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  • Africa's Turn Toward Pluralism
  • Paul Ntungwe Ndue (bio)

The remarkable resurgence of democracy in Africa conveys two crucial lessons. In the first place, it has made it plain for all to see that the most urgent issues facing the Third World today are political in nature. Until recently they were mistakenly held to be technical problems such as disease control, illiteracy, or lack of funds, and solving them was seen to be a matter of increased financial or material aid. It has now become apparent, however, that a financial, economic, or technical approach addresses only superficial consequences and fails to reach root causes. In truth, the only real solutions are political ones, and any reflection on them always leads one back to the same basic question—namely, what type of government runs the country, and what kinds of policies does it pursue?

Second, there is no longer any ambiguity about the meaning of the word democracy. Although it appeared to have become a hackneyed term, helplessly abused and drained of meaning by dictators eager to pass themselves off as friends of freedom, today there is no longer any room for doubt as to what type of government Africans want. They no longer speak of democracy in general, but refer specifically to pluralist democracy; if calls for multipartism are being voiced in many quarters, it is because free competition among parties is the hallmark of a pluralist democracy.

The demand for democratic pluralism emerged rather suddenly and was voiced simultaneously in several countries (C6te d'Ivoire, Benin, Gabon, and, to a certain extent, Zaire, Congo, and Niger). Nonetheless, it represented longstanding aspirations that a number of African [End Page 45] countries (Senegal, Gambia, Botswana) had been endeavoring to live up to for many years. Still others, like Nigeria, are attempting to revert to pluralism following spells of authoritarian rule. Finally, there is the case of Namibia, a new nation that provides a splendid example of pluralist democracy.

Many observers correctly discern a link between the eruption of democracy in Africa and the epochal changes that occurred in Eastern Europe beginning in 1989. Events in the old Soviet bloc surely had some influence on developments in Africa, and the dwindling rivalry between the two superpowers probably dissuaded certain states from pursuing their policy of diplomatic blackmail, threatening to ask from one side what they could not obtain from the other. The collapse of "actually existing socialism" in Eastern Europe discouraged Africa's Marxist-oriented regimes, while reformers in pro-Western countries saw the upheavals in Eastern Europe as providing an opportunity to call for political pluralism. For how could the West simultaneously approve of the advent of democratic pluralism in the Eastern bloc and repudiate it in Africa?

The most accurate view of this link, however, would stress that it concerns only recent events and merely shows that the changes in Eastern Europe accelerated a process that was already underway in Africa. Opposition movements in Gabon, Côte d'Ivoire, and Zaire all existed well before the collapse of the Eastern bloc regimes. The crisis in Benin, which is on its way to being resolved, began many years ago.

We must therefore look elsewhere for a full explanation of the reemergence of multiparty democracy in Africa. One key factor is the glaring failure of the alternative political conceptions that have dominated Africa for many years.

The Failures of the Past

The failure of democracy by consensus.

The notion of democracy by consensus evoked an Edenic and mostly mythical vision of Africa; its preeminent symbol is the legendary palaver tree. Prevalent in many quarters for years, the picture of conflicts being resolved and issues settled by indefinitely prolonged discussion under the palaver tree can exert a powerful hold on the imagination even today, harking back as it does to an idealized past of social harmony and spontaneous collective decision making.

The ideal of democracy by consensus, with its charitable view of society and generous assumptions concerning human nature, may be looked upon not only as a manifestation of nostalgia but also as a long-term aim to be sought in the distant future. Unfortunately, however, taking consensual democracy's singleminded quest for...


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pp. 45-54
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