As South Africa celebrates 10 years of democracy Tuesday - with
grand festivities and speeches by everyone from Nelson Mandela to
Tony Blair - it also marks the continent's progress on the path
toward political freedom.
Forty-three of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have held
at least one multiparty election during the past decade, compared
with 1990, when just three were solidly democratic.
Yet outside pressures threaten to derail or even reverse this
progress. The geopolitical profile of Africa is rising as a key
source of oil - it will soon export more oil to the United States
than Saudi Arabia - and as a potential terrorism incubator. And some
observers worry that the US, a longtime backer of democracy here,
may increasingly push for political stability over democracy in
order to protect oil outflows and prevent terrorism.
There's a new focus on "securing oil platforms against attack -
but little concern about the democratic future of people who live
near those platforms," says Richard Cornwell, a senior analyst at
the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.
It's quite a shift from the years just after the cold war, when
the international community began to focus on "democracy and human
rights" in Africa, he says - for instance, when the UN and US sent
troops to Somalia on a humanitarian mission. Then, he says, "After 9/
11, we went back to hard definitions of security": strong states
with robust police and military forces.
Several new US initiatives, in the Sahel Desert, and in East and
West Africa, aim to bolster counterterrorism skills. They appear to
be useful: Last month, for instance, Chad's military, with help from
a US Navy plane, reportedly killed 42 Islamic fighters from Algeria
who may have had Al Qaeda ties.
Given this shift, South Africa, the continent's economic and
political powerhouse, may be key to shaping Africa's democratic
future. Its just-reelected president, Thabo Mbeki, is a champion of
"good governance" across Africa. Two initiatives he's pushing hard
are the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and the
African Union. Both reward good government and democratic stand-
outs - and punish slackers.
"This begins to shift the balance in inter-African politics
toward better-governed countries," says Francis Kornegay, a
columnist for several South African papers.
But within the continent, the influence of those focused on oil
and counterterrorism is growing.
Consider Africa's 10 longest-serving leaders - most of whom are
undemocratic. Six of them preside over oil exports or are partners
in US antiterror effort. (See box at right.)
Or take 10 of Africa's biggest oil exporters, including Nigeria,
Angola, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea. Fully six of them were labeled
"not free," the lowest category in an annual global survey by US-
based Freedom House. (See map at right.) Three of them are "partly
free." Only the tiny island of Sao Tome and Principe is "free."
"If there's the faintest trade-off between democratization and
oil, oil will win," says Steven Friedman of the Centre for Policy
Or consider 10 major hot spots for US counterterrorism efforts,
including Somalia, Djibouti, Niger, Chad, and Kenya. …