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  • African AmbiguitiesAfrica, 1990–1997-From Abertura to Closure
  • Richard Joseph (bio)

Writing in these pages in 1991, I noted that a “virtual miracle” seemed to be leading Africa away from authoritarianism and toward democratic governance.1 So rapid and extensive were the democratic developments at the time that I urged caution in assessing their consequences. What few analysts anticipated, however, was that the democratic wave in Africa would crest so quickly or that the countercurrents would surface so swiftly.

Africa’s political opening or abertura (a Portuguese term that entered comparative political discourse as a description of Brazil’s gradual transition from military to elected government) had similar characteristics to those experienced elsewhere in the years before and after the end of the Cold War: the termination of single-party dominance; relegalization of opposition parties; restored freedoms of association, assembly, and expression; and constitutional reforms leading to competitive elections. In my 1991 essay, I discussed the salient features of seven African models of transition. These included: 1) the national conference; 2) government change via democratic elections; 3) coopted transitions; 4) guided democratization; 5) recalcitrance and piecemeal reforms; 6) armed insurrections culminating in elections; and 7) conditional transitions. Given the rapid, unpredictable pace of change, these categories were admittedly preliminary. With few exceptions, they have since culminated in variants of what I have termed “virtual democracy.” 2 What distinguishes this type of regime is the illusory nature of its democratic institutions and practices, and the fact that they are [End Page 3] deliberately contrived to satisfy prevailing international norms of “presentability.”

The following is a brief review of these seven provisional models and their generally disappointing results. During ten momentous days in early 1990, the first national conference in the small West African country of Benin stripped President Mathieu Kérékou, an autocratic ruler for 17 years, of all his executive powers. Over the next few years, however, other African leaders became so skillful in denying, prolonging, and neutralizing national conferences that the latter were gradually transformed into instruments for regime consolidation. 3 Free elections, which had seemed to signal Africa’s coming of age and its capacity to oversee the peaceful, democratic replacement of one government by another, followed national conferences in becoming exercises that mainly legitimized, rather than undermined, incumbent regimes. The next three models—co-opted transitions, guided democratization, and recalcitrance and piecemeal reforms—are best seen today as having produced exemplars of virtual democracy. The sixth model, armed insurrections culminating in elections, was primarily a mechanism for transferring or legitimizing power after years of armed conflict. 4 Finally, conditional transitions, in which threats to regime dominance by militant groups also jeopardized prospects for democracy, have evolved into unconditional denials of any transition, as exemplified by the brutal conflict in Algeria.

Political Renewal and Political Violence

Of the many factors impeding constitutional democracy in Africa, none appears more significant than the upsurge of political violence. Reflecting his skepticism about the recomposition of power in Africa behind the facade of democratization, Achille Mbembe proposed closer scrutiny of “regimes which long relied on modes of authoritarian governance [and] are making an about-turn and verbally espousing democratic ideals.” 5 More attention, in his view, should be directed to the crime, gangsterism, and warfare prevalent in both functioning and collapsed states in Africa. Instead of political transitions, Mbembe speaks of revising formulas and structures of domination, which rely upon the coexistence of warfare and civil politics.

Following Mbembe, we can distinguish cases in which warfare leads to the collapse of civil politics from those in which warfare and civil politics coexist. Often there is no clear demarcation between organized groups that pursue political objectives and those responsible for the criminalization of state and society through drug trafficking, mineral smuggling, embezzlement of public funds, money laundering, and [End Page 4] other fraudulent practices. 6 In rethinking the course of political renewal in Africa, analysts should pay more attention to the role of political violence.

Since Sani Abacha seized power in Nigeria in November 1993, state-sponsored violence there has steadily intensified. Numerous security agencies track, harass, and often eliminate individuals considered a threat to the regime. Opponents of the Abacha...