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  • Africa: An Interim Balance Sheet
  • Crawford Young (bio)

When the global “third wave” of democratization began to lap the shores of Africa in 1989, even the most sanguine observers expected that transitions from the continent’s dominant mode of governance—patrimonial autocracy—would be rife with contradictions. 1 Recent events have proved them right: astonishingly high participation in Algerian presidential elections despite violence and threats from some Islamist extremists; a show of elections, with minimal participation, put on by the integralist military autocracy in Sudan; the promulgation of yet another constitution for military-ruled Nigeria, with further prolongation of that country’s “permanent transition”; a political impasse leading to a coup in Niger, followed by promises that democracy would be restored within months; the return, via the ballot box, of former strongman Mathieu Kérékou to the presidency of Benin, birthplace of the national conference; elections in Sierra Leone held amid such widespread insecurity that voting was impossible in many regions; elections in the island republic of Mauritius in which (for the second time in 13 years) the ruling coalition stepped down after losing every one of the 60 seats at stake. The crosscurrents evident in these strikingly divergent events, occurring within months of each other, showed both the vitality and the fragility of the liberalization process.

A preliminary inventory of outcomes shows that only Libya and Sudan have held out resolutely against the third wave, with even the latter eventually feeling compelled to make a token gesture in the form of the above-mentioned nonparty elections. The other holdout, Colonel [End Page 53] Muammar Qadhafi’s contrarian regime in Libya, has used defiance of conventional norms as a source of legitimacy for nearly three decades. Elsewhere in Africa, the tides of political opening have almost always brought changes. Transitions have ranged from the abortive (Nigeria) or denatured (Cameroon, Zaire) to the profound (South Africa). But even where incumbents have manipulated democratization to preserve their power, some of the parameters of politics have changed.

Most of the early scholarship on liberalization in Africa centered on the dynamics of transition. 2 Now, as many countries begin to undergo their second set of postliberalization elections, it is time to shift focus and begin evaluating the breadth and depth of democratic consolidation in various countries and the sustainability of the new practices. 3

Independence and Its Aftermath

Borrowing Samuel P. Huntington’s imagery, one might say that Africa has experienced its own three waves of democratization. The first consisted of constitutional changes, following models provided by the outgoing colonial powers, that laid down the ground rules for decolonization in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The second wave, feeble and short-lived, affected scattered locales in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Powerful international and domestic forces propelled both these earlier waves. As anticolonialism intensified both in colonies and in the world at large following World War II, beleaguered metropolitan powers began to open once-exclusionary institutions of rule to indigenous participation as part of an apprenticeship in democratic self-government. Giving the colonies constitutional structures modeled on those of the metropole became a key step in the dignified retreat from empire. Local nationalists cooperated because they saw elections as a means of hastening independence and boosting their own claim to rule. Communist and Third World dictatorships supported democratization as part of the fight against imperialism. The West, meanwhile, viewed democratization as the natural endpoint of the transition to self-rule.

As soon as independence was won, however, support for democratic governance largely ceased. The doctrine of the mass single party as the vanguard of African progress soon took root, planted by the most charismatic leaders of the independence generation (Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sékou Touré of Guinea, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania), and nurtured by persuasive academic commentators. 4 There was little public resistance to the destruction of the fragile constitutional structures created as part of the decolonization process, nor, a little later, to the epidemic of military coups.

African leaders’ overriding goals became rapid development and the liberation of their economies from neocolonial control. Democracy, argued the new leaders, was a luxury that poor countries could...