Academic freedom has ‘robust impact’ on democracy in Africa

The significance of scholars and intellectuals to support democratic institutions in African societies and “speak truth to power” – as enabled by academic freedom – has been reiterated in a study at a time when democracy has been under attack in several countries on the continent.

In 2021, democratisation in Africa has not only stagnated, but has deteriorated as the continent witnessed coups in Niger, Chad, Mali, Guinea and Sudan.

In the most recent coup in Sudan, the academic community has a vocal and prominent group as part of civil society protests against the power grab.

The study by researchers Hajer Kratou and Liisa Laakso from the United Arab Emirates-based Ajman University and Sweden’s Nordic Africa Institute, is titled ‘The Impact of Academic Freedom on Democracy in Africa’ and was published in the Journal of Development Studies in November.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first attempt to investigate empirically the hypothesis that long-standing academic freedom has a positive effect on democratic consolidation,” the authors point out.

“Our theory is that, the higher the level of academic freedom before and at the time of transitions from one-party, non-party or military rule to multiparty competition, the better the prospects of its consolidation,” the authors said.

The study analysed the relationship between the average level of academic freedom before democratic transition (1980–89) and the average level of democracy during the post-Cold War period (1990–2019) using an Academic Freedom index (V-Dem) and the statistical generalised method of moment, or GMM, method.

A symmetrical assumption, write the researchers as they outline their theoretical arguments, can be made of the accountability of the executive: “Academic freedom enables critical expert views of public decision-making, and it is in the interest of the incumbent to take these into consideration. Academic acquiescence, on the other hand, ensures the educated elite’s silence or support for the rulers irrespective of their competence.”

The study demonstrated a positive and statistically significant relationship between academic freedom and the later level of democracy as it revealed that a correlation between clean elections – which is a critical ingredient of democratic consolidation in Africa – and academic freedom.

“This suggests that, the higher the preceding level of academic freedom, the better the quality of elections – after democratic transition,” the study stated.

Intellectuals and the road to democracy

According to the study, “intellectuals are important catalysers for democratic consolidation” and it highlights how the positive impact of academic freedom on democracy is related.

“Academic freedom in the past contributes to the ability and incentives of scholars to disseminate knowledge both directly and through higher education on the form and content of functioning democracy,” the study pointed out.

“Public awareness, enhanced by scholars taking part in public discussions, supports the accountability of decision-making,” the writers added.

“The emergence and ability of intellectuals to criticise and advise governments, political parties and the general public alike strengthens the democratic competence of the society,” the study emphasised.

“The ability of scholars and students to produce and disseminate knowledge of public decision-making can have an impact only if academic expertise is protected, appreciated and utilised.

“Thus, the alarming rates of attacks and threats against university teachers, researchers and students at a time when [autocracy] is surging are raising global concern,” the writers pointed out.

Academic freedom: a channel to improve elections quality

The study has revealed that the vitality of academic freedom as a channel to improve the quality of elections is not subject to country-specific effects, such as the dependence on oil, income level and the initial level of democracy.

“The likelihood of a government to implement and sustain democracy is higher, the stronger its respect for academic freedom has been.

“Conversely, it is lack of academic freedom, or academic acquiescence, which explains the persistence of authoritarian rule in spite of increasing levels of education, including higher education,” the study indicated.

The study noted that there are multiparty systems with low levels of democracy and high investments in education and research. Within Africa, Rwanda is a case in point.

“However, as academia itself is a global domain and international mobility an important ingredient of academic excellence, in the long run investing in academic excellence is likely to be a risk for undemocratic rulers,” the study points out.

Striking cases

“We have observed relationships that contradict our theory and thus deserve to be examined in more detail,” the writers added.

The study shows the trends in the academic freedom and the clean elections indices in two most obvious cases in this regard over the period 1980–2019: Morocco, with an exceptionally good quality of elections when compared to the preceding low level of academic freedom, and Zambia, at the other end of the spectrum.

“In both countries, the level of academic freedom seems to follow rather than precede political developments. Both are also significant examples due to their well-established academic sectors,” the study pointed out.

In terms of Morocco, the researchers say the country’s performance in electoral democracy thus “stems from the endurance of the same regime. Only a setting where elections can challenge the regime would serve as a litmus test for the role of independent experts to advocate free and fair elections.

“Contemporary improvement of academic freedom, however, can be assumed to support such scenarios.”

In Zambia, academic freedom was respected during the one-party rule of the late Kenneth Kaunda.

In early 1990, a multiparty system was reinstated, but the political system has been affected by conflict, claims of vote-rigging, corruption and political competition.

“This suggests that corruption has diminished the positive impact of preceding academic freedom on democracy in Zambia and then also academic freedom itself.

“The drop in the quality of [recent] elections is likely to be only temporary, but if the level of academic freedom deteriorates further, knowledge-based attempts to promote free and fair elections might be in vain,” according to the researchers.

The way forward

“Overall, the robust impact of academic freedom on democracy found in this paper suggests that future research has to test other channels through which higher education influences political systems,” wrote the researchers.

However, according to them, the scarcity of theoretical background and the unavailability of accurate data are challenges for further work.