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Journal of Democracy 12.3 (2001) 35-36

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Francophone Africa in Flux

For many years following decolonization in the 1960s, Africa's best prospects for democracy appeared to lie in the Anglophone countries. Historians stressed the relatively favorable democratic legacy of British colonial rule. In contrast to the French (and more dramatically, to the Portuguese and the Belgians), the British allowed Africans some preindependence experience with competitive elections, constitutional processes, and the exercise of executive power. The British also brought a "rule-of-law" tradition and a relatively decentralized pattern of indirect rule that fostered local political activity, although often at the cost of entrenching ethnic divisions.

Since 1990, however, Francophone Africa has experienced an unprecedented democratic opening. Benin's February 1990 National Conference offered a new model of democratic transition--subsequently followed by a number of other Francophone countries--that helped to launch what some labeled Africa's "second liberation." As the articles that follow make clear, several Francophone countries remain democratic success stories. Senegal, which was a relatively liberal semidemocracy for several decades after independence, has now achieved a peaceful turnover of power after 40 years of Socialist Party rule. Mali has maintained an open and relatively democratic regime for a decade, and also appears to be moving in the direction of democratic consolidation.

Another set of Francophone countries, including Niger, are making at least halting democratic progress, with significantly higher levels of freedom and pluralism than they once enjoyed. In the remaining countries, afflicted by lingering authoritarianism or democratic reversals, the situation is much more grim. Mauritania, under the trappings of democracy, suffers continuing repression, and Côte d'Ivoire--having missed a golden opportunity to advance toward democracy with the 1993 death of longtime autocrat Felix Houphouët-Boigny--has descended into deepening ethnic and regional strife.

While these essays acknowledge the seriousness of the obstacles, they also provide a hopeful perspective. Pressures for democratic and accountable governance are stronger in Francophone Africa than ever before. Civil society is more active and better connected regionally and internationally. Crucial political institutions, including the courts and electoral administration, are gaining capacity and experience. As these essays suggest, Africans are in many respects ahead of their rulers in their aspirations for democracy, and those rulers who ignore and trample on these hopes risk paying a heavy price.

--The Editors, 13 June 2001



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