Democracy, of a Sort, Sweeps Africa across the Continent, Countries Are Holding Elections. but They May or May Not Indicate True Political Freedom

By Judith Matloff, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 7, 1996 | Go to article overview

Democracy, of a Sort, Sweeps Africa across the Continent, Countries Are Holding Elections. but They May or May Not Indicate True Political Freedom


Judith Matloff, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Looking at an electoral map of Africa, one might think the continent was undergoing a rousing shift toward democracy.

More than a score of presidential, legislative, or local elections are set to take place this year and in 1997. Many of the votes involve more than one party for the first time in countries not known for allowing free choice.

But lining up to cast ballots does not necessarily mean freedom of speech or tolerance of dissent. On a continent of 52 nations and 800 million people, where opposition parties often lack funds, rulers control power with the gun, and ethnicity decides loyalties, these exercises in Western-style voting are often at best tepid moves toward more open political systems. At worst, they're farces, many political analysts say.

Take the example of the June 26 local elections in KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa, a country considered one of the continent's showcase democracies. Factional fighting between the two main parties led to assassinations of more than a half-dozen candidates. (One party had to drop leaflets by airplane into the enemy camp because its canvassers would have been killed on the spot.)

Armed supporters of the two main parties, the Inkatha Freedom Party and the African National Congress, often prevented rivals from entering each other's territory. "If Inkatha tries to come here, we'll shoot them," said a youth named Lucky, who had his gun handy, in an ANC-controlled area of KwaZulu-Natal.

Peter Miller, the provincial minister who oversaw the election, says problems like this are endemic across Africa. "One cannot talk about fully free and fair elections in Africa. The conditions aren't there," he says.

But Kingsley Amoako, head of the United Nations Economic Commission on Africa, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, maintains that any election is better than none. "These elections, even if flawed, are a start," he says. "People are slowly getting used to the idea of pluralism, and change is gradually taking place."

Hopes had been high that political freedom would sweep Africa after the end of the cold war. No longer pawns of the United States-Soviet Union rivalry, African countries would be free to choose their political systems.

But the transition has been tough for many states accustomed to dictatorship or one-party rule after independence from colonialism in the 1960s and 1970s.

Some ill-prepared for balloting

According to Richard Cornwell, a political analyst at the Africa Institute, a think tank in Pretoria, South Africa, immense poverty means that those in power will try to hold onto it. Without power, he says, they have no guarantee of economic survival. The problem has been worsened by privatizing state industries, which employ many people, and austerity measures demanded by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), which have strained the economies and put thousands of people out of work.

"The promise of a liberation {through elections} was false," Mr. Cornwell says.

Cornwell and others say that many times elections will be held in African countries to satisfy Western countries and institutions that give them aid. But the polls then become exercises with little substance. Donors such as the World Bank and IMF are sometimes more lenient toward abuses of civil liberties as long as their prescribed economic programs are adhered to, Cornwell says.

Often African countries are ill-prepared for truly democratic voting because of illiteracy, traditions of authoritarianism, corruption, and weak government institutions. In many African societies, the chief rules in a village. That pattern of authority often becomes reflected on the national level.

Weak government institutions are another problem. When Portugal exited Mozambique in 1975, there were only 30 university-educated people in the country. …

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