Democracy, Africa

views updated


In the mid-1980s, democratic theory and politics in Africa entered a new phase as struggles for democratization spread across the continent and scholars began to vigorously debate the processes, prospects, and problems of Africa's democratic projects. This process was captured in an important collection edited by Peter Anyang Nyong'o, Popular Struggles for Democracy in Africa (1987), and in debates conducted in the influential newsletter of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, Codesria Bulletin (1989). In 1990, all but five of Africa's fifty-four countries were dictatorships, either civilian or military. By 2000, the majority of these countries had introduced political reforms and had become either democratic or were in the process of becoming so. In the meantime, the literature on African democracy exploded. Initially, analyses centered on the forces behind the democratic transitions and their modalities; later they focused on the challenges of democratic consolidation. There were also vigorous debates on the meaning and content of democracy in which instrumental, institutional, cultural, and historical approaches vied for definitional, analytical, and ideological preeminence.

Before the mid-1980s, African political systems were dominated by authoritarian regimes and African political thought was preoccupied with developmentalism: how to overcome the challenges of development through socialist-or capitalist-oriented strategies. In the 1960s, many leading political scientists even applauded the one-party state as a vehicle for nation-building and economic development; it supposedly minimized societal conflicts and conformed to African cultural traditions and a preference for consensus politics. Several prominent African political leaders and thinkersJulius Nyerere of Tanzania (19221999), Leopold Senghor of Senegal (19062001), Sekou Touré of Guinea (19221984), and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana (19091972)argued passionately that African socialism not only represented a creative and viable fusion between the "communal" values and practices of precolonial African societies and Western socialist ideas, but that it embodied and ensured democracy. In the self-proclaimed MarxistLeninist regimes, such as those of Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Angola, "democratic centralism" of the ruling party was upheld as the basis of "communist democracy" and contrasted to Western "bourgeois democracy" (Zeleza, 1997, part VI; Idahosa).

Modalities of Africa's Democratic Transition

The African transitions to democracy from the late 1980s were quite varied and characterized by progress, blockages, and reversals. In many countries, the transitions occurred quite rapidly following the onset of internal protests and external pressures on the incumbent autocratic regimes. At first, the protests and pressures were not taken seriously by many of these regimes, which responded with both repression and reform, depending on the relative strengths of the prodemocracy forces and the regimes themselves. The latter always sought to manipulate differences within the opposition; indeed, by the mid-1990s many African leaders had learned to play the new democratic game of multiparty electoral politics to their advantage.

The actual mechanisms and modalities of transition from dictatorship to democracy took three broad paths. First, there were countries in which opposition parties were legalized and multiparty elections authorized through amendments to the existing constitutions by the incumbent regime. This pattern was followed mainly in one-party states in which the opposition forces were too weak or fragmented to force national regime capitulation and the regimes still enjoyed considerable repressive resources and hegemonic capacities, for example, Zambia, Malawi, Kenya, and Tanzania. Zambia was the first country in southern Africa to undergo democratization when President Kenneth Kaunda's (b. 1924) United National Independence Party, which had ruled the country since independence in 1964, lost the elections in 1991. Three years later, President Banda's (18981997) Malawi Congress Party lost the elections in Malawi. In Tanzania, however, the ruling party won several multiparty elections, while in Kenya the ruling party prevailed over a fractured opposition in two elections in the 1990s, finally losing in 2002.

Second, there were countries where the transition to democracy was effected through national conferences in which members of the political class and the elites of civil society came together to forge a new political and constitutional order. These conferences were largely confined to Francophone countries and South Africa. They succeeded in countries where they were held early, before incumbent regimes had learned how to manipulate them, and where the opposition was strong and united and the regime weakened and factionalized, as was the case in Benin, Congo, and Niger. Benin held the first national conference in 1989, which succeeded in toppling the regime of Mathew Kérékou. The opposite was true in countries such as Gabon, Togo, Côte d'Ivoire, and the Congo Democratic Republic (then called Zaire), where incumbent regimes managed to retain power for a while. In South Africa, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, held between 1991 and 1993, was prompted by the strategic stalemate between the nationalist forces and the apartheid white minority regime and paved the way for the transition to democratic rule in 1994.

Finally, there was the path of managed transition pursued by military regimes, which tried to oversee and tightly control the process and pace of political reform. For example, in Ghana, the military ruler, Jerry Rawlings (b. 1947), turned himself into a civilian and won the multiparty elections of 1992 and 1996, but his party lost the elections of 2000, while in Nigeria the military refused to accept the results of the multiparty elections of 1992 and proceeded to entrench a repressive regime that ended only after the death of the military dictator Sani Abacha (19431999), when multiparty democracy was reinstalled. In Uganda, the government of Yoweri Museveni (b. 1941) clung to power while claiming to pursue "no party politics," a rehashed doctrine of the one-party state. In Algeria, the military-backed government annulled the elections in 1992 when the Islamic Salvation Front won the first round and looked poised to win the final round. Instead of democracy, the country became involved in a vicious civil war that lasted many years.

Explanations of Africa's Democratization

By the turn of the new century, then, much had changed on Africa's political map. Democratic regimes, at least in terms of electoral politics and constitutional changes of government, had become quite common. Indeed, many countries were into their second or third round of multiparty elections, but several countries were still in the grip of authoritarian rule and autocratic tendencies persisted in many of the new democracies. Also, some elected governments were overthrown and several intrastate and interstate wars raged across the continent, all of which raised serious questions about the content and direction of the continent's democracies. Clearly, the trajectories of this wave of democracy in Africa have been quite complex and uneven.

Debate on Africa's democratization processes and prospects has centered on four interrelated issues: the relative roles of (1) internal and external factors; (2) historical and contemporary dynamics; (3) structural and contingent factors; and (4) economic and political dimensions. Those who stress the primacy of internal factors behind the democratic transitions tend to underscore the strength of domestic political protests and prodemocracy movements engendered or energized by the failures of development, the economic crises of the 1980s and 1990s, and the disintegration of the postcolonial state's legitimacy and capacity. They also highlight the demonstration effects of regional transitions, such as Benin in Francophone West Africa, Zambia in southern Africa, the Palestinian Intifadah for North Africa, and South Africa, across the continent. Those who emphasize external forces point to the decisive impact of the end of the Cold War, the demonstration effects of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and the imposition of structural adjustment programs and political conditionalities by Western bilateral and multilateral financial institutions. But some have questioned the West's commitment to the promotion of democracy in Africa, arguing that it is more rhetorical than real and is motivated by donor interests rather than recipient needs.

Proponents of the two approaches tend to place Africa's transitions to democracy in different historical contexts, either in terms of global waves of democracy or in African histories of struggles for freedom. Advocates of the first approach tend to see Africa's democratization as part of what Samuel Huntington calls the third wave of democracy, which apparently began in the 1970s in southern and eastern Europe. While each democracy wave is propelled by a different constellation of factors, it is said to be a process driven by the victorious democratic hegemonic powers. Others argue that, while Africa's democratization was influenced by developments elsewhere in the world, it was primarily rooted in the continent's long history of struggle against slavery, colonialism, and postcolonial misrule. Mohamed Salih talks of Africa's own "'waves of democratization' (colonial, early independence, postindependence, and the 1990s)" (p. 19). At the very least, the 1980s and 1990sthe era of democratizationrepresented a period of struggles for the "second independence"; the "first independence" was fought for in the 1950s and 1960sthe era of decolonization. Thus, African democratic struggles are linked to, structurally and symbolically, the rich reservoirs of earlier struggles against exploitation and oppression.

Observers also do not agree on the extent to which democratization is a product of structural factors as opposed to individual actions and events. Proponents of the latter approach stress the role of specific leaders, closely following the ebb and flow of events and tailoring their interpretations accordingly. Their focus tends to be on contingent factors, the unpredictability of developments, and human agency. Structuralist analyses, on the other hand, dwell on the structural conditions that have forestalled and facilitated and might sustain or frustrate democratization. These include colonial legacies, levels of economic development and education, size of the middle classes, the nature and vibrancy of civil society, and impediments imposed by the global system. Predictions of the prospects for the democratic project in different countries and across the continentwhether positive or negativeare often based on how these "democratic preconditions" are evaluated. To many commentators, from Western cynics and beleaguered African leaders to pessimistic intellectuals, the prospects of democracy in Africa are undermined by the enduring realities or legacies of underdevelopment.

Finally, there is considerable debate as to whether Africa's democratization is attributable to economic or political factors. The first approach examines the role played by post-colonial development failures and, particularly, the economic crises during the "lost decade" of the 1980s, which were exacerbated by structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and generated widespread opposition from various social groups, especially the pauperized middle and working classes, who spearheaded the democratic reform movements. The second approach concentrates on the political crisis of the postcolonial state, particularly its inability to forge nationhood and manage the centrifugal forces of postcolonial society, specifically ethnicity. As Dickson Eyoh has argued, scholarly disenchantment with the performance of the postcolonial state was not only expressed in the accretion of demeaning epithets to describe the African state, it spawned the rapid growth of "civil society" as the master concept around which the dynamics of politics were increasingly debated and the possibilities of African renewal invested.

A comprehensive understanding of democratization in Africa would have to transcend these dichotomous analyses. Clearly, the struggles for democracy in the 1980s and 1990s represented the latest moment of accelerated change in a long history of struggles for freedom, an exceptionally complex moment often driven by unpredictable events and new social movements and visions, anchored in the specific histories, social structures, and conditions of each country, in which national, regional, and international forces converged unevenly and inconsistently, and economic and political crises reinforced each other, altering the terrain of statecivil society relationships, the structures of governance, and the claims of citizenship.

Visions of African Democracy

Fundamental to the question of democracy in Africa have been different conceptions and visions of what democracy means and entails. The views range from minimalist conceptions of liberal democracy, emphasizing competitive electoral processes and respect for civil and political rights, to maximalist notions of social democracy embracing material development, equality and upliftment, and respect for the so-called three generations of rights, civil and political, social and economic, and development or solidarity rights. Five prescriptive models can be identified in the writings of African political thinkers and leaders: nativist, liberal, popular democratic, theocratic, and transnational.

Nativist model.

To the proponents of the nativist model, democracy in Africa can be consolidated only if it is articulated with the "consensus" or "consultative" model of democracy found in "traditional" institutions. Maxwell Owusu believes mobilizing the language, rituals, and working assumptions of traditional chieftaincy that are easily understood by local communities is essential to what he calls the "domestication of democracy." This vision is shared on the ideological right by George Ayittey, who urges a return to indigenous practices and values in political and economic management if Africa is to recover from its debilitating crises of poor governance and development, and on the ideological left by Claude Ake, who believes it is imperative to ground democratic movements and practice in the "communal ethos" that defines many Africans' perception of self-interest, their freedom, and their location in the social whole.

Liberal model.

To the pragmatic defenders of the liberal model, such as Jibrin Ibrahim and Peter Anyang' Nyong'o (1995), democracy rests solidly on a multiparty system and periodic electoral contests to promote the trinity of good governance: efficiency, accountability, and transparency. Their critics have charged that this model offers a mechanism of elite competition, recruitment, circulation, and control but presents limited benefits to the often atomized and powerless citizenry. A modified version incorporates the development imperative, the need for Africa's emerging democracies to "bring development back in." Thandika Mkandawire argues that a developmentalism will emerge out of the early-twenty-first-century context, democratic because of the continuing popular struggles against authoritarianism, and capitalist because capitalism constitutes the political program of the key actors in the struggles for democracy and of the dominant forces at the global level, following the collapse of "actually existing" Soviet socialism. Adebayo Olukoshi contends that the struggles for democracy ultimately entail struggles for material existence, although they are not purely economic, and that the possibilities of democratic consolidation are firmly tied to democracy's ability to deliver development.

Popular democratic model.

Many of the critics of liberal democracy advocate the popular democratic model in which both the political and economic domains are based on democratic principles. For Samir Amin, a democracy restricted to the political sphere, as in Western democratic regimes, while economic organization is held captive to nondemocratic principles of privatization, is an incomplete one. Besides the incorporation of economic rights, the defenders of popular democracy emphasize the rights of subnational communities as a necessary part of the process of reconciling the colonial bifurcation of power between a racially exclusive urban civil society for immigrant settler citizens and a decentralized rural despotism for the "native" subjects. According to Mahmood Mamdani, African states are confronted with the challenges of democratizing the state, particularly customary power, removing state control of citizenship rights, deracializing civil society, and restructuring the unequal external relations of dependency. Feminist scholars such as Amina Mama and Ifi Amadiume have called attention to the gendered dimensions of state formation and power and the fact that democratization without women's empowerment and gender equality is clearly inadequate.

Theocratic model.

All these debates and visions are secular in orientation. There are also theocratic visions and discourses about political transformation and democracy in Africa. The debate has been particularly contentious in Muslim communities undergoing revivalism due to contemporary religious, political, and cultural imperatives and pressures facing them. Ali Mazrui has argued that different forces in different countries have fostered Islamic revivalism. For example, in Somalia and Sudan

it grew out of desolation; in the case of Libya and Iran revivalism grew out of the hazards of newly acquired oil wealth. Muslims were rediscovering their faith either in dependence or in renewed self-confidence. (p. 516)

On the one hand, there are militant clerics and intellectuals, such as Hassan El-Tourabi (b. 1932) in the Sudan, who propose sweeping political changes to enshrine Islamic law (shari'a), ostensibly to strengthen the Islamic community and eradicate the corrupt Western influences of modern society. On the other hand, there are reformist scholars, such as Abdullahi An-Na'im, also from the Sudan, who offer a radical reinterpretation of the Koran in an effort to develop a modern version of Islamic law that conforms to international standards of human rights. Feminist scholars, such as Ayesha Imam, have also sought to reinterpret women's rights under Muslim laws to advance women's empowerment.

Transnational model.

Finally, in response to the perceived pressures of globalization, which seem poised to erode the already diminished powers of the postcolonial state, a transnational model of democratization has emerged as embodied in new visions of regional and continental integration. Some scholars argue that none of the models above, all focused, more or less, on the nation-state, hold the key to lasting change for Africa. The economic and diplomatic justifications of regional integration for Africa's global competitiveness are as old as independence; the cultural and racial rationales go back to colonization and the origins of Pan-Africanism. What was new by the 1990s were the arguments centering on the democratic possibilities of regional integration: that it might curtail the authoritarian reflexes of the postcolonial state, thwart coups or raise the costs for the perpetrators, and facilitate the decentralization and dispersal of power, thereby dissolving incendiary clashes in conflict-prone countries.

The African Union, launched in 2002 as the successor to the Organization of African Unity, embodied the new hopes of African integration, development, and democratization. It envisioned the creation of an African parliament, a court of justice, a peace and security council, and an economic, social, and cultural council, some of whose members would come from civil society organizations, including some from the diaspora. Various economic instruments were also created, most importantly, the New Economic Partnership for African Development and a peer review mechanism for African states to evaluate each other's adherence to the principles of democratic governance and human rights.

Challenges of Democratic Consolidation

Most African scholars recognize that consolidating democracy on the continent will remain a difficult and daunting task. Available evidence indicates that, in the first fifteen years, many of the new democratic regimes were still fragile and some of the euphoria of the early 1990s had evaporated. Some scholars and observers, such as Michael Bratton and Nicholas de Walle, even argue that democratization in Africa has been more illusory than fundamental, marking a transition from patrimonialism to neopatrimonialism. This is debatable, however. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the authoritarianism and statism of the early postindependence years was in retreat, and, where it persisted, was vigorously contested in a context in which democratic aspirations were firmly implanted in popular consciousness and the pluralization of associational life was an integral part of the political landscape. It was indeed a mark of the changed times that, whereas previously development had been regarded as a prerequisite of democracy, now democracy was seen as indispensable for development.

The challenges facing Africa's democratic experiments are many and complex. Julius Ihnovbere and John Mbaku provide a useful summary. They include entrenching constitutionalism and the reconstruction of the postcolonial state, preventing military intervention in politics, instituting structures for the effective management of ethnic diversity, promoting sustainable development and well-enforced property rights regimes, nurturing effective leadership, combating the HIV/AIDS pandemic, empowering women, managing globalization, protecting the youth, and safeguarding human rights and the rule of law.

See also Apartheid ; Capitalism: Africa ; Civil Society: Responses in Africa and the Middle East ; Colonialism: Africa ; Corruption in Developed and Developing Countries ; Development ; Globalization: Africa ; Modernization Theory ; Multiculturalism, Africa ; Nationalism: Africa ; Neocolonialism ; Pan-Africanism ; Socialisms, African ; Westernization: Africa .


Abrahamsen, Rita. Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and Good Governance in Africa. London: Zed, 2000.

Ake, Claude. The Feasibility of Democracy in Africa. Dakar, Senegal: Codesria, 2000.

Amadiume, Ifi. Daughters of the Goddess, Daughters of Imperialism: African Women Struggle for Culture, Power, and Democracy. London: Zed, 2000.

Amin, Samir. "The Issue of Democracy in the Third World." In Academic Freedom in Africa, edited by Mahmood Mamdani and Mamadou Diouf. Dakar, Senegal: Codesria, 1994.

An-Na'im, Abdullahi Ahmed. Indigenous African Institutions. New York: Ardsley-on-Hudson, 1991.

. Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1990.

Ayittey, George B. N. Africa in Chaos. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Bielefeldt, Heiner. "'Western' versus 'Islamic' Human Rights Conceptions? A Critique of Cultural Essentialism in the Discussion on Human Rights." Political Theory 28, no. 1 (2000): 90121.

Bratton, Michael, and Nicolas van de Walle. Democratic Experiments in Africa: Regime Transitions in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Chabal, Patrick. "A Few Considerations on Democracy in Africa." International Affairs 74, no. 2 (1998): 289303.

Cowen, Michael, and Liisa Laakso, eds. Multi-Party Elections in Africa. Oxford: James Currey, 2002.

Eyoh, Dickson. "From Economic Crisis to Political Liberalization: Pitfalls of the New Political Sociology for Africa." African Studies Review 39, no. 3 (1999): 4380.

Ibrahim, Jibrin. "Democratic Transition in Africa: The Challenge of a New AgendaConcluding Remarks." In Democratization Processes in Africa, edited by Eshetu Chole and Jibrin Ibrahim. Dakar, Senegal: Codesria, 1995.

Idahosa, P. L. E. The Populist Dimension to African Political Thought: Critical Essays in Reconstruction and Retrieval. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World, 2004.

Ihonvbere, Julius O., and John M. Mbaku, eds. Political Liberalization and Democratization in Africa: Lessons from Country Experiences. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.

Imam, Ayesha. "The Muslim Religious Right (Fundamentalists) and Sexuality: Women Living under Muslim Laws." Dossier 17 (1997): 725.

. "The Place of Women under Sharia." CRP/FNS Lagos (2000): 1631.

Joseph, Richard. "Democratization in Africa after 1989: Comparative and Theoretical Perspectives." Comparative Politics 29, no. 3 (1997): 363382.

Makinda, Samuel M. "Democracy and Multi-Party Politics in Africa." Journal of Modern African Studies 34, no. 4 (1996): 555573.

Mama, Amina. "Challenging Subjects: Gender, Power, and Identity in African Contexts." Research and Action Report 23, no. 2 (2002): 615.

. "Feminism or Femocracy? State Feminism and Democratization in Nigeria." In Expanding Democratic Space in Nigeria, edited by Jibrin Ibrahim, 6380. Dakar, Senegal: Codesria, 1997.

Mamdani, Mahmood. "Africa: Democratic Theory and Democratic Struggles." Dissent 39 (1992): 312318.

. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Mazrui, Ali A. "African Islam and Competitive Religion: Between Revivalism and Expansion." Third World Quarterly 10, no. 2 (1988): 499518.

Mbaku, John M., and Julius O. Ihonvbere, eds. The Transition to Democratic Governance in Africa: The Continuing Struggle. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.

Mengisteab, Kidane, and Cyril Daddieh, eds. State-Building and Democratization in Africa: Faith, Hope, and Realities. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999.

Mkandawire, P. Thandika. Thinking about Developmental States in Africa. Geneva: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, United Nations, 1998.

Nyong'o, Peter Anyang'. "Discourses on Democracy in Africa." In Democratization Processes in Africa: Problems and Prospects, edited by Eshetu Chole and Jibrin Ibrahim. Dakar, Senegal: Codesria, 1995.

. Popular Struggles for Democracy in Africa. London: Zed, 1987.

Olsen, Girm Rye. "Europe and the Promotion of Democracy in Post Cold War Africa: How Serious Is Europe and for What Reason?" African Affairs 97, no. 388 (1998): 343367.

Olukoshi, Adebayo O. "Africa: Democratizing under Conditions of Economic Stagnation." Paper presented at Codesria Eighth General Assembly, Dakar, Senegal, June 26July 2, 1995.

. "Democratization, Globalization, and Effective Policy-making in Africa." In The Politics of Trade and Industrial Policy in Africa: Forced Consensus?, edited by Charles C. Soludo, Osita Ogbu, and Ha-Joon Chang. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World; Ottawa, Canada: International Development Research Centre, 2004.

Owusu, Maxwell. "Democracy and Africa: A View from the Village." Journal of Modern African Studies 30 (1992): 369396.

. "Domesticating Democracy: Culture, Civil Society, and Constitutionalism in Africa." Comparative Studies in Society and History 39, no. 1 (1997): 120152.

Salih, Mohamed. African Democracies and African Politics. London and Sterling, Va.: Pluto, 2001.

Sandbrook, Richard. "Economic Liberalization versus Political Democratization: A Social-Democratic Resolution." Canadian Journal of African Studies 31, no. 3 (1997): 482516.

Zeleza, Paul Tiyambe. Manufacturing African Studies and Crises. Dakar, Senegal: Codesria, 1997.

. "The Struggle for Human Rights in Africa." In Human Rights, the Rule of Law and Development in Africa, edited by Paul T. Zeleza and Philip J. McConnaughay, 118. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

About this article

Democracy, Africa

Updated About content Print Article