The Many Faces of Africa: Democracy across a Varied Continent. (Democracy)

By Barkan, Joel D. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Many Faces of Africa: Democracy across a Varied Continent. (Democracy)


Barkan, Joel D., Harvard International Review


A decade ago, seasoned observers of African politics including Larry Diamond and Richard Joseph argued that the continent was on the cusp of its "second liberation." Rising popular demand for political reform across Africa, multiparty elections, transitions of power in several countries, and negotiations toward a new political framework in South Africa led these experts to conclude that the prospects for democratization were good. Today, these same observers are not so sure. They describe Africa's current experience with democratization in terms of "electoral democracy," "virtual democracy," or "illiberal democracy," and are far more cautious about predicting what is to come. What is the true state of African democracy? And what is its future?

Governance Before the 1990s

Africa's first liberation was precipitated by the transition from colonial to independent rule that swept much of the continent, except the south, between 1957 and 1964. The West hoped that the transition would be to democratic rule, and more than 40 new states with democratic constitutions emerged following multiparty elections that brought new African-led governments to power. The regimes established by this process, however, soon collapsed or reverted to authoritarian rule--what Samuel Huntington has termed a "reverse wave" of democratization. By the mid-1960s, roughly half of all African countries had seen their elected governments toppled by military coups.

In the other half, elected regimes degenerated into one-party rule. In what was to become a familiar scenario, nationalist political parties formed the first governments. The leaders of these parties then destroyed or marginalized the opposition through a combination of carrot-and-stick policies. The result was a series of clientelist regimes that served as instruments for neo-patrimonial or personal rule by the likes of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire or Daniel Arap Moi in Kenya--regimes built around a political boss, rather than founded in a strong party apparatus and the realization of a coherent program or ideology.

This pattern, and its military variant (as with Sani Abacha in Nigeria), became the modal type of African governance from the mid-1960s until the early 1990s. These regimes depended on a continuous and increasing flow of patronage and slush money for survival; there was little else binding them together. Inflationary patronage led to unprecedented levels of corruption, unsustainable macroeconomic policies that caused persistent budget and current account deficits, and state decay, including the decline of the civil service. Most African governments still struggle with this structural and normative legacy, which has obstructed the process of building democracy.

Decade of Democratization?

Africa's second liberation began with the historic 1991 multiparty election in Benin that resulted in the defeat of the incumbent president, an outcome that was replicated in Malawi and Zambia in the same year. The results of these elections raised expectations and created hopes for the restoration of democracy and improved governance across the continent. By the end of 2000, multiparty elections had been held in all but five of Africa's 47 states--Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, and Somalia.

Along with the new states of the former Soviet Union, Africa was the last region to be swept by the so-called "third wave" of democratization, and as with many of the successor states of the former Soviet Union, the record since has been mixed. In stark contrast to the democratic transitions that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s in Southern and Eastern Europe and Latin America (excluding Mexico), most African transitions have not been marked by a breakthrough election that definitively ended an authoritarian regime by bringing a group of political reformers to power. …

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