- Eight Problems with African Politics
Since the early 1990s, most of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries have undergone major political and social changes. Two events, occurring almost simultaneously in early 1990, triggered these changes. The first was Nelson Mandela’s release from a South African jail, and the second was the calling in Benin of what would become a widely copied National Conference designed to arrange the end of an authoritarian regime (in this case President Mathieu Kérékou’s 17-year-old Marxist dictatorship). Within months, people across the continent were engaging in classic expressions of opposition to authoritarianism such as popular uprisings and civil disobedience, as well as exploring new forms in the collective quest for liberty. Single-party regimes found themselves forced to permit multiparty competition, constitutions and election laws were redesigned, and competitive elections of one sort or another went forward. Yet seven years after these historic events, the net results of the “third wave” of democratization in Africa remain unclear.
Most close observers agree that some countries have performed quite well. Besides Botswana and Mauritius, which have been continuously democratic since independence in the 1960s, Benin, Eritrea, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and even Mali seem to be following a “progressive” path to democratic transition.
Still, many caveats remain. Promises to give power to the people, to make new political and social institutions more effective, and to organize more balanced and stable systems of government have mostly been slow to be fulfilled. In Benin and Madagascar, old authoritarian rulers have [End Page 156] returned to power through the ballot box, carried by rising discontent at the painful economic “shock therapy” implemented by the first freely elected governments and aided by the new leaders’ poor political skills.
In the Central African Republic, Congo (Brazzaville), and Niger, democratically elected presidents have failed to meet the challenges of tolerance and creativity that are the hallmarks of true leadership, and have faced civil strife or military coups. In Cameroon, Kenya, and Togo, former authoritarian rulers have been able to retain power by circumventing the new rules of the game and keeping a grip on military power and the public fisc. In Nigeria and Sudan, the so-called democratization process has run into so much trouble that it is almost impossible to define the path that these countries are now following. Indeed, these numerous setbacks—joined recently by the protracted decline and fall of the Mobutu Sese Seko regime in Zaire—have reinforced the belief that it is hard, if not impossible, to persuade Africa’s authoritarian leaders to accept democratic rules.
This essay examines the various outcomes of these struggles, assesses the results of the disjunction between increased demand for freedom and participation and the insufficient supply of these political goods, identifies the main impediments to democratic transition in the region, and sketches the techniques used by authoritarian regimes to sustain themselves. Our method of proceeding will be to discuss the eight phenomena that fuel collective skepticism about Africa’s democratization.
1) The Weakness of Political Parties. In theory, political parties constitute the mechanism par excellence of democratic transition. According to political scientists, a modern party must meet four criteria. These are continuity (that is, a life span exceeding the dominance of the party’s founders), a nationwide organization, the desire to exercise power, and consistent efforts to garner significant popular support. 1
Many African political organizations do not even meet the first criterion. Quite often, a political party south of the Sahara is little more than a platform for a single individual, a structure whose rules can readily be changed to suit its founder, whose charisma and money are its main engines. As the vehicle of its leader, the party’s life expectancy and prospects are tied to its founder’s fate. Its program will often be limited in scope, and may not show much philosophical consistency.
African parties also often fall short of the mark on the second count. Not many of the continent’s countries have political organizations with broad national bases. Very often, parties are tied to the home regions of their leaders.
African parties’ desire to exercise power...