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  • Africa:The Rebirth of Political Freedom
  • Richard Joseph (bio)

For the vast majority of Africans, colonial rule is now something known mainly from history books. What they know from experience is postcolonial rule, with its single parties, military regimes, presidents-for-life, extensive security establishments, and glaring inequities. For these populations, a virtual miracle is taking place: the consummation of what is now widely called "a second independence." This time the autocrats to be overthrown emerged from their own societies, with assistance from some of the very countries and international institutions now rejoicing at their removal.

The democratic movement has moved so swiftly and on such a broad front that these reflections must be provisional. As Table 1 indicates, there are now 25 countries in Africa, or approximately half of the states on the continent, that can be classified as either democratic or moderately to strongly committed to democratic change.1 The number of firmly authoritarian states has continued to shrink, with only Equatorial Guinea, Djibouti, Libya, Malawi, Sudan, and Swaziland still meriting inclusion in that category. The pace of change, moreover, is still accelerating; it is conceivable that by 1992 the continent will be overwhelmingly democratic in composition.

The scale of the African transformations rivals that of the revolutionary upheavals of 1989 in Eastern Europe. What has caused these massive changes? What new models of political organization have emerged? Who are the agents of change? What difficulties have they already encountered, and what great challenges lie ahead? These are some of the questions to which we will try to give preliminary answers. [End Page 11]

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Table 1.

— Types of African Political Systems

The Kenyan scholar Peter Anyang Nyong'o captured the twocontrasting perspectives on the democratic movement in Africa when he observed that the movement appears "homegrown from the point of view of its advocates and foreign-imposed from the point of view of the defenders of the single-party regime."2 Indeed, complaints about the imposition of external models of democracy on Africa now seem to come mainly from either officials and apologists of the embattled regimes or unswerving ideologues. Most advocates of democracy, on the other hand, are pleased that foreign governments and international agencies are at last supporting the struggle for political pluralism and withdrawing their support from autocrats and dictators.

Although the democratic movement in Africa first burst into the headlines in 1990, it is not exactly new, nor is it merely an echo of events elsewhere in the world.3 Students of Africa can trace the roots of its democratic movements to individuals and organizations that have been [End Page 12] harshly repressed for decades. Anyang Nyong'o notes that "pressure for democracy" has been evident in all African countries since independence.4 Long-banned parties and associations as well as long-exiled individuals are now returning to help fulfill the original democratic promise of the anticolonial struggle.

Even where the independence process itself was not hijacked outright, as in Cameroon, a drift toward authoritarianism often set in, triggering decades of political instability, military interventions, and economic decline. Many African governments had lost their popular legitimacy long before the rest of the world, especially their patrons in the West and East, were prepared to acknowledge that occurrence.

At an international conference in July 1991, President Quett Masire of Botswana recited an African proverb that is highly applicable to the continent's democratic movement: "Slowly, slowly, an egg grows feet and walks." The embryo of renascent African democracy has been slowly growing feet despite the prevalence of authoritarian rule. Many groups and individuals that are now fearlessly confronting their governments have defied them surreptitiously for years. Achille Mbembe has eloquently described the alternative institutions and values that survived under the authoritarian carapace of most African countries.5 The existence of this underground culture explains why, when the people decided that the time had come to move against their oppressors, they were able to do so in such a resolute and comprehensive manner.

Another point not sufficiently acknowledged is the antiapartheid struggle's role as a catalyst of the contemporary democratic movement in Africa. African governments long castigated the...


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