How should we judge democracies? How do we know when we have a live, thriving one? Whose values should be employed in classifying governments as democratic or undemocratic?

We have examined Dahl’s historical analysis of working democracies as our principal conceptual framework. We have challenged our students to think about the dichotomy of Bostwanan democracy vs. Western concepts of democracy.

An alternative framework that is actually being employed to rank governments and nations in terms of their good, or bad, practices in democracy is the Ibrahim Index of good governance. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance is a comprehensive assessment of governance quality in Africa. The Ibrahim Index measures the delivery of public goods and services to citizens by government and non-state actors. It uses indicators across four main categories as proxies for the quality of the processes and outcomes of governance:

–– Safety and Rule of Law
–– Participation and Human Rights
–– Sustainable Economic Opportunity
–– Human Development.

The index is the most comprehensive collection of qualitative and quantitative data that assess
governance in Africa. According to Mo Ibrahim, founder and chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, and the father of the index, it is the embodiment of democracy itself. Ibrahim states:

“We are shining a light on governance in Africa, and in so doing we are making a
unique contribution to improving the quality of governance. The Ibrahim Index is
a tool to hold governments to account and frame the debate about how we are
governed. Africans are setting benchmarks not only for their own continent,
but for the world.”

For a detailed presentation of the Ibrahim Index, please visit the following website:

It is not clear to me that this is a flawless model for judging democracies. Certainly the four criteria and the commitment to serve your constituency are seemingly necessary elements of democracy, although I clearly do not know that experts would consider them to be a sufficient set of criteria. Mozambique and Botswana demonstrated strong ratings on the Ibrahim Index but each has strong questionable results in how they guarantee their democracy.

Now it is clear to me that the exclusive dependence on the Ibrahim process of selecting democracies based on awards to their former leaders was ill-advised. The Ibrahim Foundation has declined to give the award now for two consecutive years after only two leaders on the continent were recognized. Their combined populations were around 20 million out of more than 1 billion people in the 54 nations that comprise the continent.

Regardless of what one may think of Ibrahim’s approach to judging African democracy, it was his influence that stimulated my interest in the concept of African democracy and led to the Wayne State University initiative entitled African Democracy Project.

In the Spring of 2008,  an initiative to recognize former African heads of state that during their terms of office practiced good governance was established by Mo Ibrahim, a British of subject Sudanese decent, who wanted to recognize outstanding leadership. He created The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership which was intended to be award annually by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to African heads of state for their commitment and demonstration of good governance. The measures of successful leadership were based on the role the leaders played in advancing security, health, education and economic development during their terms of office. As importantly, candidates for the award were those who “democratically transfer power to their successors”. The recognition comes with a substantial financial award, a portion of it for life.

A panel of former world leaders, chaired by Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, selected Joaquin Chissano, former president of the Republic of Mozambique as the inaugural recipient of the award. I was intrigued by the concept of an African leader democratically turning over power to someone else. More typical of Africa were coups, civil wars, military interference and downright genocide. I contacted Chissano in Mozambique and sought an audience with him. In November of that year, I traveled to Maputo, the capital of the republic to meet with the former president and told him that I was so impressed with the notion of African democracy that I would like to devise a way for our students to develop a deeper understanding of what democracy in Africa meant. (For the remainder of this visit, see an earlier blog.)

The Chissano recognition was followed by the announcement that Festus Mogae (seated here with me in his study at his villa) would be the next recipient. In March 2009, I traveled to Gaborone, the capital of Botswana to meet with representatives of the University of Botswana and to meet the former president to discuss how Botswana could be the next site of the Wayne State University African Democracy Project.

What is evolving in the eyes of our students is a new way to look at things, namely, in this case, judging what is democratic and what a democracy is. Perhaps as the African Democracy Project evolve so will a new paradigm for examining democracies — one perhaps developed by students themselves.