Africa and the Search for Democracy

By Onadipe, Abiodun | Contemporary Review, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Africa and the Search for Democracy


Onadipe, Abiodun, Contemporary Review


Africa today, forty years after the independence of Ghana, the first on the continent, presents a picture which is at the same time enthralling and despairing. More the latter than the former, however. Fighting is on the increase throughout Africa as competition for political power continues unabated. There is a broad swath of instability and armed conflict on the continent, with all regions afflicted - from Sudan to Senegal, to Somalia and Sierra Leone, from Algeria to Congo-Brazzaville to Kenya and even to the unlikely Zambia. Military spending in sub-Saharan Africa remains high due to ongoing civil wars and the outbreak of new ones. According to the Military Balance, the 1997/8 report by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the military budget of 'peaceful' Botswana makes it the fourth highest African defence spender after South Africa, Angola and Zimbabwe. (Botswana has a potentially violent dispute with Namibia over a small border island.) The list of trouble spots is endless.

This prevalence of conflict has created a new phenomenon in Africa: the projection of power by African states into neighbouring countries when they believed that their security interests were at stake. For instance, last May, Rwandan and Ugandan armies helped Laurent Kabila oust long-term dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and in the neighbouring Republic of Congo, Angolans assisted former military dictator, General Denis Sassou-Nguesso, in overthrowing the elected government of President Pascal Lissouba last October, after a four-month civil war. In Sierra Leone, Nigeria has more or less intervened militarily to restore the ousted government of President Tejan Kabbah in the name of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Compared to the widespread condemnation that greeted Tanzania's invasion of Idi Amin's Uganda in 1979, these latest incursions have not generated criticism. This trend of outside interference appears to have increased with the weakening of African states and might continue as the ranks of failing states grow. Some analysts believe that this type of interaction, especially in central Africa, will ultimately lead to deeper integration as championed by Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni who visualises the forging of a co-operative bloc in the region through conflict. Museveni, at last year's Edinburgh Commonwealth heads of government summit, advised Africans to stand up and fight if they are unhappy with their political lot. 'If you think you do not have democracy then you should fight for it instead of pinning your hopes on international organisations,' said Museveni who led a five-year bush war to topple dictatorship in Uganda.

The move towards democracy in Africa is currently suffering numerous setbacks with military force being used to supplant the expressed wishes of the electorate in most cases, while in others, people's wishes are just ignored as will be shown in this article which examines the numerous political hotspots in sub-Saharan Africa. Concentrating on two of the most turbulent regions - central and west Africa - we shall review events in the two Congos (Brazzaville and Kinshasa) taking into account the role played by Uganda, Rwanda and Angola, and the situation in the run-up to the Kenyan presidential elections. In the equally complex situations in west Africa, the political problems facing Sierra Leone will be examined in addition to the political impasse in Nigeria's transition to civilian rule in light of the avoidance action taken at the Edinburgh Commonwealth meeting.

Central Africa

Five years after losing the presidential election General Denis Sassou-Nguesso is back in power in the Republic of Congo. His long-time political rival, Pascal Lissouba, the democratically elected president, fled to Burkina Faso for refuge in October. In a swift offensive, Sassou-Nguesso's Cobra militia captured the capital, Brazzaville, and the second city, Pointe Noire after four months of fighting which left the country's infrastructure - already damaged from the conflict engendered by the disputed 1992 elections - in ruins. …

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