Demanding Democracy and Rejecting Autocracy in Africa: The Role of Religion and Regime Experience

30 Pages Posted: 17 Feb 2021

Date Written: February 5, 2021


Deeply rooted commitments to democracy are reflected in a dual acceptance of democratic governance and rejection of its alternative autocratic forms of government (Bratton, Mattes, & Boadi, 2005). This paper investigates what role religious adherence plays vis-à-vis country-level experiences in fostering such support, and therefore impacting prospects for democracy. At such an hour of global uncertainty regarding religious fundamentalism, political stability and democracy, this paper is animated by the following questions: Is Islam compatible with support for democracy? What lessons can be learned about the role of religion, specifically Islam vis-à-vis Christianity, in fostering democratic possibilities? If religion does seem to affect democratic attitudes, is it truly religion or some other factor driving Africans’ views on democracy?

Most scholarship on the compatibility of Islam and democracy centers on evidence from the Middle East, which omits a growing number of Islamic adherents and populations, specifically from the African continent. This paper seeks to address these gaps and questions. This paper takes as its foundation developing African democracies, examining individual citizens’ political attitudes, using Afrobarometer’s rounds 2 through 7 cross-national data as well as qualitative country case studies. These data reveal that what seems to be religion driving inconsistent attitudes regarding democracy and autocracy actually is explained by previous regime experience. Encounters among respondents with various regime forms foster different forms of commitment to democracy in emerging African democracies. Religious adherents’ previous regime experiences serve as formative factors shaping how not only Muslims, but also Christians, are oriented towards democracy and thus the prospects for democratization in emerging African democracies. Other factors, such as education, gender, exposure to political parties, regular consumption of forms of mass media, and the like are not ruled out as affecting political attitudes. However, this paper focuses on religion given the author’s earlier research that found, even in the face of other key factors that influence support for democracy and rejection of its alternatives, religion still seemed to matter. Christians and Muslims in cross-national investigation differed with Muslims seeming to hold inconsistent preferences more often than Christians (Beard 2007). This research adds credence to the idea that there is no fundamental incompatibility between Islam and democracy. Where respondents live and their related experiences with regimes prevail over the apparent relationship between religious identity and political attitudes.

Keywords: Democracy, Africa, Military Rule, Regime Experience, Religion

Suggested Citation

Beard, Virginia, Demanding Democracy and Rejecting Autocracy in Africa: The Role of Religion and Regime Experience (February 5, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

Virginia Beard (Contact Author)

Hope College ( email )

United States
6163957545 (Phone)


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