have started to lose faith with it and support authoritarian alternatives.
Good survey data is also important because it can tell us whether citizens are becoming increasingly willing to tolerate political violence or more likely to condemn it, and whether more people are going without food and water than we previously thought.
If we don’t have this kind of information, identifying potential political crises and making sure that government policies are well targeted will become much more difficult. Having come so far, and with African democracy so precariously balanced, this is surely not the time to turn our back on public opinion.
Dr Nic Cheeseman teaches African politics at Oxford University and is the author of Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures and the Struggle for Political Reform @fromagehomme