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African exceptions: democratic development in small island states

Abstract

Small island states are much more likely to have democratic regimes than large continental states. This trend also holds across Africa, where the five island states with populations of 1.5 million or less are all rated at least ‘partly free’ by Freedom House. In this article we explore what it is about being a small island state that might explain this trend. Building on studies from other small island states, we find that the interaction between the two contextual factors is key to explaining their diversion from mainland trends in the African context. Specifically, ‘smallness’ leads to closer links between citizens and politicians in addition to more effective service delivery, while ‘islandness’ promotes community cohesion and provides a buffer against instability and conflict in neighbouring states. This results in a positive feedback loop that guards against authoritarian excess. Our focus on population size and geography thus adds to the existing studies of the contextual drivers of African democratisation.

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Fig. 1

Source Freedom House (2020). Small states have less than 1.5 million inhabitants. ‘All Other States’ includes all states that are neither islands nor small

Notes

  1. 1.

    The Varieties of Democracy (V-DEM) project offers several democracy indexes varying from low (0) to high (1). The 2019 data shows that all island states outperform the regional average scores in the electoral democracy index (0.43) and in the liberal democracy index (0.3). The Comoros are a partial exception to this pattern and displays a more irregular trend: after standing above the regional average roughly between 2004 and 2018 its score slightly decreased in 2019 to 0.39 in the electoral democracy index, and to 0.18 in the liberal democracy index. Without denying the differences in quality of democracy across cases, both the V-Dem and the Freedom House data, suggest that the Comoros are closer to being an electoral democracy than to being an autocracy.

  2. 2.

    Seventeen interviews were conducted in Cabo Verde (in 2017), fourteen interviews were conducted in the Seychelles (in 2011), and participant observation and informal interviews were conducted in São Tomé and Príncipe (in 2019). The interview respondents primarily consisted of (former) politicians, as well as journalists, academics, and representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The participant observation in São Tomé happened during a two-week event that aimed at promoting citizenship and political participation in the country. The interviews were conducted as part of different research projects, and unfortunately we have not yet been able to conduct interviews in the Comoros and Mauritius. However, this deficiency is partially remedied by the existence of a more extensive secondary literature on these (larger) cases, from which we have drawn insights.

  3. 3.

    Initially named the Seychelles People’s United Party (SPUP).

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Acknowledgements

The authors are thankful to the three anonymous reviewers and the editors of the Journal of International Relations and Development, for their careful reading and insightful comments.

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Correspondence to Edalina Rodrigues Sanches.

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Sanches, E.R., Cheeseman, N., Veenendaal, W. et al. African exceptions: democratic development in small island states. J Int Relat Dev (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41268-021-00223-1

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Keywords

  • Africa
  • Community cohesion
  • Democratisation
  • Elite-citizen links
  • Informal politics
  • Small island states