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  • Rethinking African Democracy
  • Claude Ake (bio)

Issues of democratization and human rights are increasingly dominating the world's interest in Africa, overcoming a legacy of indifference to the fate of democracy on the continent. This legacy has its roots in the colonial era, when political discourse excluded not only democracy but even the idea of good government, and politics was reduced to the clash of one exclusive claim to power against another.

This attitude persisted even after Africa gained political independence. By deciding to take over the colonial system instead of transforming it in accord with popular nationalist aspirations, most African leaders found themselves on a collision course with their people. Faced with this challenge to their newly won power, they opted for "development," using it largely as an ideological blind. Resisting pressures for structural transformation and redistribution, they claimed that the overriding priority for Africa must be to seek development—the cake had to be baked before it could be shared. To discourage opposition and perpetuate their power, they argued that the problems of development demanded complete unity of purpose, justifying on these grounds the criminalization of political dissent and the inexorable march to political monolithism.

The rest of the world heartily encouraged these political tendencies. Africa's former colonial masters, anxious for leverage with the new leaders, embraced the idea of partnership in development and gave these regimes their indulgent support. The great powers ignored human rights [End Page 32] violations and sought clients wherever they could. All these factors helped crystallize a climate of opinion in the West hostile to democracy in Africa. From time to time (as during the Carter administration in the United States) human rights abuses in Africa became an issue, but never democracy. On the rare occasions when Western leaders did discuss democracy in Africa, it was mainly to raise doubts about its feasibility.

Why is the West now suddenly preoccupied with the prospect of democracy in Africa? The reforms in Eastern Europe have contributed to this change of heart by providing the West with a dramatic vindication of its own values and a sense of the historical inevitability of the triumph of democracy. The aggressive vacuity of the Cold War has been replaced by the mission of democratization, a mission which, it is widely believed, will firmly consolidate the hegemony of Western values all over the world. Thus the West has come to regard democracy as an important item on the African agenda. This change in attitude also reflects the fact that the long struggle for democracy in Africa is beginning to show results, results too impressive and too widespread to be ignored: the popular rejection of military rule in Nigeria; the demise of apartheid in South Africa; the downfall of Samuel Doe in Liberia and Kérékou in Benin; the gains for pluralism and multipartyism in Niger, Madagascar, Cameroon, Zambia, Algeria, Gabon, Côrte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Zaire, Mozambique, Angola, the Congo, and São Tomé and Príncipe; and the growing pressures for democratization in Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Cameroon, and Zimbabwe.

The West's changing attitude toward democracy in Africa draws additional impetus from Africa's economic marginalization. The world economy is now driven less by trade than by capital movements; there has been a massive shift from the production of goods to the provision of services, and from material-intensive to knowledge-intensive industries. At the same time, advances in science and technology have created an increasing number of synthetic products more flexible and more versatile than those that Africa has traditionally exported. These changes have made Africa's primary economies far less relevant to the current economic needs of the West. Now, with the winding down of the Cold War, Africa's strategic significance to the West has also greatly declined. As Europe draws closer to unification, even the former colonial powers—notably France—are finding it necessary to downgrade their special relationships with their former colonies, relations far less useful now than they have been in the past.

The marginalization of Africa has given the West more latitude to conduct its relations with Africa in a principled way. In the past...