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Journal of Democracy 12.3 (2001) 37-50

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Francophone Africa in Flux

Democratization in Fits and Starts

Christopher Fomunyoh

In early 2001, Benin stood proudly poised for its third competitive presidential election in ten years. Expectations were high and a sense of accomplishment filled the air. Benin had, after all, moved smoothly in 1991 from military rule under Mathieu Kérékou's Marxist-Leninist regime to functioning democracy under former World Bank official Nicéphore Soglo. Soglo's election victory over Kérékou was a turning point for Francophone Africa. It was the first time an incumbent president lost at the polls, accepted the outcome, and peacefully relinquished power. This achievement brought Benin into the limelight as a model for democratization in the subregion and a harbinger of hopeful political trends.

In the ten years since, Benin had created new institutions--including a highly respected Constitutional Court and an autonomous Election Commission--to strengthen the foundations of democratic governance. In 1996, the country held a second credible presidential election, in which Soglo was defeated by Kérékou and peacefully ceded power back to his rival. Three successful National Assembly elections were held during the 1990s, with a new legislative majority emerging each time. The reputations of Benin's Election Commission and Constitutional Court grew, and the perception that democracy was taking root in Benin became widespread.

As the 2001 elections approached, analysts therefore predicted a smooth ride for a country increasingly considered Francophone Africa's "laboratory of democracy." Unexpectedly, however, the tide turned. The opposition banded together to challenge President Kérékou's early and substantial lead in the first round of the March 4 elections. The challengers [End Page 37] accused Kérékou of vote rigging and, pointing to the disparity between the Elections Commission's returns and those of the Constitutional Court, called into question the Commission's competence and neutrality. Runner-up Soglo refused to participate in the runoff election required when no candidate obtains an absolute majority in the first round. The Election Commission, with the Constitutional Court's blessing, then invited third-place candidate Adrien Houngbedji to replace Soglo in the runoff. Houng-bedji, who had endorsed Soglo in the runoff, turned down the invitation. Although some of its members resigned in protest, the Commission extended the invitation to fourth-place finisher and Kérékou ally Bruno Amoussou, who agreed to face Kérékou in the runoff. Not surprisingly, Kérékou won the runoff with 84 percentof the vote.

The problems that characterized Benin's much-awaited presidential election point to the unsettled state of democratic development in Francophone Africa today. There have been recent gains, as in Senegal and Niger, as well as recent setbacks, as in Côte d'Ivoire and Congo (Brazzaville). A rough assessment of democratic progress in Francophone Africa is provided in the Table above.

Francophone Africa comprises 20 countries with a total population of approximately 194 million. In terms of their political development, [End Page 38] Francophone African countries fall roughly into four categories: 1) those that are on the path toward democratic consolidation; 2) countries in which democracy is making halting progress; 3) countries in which the future of democracy remains uncertain; and, finally, 4) countries in which the democratic gains of the early 1990s are eroding.

Senegal and Mauritius rank among the countries that have emerged at the forefront of democratic consolidation. Expanded political participation and mobilization have resulted in credible elections that led to peaceful transfers of power in both countries. Benin, whose institutions, political leaders, and civil society seem to have successfully withstood the shock of the chaotic 2001 elections, belongs in this category, as does Mali, where the judiciary, media, and civil society are vibrant enough to stimulate open and lively political dialogue. Although Mali has not yet weathered a postelection transfer of power, President Konaré seems intent on respecting constitutional term limits when his term expires in 2002. Mali also has the most liberal media laws and the highest number of private, independent radio stations in all of Francophone...


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