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  • Civil Society In Africa
  • E. Gyimah-Boadi (bio)

Among the forces that dislodged entrenched authoritarianism in Africa and brought about the beginnings of formal democracy in the early 1990s, the continent’s nascent civil societies were in the forefront. 1 Although external influences such as the fall of communism and pressure from foreign donors were important, it was often the resourcefulness, dedication, and tenacity of domestic civil society that initiated and sustained the process of transition. The opening of once-forbidden debate on new political directions; the decriminalization of dissent and the acceptance (however grudging) of pluralist politics; the convening of sovereign national conferences and constituent assemblies; preparations for competitive elections; and, in a significant number of cases, the eventual installation of elected governments—for all these things, civil societies can take a large share of credit. Thanks to their efforts, a number of African countries have become part of what Samuel P. Huntington calls democracy’s “third wave.” 2

With the first phase of democratization nearing completion, attention is shifting to the problem of consolidation. 3 Expectations regarding civil society’s contribution are running high. Unfortunately, they are likely to be disappointed. Civil society remains too weak to be democracy’s mainstay, not only in Nigeria and Zaire (where transitions have become stalemated), and in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, and Togo (where transition outcomes are still ambiguous), but also in Benin, Malawi, South Africa, and Zambia (where outcomes have been more [End Page 118] clearly successful). In nearly all cases, the ability of civil society to help deepen democratic governance and put it beyond reversal remains in serious doubt.

Why do civil society and its contribution to democratic consolidation remain so weak despite the much-touted vibrancy of African associational life? Why do African countries’ prolific networks of associations and clubs not make for dense and interconnected civil societies? And what, finally, are the prospects that this will change? Can African civil societies become capable of assisting democratic consolidation?

The third wave hit Africa in late 1989, when civil servants, teachers, and traders in the small French-speaking republic of Benin demonstrated to demand an end to autocracy and economic mismanagement. As similar phenomena became commonplace in other parts of Africa in the early 1990s, similar domestic forces were found leading them. In Zambia, the Congress of Trade Unions and its chairman, Frederick Chiluba, successfully challenged the three-decade incumbency of President Kenneth Kaunda and his United Independence Party; union activism was also pivotal in Mali and Niger. In Ghana, Kenya, and Togo, middle-class associations of lawyers, college professors, and students were highly active in the service of democratization. Student protests against economic mismanagement and the accompanying economic crises in Benin, Mali, and elsewhere were important in setting the stage for prodemocracy activism in those countries.

Significant contributions to democratization have also come from Christian churches and their national organizations. The National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) has been in the forefront of opposition to the authoritarianism of President Daniel arap Moi and his Kenya African National Union. The NCCK was an early and vocal critic of the lack of a secret ballot. Anglican bishops Mnasas Kuria, Alexander Muge, and Henry Okullu earned a reputation as advocates of political change when they disagreed publicly with the conclusions of a government investigation into the causes of July 1990 riots in Nairobi and urged the release of two opposition politicians who had been detained for their alleged involvement in them. A 1992 pastoral letter from Malawi’s Catholic bishops, openly criticizing both political repression and the government’s mismanagement of the economy, was a seminal event in a country that had long been a bastion of autocratic rule. Christian groups and episcopal conferences in Ghana, Nigeria, and Zambia have also actively fought authoritarianism and supported democratization in their respective countries.

These religiously based civil-society groups, and in particular the ecumenical bodies, played key roles not only in starting but also in guiding the process of political opening. In several groundbreaking cases, the success of the transition to democracy owed much to the broad credibility, political skills, and commitment of Christian organizations [End Page 119] and their leaders...