Africans Chart a Course for Political Change but Often-Violent Power Transfers and Economic Woes Hamper Process

By Colleen Lowe Morna, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 18, 1991 | Go to article overview

Africans Chart a Course for Political Change but Often-Violent Power Transfers and Economic Woes Hamper Process


Colleen Lowe Morna, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


AS calls for multiparty democracy sweep across Africa, there is a growing realization here that reforms, though desirable and inevitable, are fraught with problems.

Just a year ago, only six of the continent's 53 countries claimed multiparty systems. Today, pressures for change have been or are being felt in almost every nation, and some have had their first peaceful transfers of power through the ballot box.

During the past year, some rulers have been ousted by coups or rebel victories, leaving in place fragile governments as in Somalia and Ethiopia.

In many nations, reforms are at best halfhearted. Even where new governments take power, persistent ethnic tensions and economic problems undermine efforts at political liberalization.

"The transition from autocratic rule to stable democracy is fraught with a lot of dangers," says Michael Chege, a Kenyan social scientist based in Zimbabwe. "If we are not careful, the current euphoria could turn to disappointment. We could end up with ... cycles - as in Latin America - of democratic rule followed by autocratic military regimes."

On the plus side, Mr. Chege notes, is the fact that political pluralism is now firmly on the agenda. "A year ago," he says, "it would have been inconceivable for the Organization of African Unity to state that the question of democracy has to be addressed."

It is no longer possible for any African leader to "sit back and expect to get by," adds Jonathan Moyo, a Zimbabwean analyst.

Although elections have been held in the six countries claiming multiparty systems (Botswana, Gambia, Mauritius, Namibia, Senegal, and Zimbabwe), only in Mauritius have these led to a change in government.

In February, the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde made history when its Marxist president, Aristedes Pereira, handed power to the pro-capitalist Carlos Veiga after a peaceful election. That was followed by the end in Benin of the 19-year military rule of President Mathieu Kerekou, who lost an election to Nicephore Soglo, a former World Bank governor.

But the fragile nature of African elections was underscored by events in the Ivory Coast, where President Felix Houphouet-Boigny retained power amid charges of widespread electoral rigging. In Gabon - after a second election held at the insistence of opposition parties - President Omar Bongo clung to power but with a much smaller margin.

In many countries, leaders' commitment to democratic reform remains dubious. For example, only as a result of intense pressure and after dozens of civilian deaths did Togo's President Gnassingbe Eyadema finally yield to demands for a national conference to begin June 24 to decide Togo's future.

In neighboring Ghana, Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings is holding a national convention to draw up a new multiparty constitution. But opposition forces have not been invited to the talks, political parties are still banned, and a "preventative custody" decree remains in place.

The conference is just "a way of buying time" without any real intention to give up power, charges student leader Paul Asare Ansah. …

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