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  • Africa's Troubled Transitions
  • René Lemarchand (bio)

Throughout much of Africa, the decline of authoritarian rule has been greeted with a mixture of euphoria and apprehension. The initial burst of popular enthusiasm ignited by the flame of democratization is giving way to a growing realization among Africans that, as one wag put it, "at the end of the light is the tunnel." Widespread evidence of political liberalization notwithstanding, there are compelling reasons to fear that the movement toward democracy may contain within itself the seeds of its own undoing. This is by no means intended to add to the prevailing mood of Afropessimism, or to underplay the impressive progress of democratic forces in countries like Benin or Zambia. Rather than warning of impending setbacks, it is more fruitful to assess critically the areas of vulnerability laid bare by the complex and manifold processes of change summed up in the phrase "transitions to democracy."

Although the challenges ahead are legion, three in particular demand sustained attention. The first stems from the crises and uncertainties that have accompanied the demise of autocratic regimes and that inevitably threaten the transition from liberalization to democratic consolidation. If "liberalization" simply means the dismantling of dictatorships, there are good reasons to agree with Michael Bratton and Nicholas van de Walle that "liberalization can occur without democratization, and [that] in some parts of Africa the disintegration of authoritarian rule may be followed by anarchy or intensified corruption."1 It is one thing for an urban mob, a guerrilla army, or a national conference to topple a dictator; the construction of a democratic polity is an altogether different and far more arduous undertaking. [End Page 98]

A second source of uncertainty, which feeds upon the internal crises and conflicts generated by liberalization, is the array of strategic countermeasures that African autocrats have devised to stave off growing threats to their hegemony. Nowhere is the phenomenon more evident than in neopatrimonial regimes, where the state is but the extension of the ruler's household, where officeholders act as vassals or retainers, and where resistance to democratization is the instinctive reaction of leaders and followers alike. Recent events in Zaire, Togo, and Malawi, to cite only the most obvious examples, bear witness to the decisive role that neopatrimonial rulers can play in foreclosing the options raised by the advent of liberalization.

Yet another unknown in the political equation is the impact of structural adjustment programs (SAPs) on the prospects for democracy. Although there is no gainsaying the short-run contribution of SAPs to the overall process of economic and political liberalization, their long-term implications for the structure of civil society are very much in doubt.

In order to put these issues in proper perspective, and to provide a point of entry into their theoretical implications, it may be useful to turn briefly to some African perceptions (or misperceptions) of the difficulties and pitfalls associated with democratic transitions.2

One prominent concern centers on the inability of opposition forces to achieve internal unity. Seen by one African analyst as a key element behind "the present failure of African movements toward democratization," this absence of unity, we are told, is to a considerable degree a reflection of the unbridled ambition of opposition leaders—hence their inability to put together a coherent political program. "Ambition, more ambition, still more ambition! There is nothing in this frenetic urge to exercise control that resembles a program, a set of ideas, a project or a structure . . . . [T]he advent of democratization has set loose contradictory demands which nothing, for want of solidly established institutions, can bring under control."3 Ultimately, these "contradictory demands" and the weakness of existing institutions are traceable to the inherently fractious character of African societies. Echoes of Ivor Jennings's aphorism come to mind: "The people cannot decide until somebody decides who are the people."4

Another preoccupation is what some might describe as the relative paucity of civic virtue among both leaders and followers. This is the thrust of the argument set forth by Adebayo Adedeji, the former head of the Economic Commission for Africa, at a recent conference on democracy in Africa. He warned that unless Africans learn how...


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pp. 98-109
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