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  • The Fate of Africa's Democratic Experiments: Elites and Institutions
  • Paul J. Kaiser
Villalon, Leonardo A., and Peter VonDoepp . 2005. The Fate of Africa's Democratic Experiments: Elites and Institutions. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 336 pp. $24.95

Edited volumes often start out with strident promises of intellectual clarity and unity of purpose, but end up as loose and uneven collections of essays tied together by overarching, often diffuse, themes. In this volume, the editors avoid this scholarly trap, pulling together an excellent and well-researched set of case studies, disparate yet united by clearly defined conceptual markers. Inspired by Michael Bratton and Nicholas van de Walle's 1997 work on "experiments" in democratic rule on the continent, the editors use Bratton and van de Walle's "successes" from 1990 to 1994 as the basis for [End Page 146] case-study selection, successfully challenging the contributors to examine the impact of elites and institutions in each of their studies. As a result, the case studies span regional and colonial heritages to provide a coherent overview of the democratic experience on the continent that few edited volumes successfully achieve.

In addition to a well-grounded introduction by the editors and a carefully written conclusion by Michael Chege, there are a total of ten case studies: six focus on former French colonies (Niger, Mali, Republic of Congo, Benin, Central African Republic, and Madagascar), two focus on former British colonies (Malawi and Zambia), and the final two focus on Lusophone countries (Guinea Bissau and Mozambique). The inclusion of a case study on a former Belgian colony (Burundi, Rwanda, or Democratic Republic of Congo/Zaire) would have covered the main colonial histories on the continent, but these countries were a long way from democratic "success" as defined by Bratton and van de Walle during the 1990–1994 period; the authors categorized all three central African countries as "flawed transitions."

A number of "lessons learned" can be distilled from this book, but two stand out. First, the authors depict the democratic transition process in sub-Saharan Africa as just that—an ongoing process, without a discernible endpoint. Leonardo Villalón and Abdourahmane Idrissa, in their chapter on Niger, challenge scholarship that treats democracy as the dependent variable, thus framing the study of political transition processes on the continent explained by other "causes" (p. 44). Instead, they focus on "the redistribution of power and the elaboration of rules concerning its disposition" (p. 45). The case studies in this volume elucidate the distribution of power and the rules of the game by focusing on elites and institutions. For example, Peter VonDoepp identifies the judiciary in Malawi, Carrie Manning focuses on political parties in Mozambique, and Joshua Forrest examines institutional contexts and the elite manipulation of "urban political culture" in Guinea Bissau. Through these and other detailed, thick, descriptive case studies, the authors show how elites and institutions fashioned the character of democratic transitions in each country studied.

The second lesson learned is a logical extension of the first: by characterizing democratic transitions as a process, clear-cut definitions of "success" and "failure" become difficult or impossible to identify. While this frustrates simplistic notions of the democratization process that donors and policymakers rely on in the development and foreign-aid games, it goes a long way to explain why very few, if any, of Africa's shining stars remain shining for long.

Bratton and Van de Walle's "successes" from 1990 to 1994 looked different by the time The Fate of Africa's Democratic Experiments was published. Some countries had continued to move forward in the transition, but others had faltered. Chege's parting comments explain this situation quite well: "the democratization of politics in Africa will inevitably be a discontinuous, uneven, and disjointed process" (p. 288). [End Page 147]

Overall, this book will be a tremendous resource for the undergraduate and graduate classroom, given the great detail provided in the case studies and the intellectual challenges to existing research on democracy in Africa posed by the volume contributors and clearly summarized in the first and last chapters. Policymakers and development professionals will benefit from this collection of essays, giving them ample warning that short-sighted...


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