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  • African AmbiguitiesThe Rebirth of African Liberalism
  • E. Gyimah-Boadi (bio)

Much of the recent expert commentary on democratization in Africa is awash in dismissiveness and pessimism. Skeptics describe the process as a public-relations exercise, “spin control” by African rulers intent on making their regimes more presentable to Western donors in the aftermath of the Cold War.1 African democratization has also been regarded as premature, and thus as somewhat comparable to Lenin’s effort to stage a Soviet revolution before the development of a full-fledged proletariat in Russia.2 Multiparty elections—the most dramatic manifestation of the new politics in Africa—have been denigrated as permitting “voting” without “choosing,” and their outcomes have been dismissed as leading to “choice-less democracies.”3 The most negative assessments have focused on the persistence and alleged resurgence of illiberalism.4

In fact, this grim characterization of governance in contemporary Africa is accurate to some degree, though it falls short of doing full justice to a highly complicated situation. To gain a better idea of the larger picture without bogging down in excessive detail, it may help to identify broad trends and movements in African democratization, highlighting some of the important ways in which the foundations for liberal government and democratic consolidation are being laid even as key obstacles remain and setbacks continue to occur.

If relatively free and fair multiparty elections can serve as even a partial standard, then Africa’s democratic progress has been [End Page 18] impressive. Before 1990, only Botswana and Mauritius had a record of holding regular multiparty elections. As a result of domestic and external pressures against authoritarian rule, the majority of African countries have gone through some sort of multiparty elections, and about one-third of them have become electoral democracies since 1990. Some have held or are about to hold their second consecutive set of free elections. In Ghana, for instance, neither of two previous returns to constitutional rule (in 1969 and 1979) had lasted more than 30 months. When a democratically elected government completed its full four-year term and held new elections in 1996, a milestone seemed to have been passed. In Benin and Madagascar, 1996 brought the peaceful transfer of power from one elected regime to another—an event that is still much too rare in Africa. Despite their failure to produce alternations in power, “second transitional” elections in Ghana in 1996 and Kenya in 1997 were marked by an increase in the competitiveness that bodes well for the future prospect of peaceful turnovers of power both in these two countries and elsewhere on the continent.

The diminution of censorship and official harassment since the early 1990s has permitted an independent press to emerge in parts of Africa that have never before had one. Independent FM-radio broadcasting is becoming commonplace. The media in general have been enthusiastic about exposing official wrongdoing, and some journalists (such as Fred M’embe of the Zambian Post and Kofi Coomson of the Ghanaian Chronicle) have displayed superhuman bravery while defending democracy and good government in their respective countries.

Yet Africa’s democratization remains incomplete, and careful observers cannot fail to note that consolidation still faces uncertain prospects. Many elections have been marred by massive fraud and vote rigging (often in favor of incumbents); others, such as those in Nigeria and Algeria, have been annulled altogether for producing results displeasing to military powerholders. Political liberalization has too often triggered or intensified ethnoregional, sectarian, or other communal conflicts. In Algeria, Rwanda, and Burundi, downward-spiralling cycles of such strife have engulfed whole peoples in violence that is horrible beyond words. Even where more or less successful multiparty elections have been held, acrimony still dominates relations between the government and its opposition (whether the latter is primarily extraparliamentary, as in Kenya, or based in the national assembly, as in Benin). Moreover, mistrust between government and civil society often continues to run high.

Many of the governments brought to power by elections have resisted inclusiveness, preferring to operate through the blunt force of crude majoritarianism. Military coups (as in Niger) or executive arrogations of power (à la the one engineered by President Alberto Fujimori in Peru) remain distinct...

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pp. 18-31
Launched on MUSE
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