Democracy and Development: Consolidating Peace in Africa

By Wade, Abdoulaye | Harvard International Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Democracy and Development: Consolidating Peace in Africa


Wade, Abdoulaye, Harvard International Review


In a historical approach to the conflicts in Africa, one can distinguish certain outstanding sequences. The first sequence, corresponding to the pre-colonial period, was characterized by the birth and development of kingdoms and empires of limited scopes whose peaceful coexistence could be disrupted by violent conflicts by the whims of conquest and domination. Just like the wars between nations in Europe before the two World Wars, these conflicts resembled, at their core, tribal considerations.

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A second sequence encompases the period of relative stability the continent experienced, despite the colonial imposition of geographic divisions that would one day spawn a wealth of conflicts. Indeed, the Berlin Congress of February 1885 was devoted to the Balkanization of the African continent, the parceling out of territories and the separation of people according to borders that were fixed along the interests of the colonizers, and without heed to local societies. This arbitrary construction of national boundaries constituted a principal source of post-independence border conflicts despite the Congress's preoccupation with stabilization of the continent. When the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was established in 1963, it adopted the principle of the intangibility of borders, thus challenging the inherited character of colonization.

The third sequence came with the independence of African nations, when, as a direct product of the divisions created by those at the Congress of Berlin, cross-border territorial claims inevitably generated conflict. The principle of respecting national borders was fragile due to the artificial character of these borders, which rarely reflected the preexisting social and cultural structures established by locals. Often, members of the same family would in fact find themselves divided between two countries because of this colonial residue. Furthermore, the East-West Cold War antagonism of the period often aggravated these conflicts. Some of these confrontations were thus rather "inter-official wars by procurement," molded through the balancing mechanisms of power and wholly controlled by the instigating powers.

The fourth sequence saw conflicts of the internal type: tribal wars, armed struggles for control of wealth and access to or maintenance of capacity. The recurrence of "conflicts surrounding the ballot box" illustrated the weakness of democracy in Africa. With independence, the colonial states yielded to numerous, hermetically-sealed single parties. Those bold enough to engage in political opposition were faced with only two possibilities: exile or the creation of armed movements. This "democratic vacuum" was characterized by remarkable features: the smothering of public freedom, farcical electoral exercises, and electoral fraud. As a result, African leaders faced a host of external pressures--the growing international perception that Africans were dependent on government aid or the strongly diplomatic messages from global figures like French President Francois Mitterand, for instance-- that highlighted and attempted to combat the vice of the single party system. A period of "national conferences" then appeared as a prelude to, and progressive phasing-in of, the multi-party system in the eighties.

Today, it is impossible to deny my particular interest in the consolidation of peace and creation of lasting development in Africa. The Senegalese experience shows that in Africa, it is wholly possible to politically succeed and achieve one's goals with the ballot box and not with weapons--provided that both sides show a high degree of restraint and leadership. The Senegalese election and subsequent development efforts give hope to the idea that a framework of democratic accountability can bring about a stronger, more successful Africa. Indeed, the objectives of peace and lasting development cannot be attained without well-rooted institutions of democracy. …

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