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Mediterranean Quarterly 12.3 (2001) 85-97

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Democracy in Africa:
Problems and Solutions

Mohamed El-Khawas

Prodemocracy reforms hit Africa like a tidal wave in the 1990s, sweeping away authoritarian regimes and the one-party system that had dominated the African scene since independence. They began with the 1988 riots in Algiers and the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela after twenty-seven years in South Africa's prisons. For the most part, changes came about because both military and civilian governments had failed to alleviate poverty, unemployment, and oppression and had not provided their citizens with such basic services as health, housing, and education. Administrative inefficiency, political corruption, economic mismanagement, and social decay had further undermined the authority of autocratic leaders and national institutions. 1 These unpalatable conditions led to popular demands for reform throughout Africa.

The African opposition was encouraged by events in Europe, namely the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and the demise of the Soviet Union. 2 African demands for political liberalization also got a boost from the West and international financial institutions. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other Western donors refused to help African governments deal with their deteriorating economies until economic and political reforms were put in place. Moreover, the end of the Cold War took the wind out of the Soviet Union's foreign aid program. Moscow was no longer able to provide economic assistance to [End Page 85] socialist-ruled African nations. Thus, both external pressure and Africa's ailing economies paved the way for the wave of global democratization. The rise of democracy in Europe on the ashes of communism encouraged the African opposition to step up their own campaigns against authoritarianism and to press for the establishment of more open and participatory forms of government.

Extensive mobilization of civil society took place in many African countries. Students, professional and civic associations, trade unions, church leaders, women's groups, human rights organizations, and others spearheaded the protest against authoritarian regimes. 3 They blamed the one-party system for the terrible conditions in their societies and called for greater political freedom and open electoral politics to increase the government's transparency and accountability. Popular protests, demonstrations, and riots forced several autocratic rulers out of office (for instance, in Ethiopia and Mali) and compelled others to heed popular demands for political reforms (in Benin, Kenya, and Malawi).

My purpose in this essay is to examine the democratization process in Africa and to highlight some of the problems it encountered. The essay illustrates the challenges of changing political systems and of attempting to restructure state institutions to carry out new functions. It also proposes solutions intended to give democracy a chance to survive in societies that are ethnically diverse and that do not have traditions or experiences with democratic institutions or culture.

Political Liberalization

Several transitions to democracy are under way in Africa. Many countries completed the initial phase of the democratization process by legalizing opposition parties and holding multiparty elections in the 1990s; twenty-five countries held competitive multiparty elections between 1990 and 1993. In eleven countries, most notably South Africa and Zambia, opposition parties won and came to power, "but elsewhere, the legalization of opposition has not brought democracy." 4 [End Page 86]

Political liberalization is still finding its way to some African countries. After fifteen years of military rule and political oppression, Nigeria, the continent's most populous country and possessor of huge oil resources, finally held free elections and returned a civilian government to power in May 1999. 5 The new president, Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military ruler, is committed to upholding democracy and to encouraging citizens to have a role in their government. However, the future of democracy in Nigeria depends on his ability to solve many chronic problems, including corruption, ethnic violence, unemployment, and crumbling infrastructure. 6 Failure to deal with these issues effectively might undermine the success of democracy.

In nearby Ghana, opposition leader John Kufuor, defeated in 1996 by President Jerry Rawlings, won a runoff election in December...


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