Africa Today 48.4 (2001) 146-148
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How can the foundations for democracy be laid in African countries just emerging from prolonged civil conflicts? Not by proceeding straightaway to multiparty pluralism and elections, answers Marina Ottaway in this concise but provocative challenge to prevalent models of African democratization. First, she argues, African leaders must restore security, build (or rebuild) the very capacity of the state to govern, revive devastated economies, and encourage a common identity and some degree of participation among the citizenry. Indeed, she maintains, a successful democratic transition is "not conceivable" in countries "that still have not solved the problems of power and authority and thus are not stable, de facto states that could become democratic."
Ottaway develops her arguments around a comparative study of Uganda, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, (with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as partially related examples). As countries coming out of years of war and chaos, they may seem somewhat exceptional, but some of Ottaway's points carry across the continent. Most of Africa, after all, suffers to some degree from similar debilities: weak state capacities and institutions, stagnant economies, ethnic conflict, poorly developed civil society organizations. Readers may not agree with all of Ottaway's conclusions, but their understanding of the difficulties facing democratization in Africa may well benefit from her effort to redirect the focus onto some of the underlying problems that received little attention during the euphoria over the prodemocracy movements of the early 1990s. In all three countries she examines closely, those problems by necessity came to the fore.
When Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Movement (NRM) seized power in Uganda through a guerrilla struggle in 1986, the major Western donor powers were not yet insisting on the trappings of democracy, so the new government was free to chart its own course. Deeply distrustful of political parties—many of which were ethnically based and had contributed to Uganda's past political instability—Museveni insisted on a nonparty system. His own NRM was considered a "movement," open to individuals from other political groups, while prominent non-NRM politicians were co-opted into the government. Ottaway belives that, together with broader public consultations, the growth of civil society organizations and independent media, some latitude for parties to function in nonelectoral activities, and the frequency with which NRM incumbents have been voted out of office, this signals the "relative openness" of the Ugandan system.
Although Eritrea did not gain its formal independence from Ethiopia until after the 1993 referendum, the new state was created de facto in 1991, when the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) took power in Asmara, the same year its ally, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), won [End Page 146] the war in Ethiopia. With the departure of the Ethiopian army, the EPLF essentially was able to start with a clean slate, basing its administration on the rudimentary apparatus previously established in its zones of control, supplemented by about 8,000 former combatants brought directly into the bureaucracy. The new government has been regarded as relatively uncorrupt, and has been confident enough to reject donor policies and projects considered inappropriate. With the extensive political legitimacy President Isaias Afewerki and the EPLF had built up during the long independence struggle, they have faced little domestic opposition of any kind. Although nonparty elections have been held, no moves have been made toward a multiparty system, nor do very many civil society organizations exist.
In Ethiopia, by contrast, the TPLF came into power with military superiority, but without countrywide political legitimacy, since it was perceived as representing mainly the people of Tigray (a fraction of Ethiopia's total population). A number of ethnically based parties and military forces openly challenged its hegemony. To build a broader political base, therefore, the TPLF, led by Meles Zenawi, adopted a strategy of explicit ethnic alliances. This led to the formation of nine ethnic regions, with some degree of decentralized authority, but under the...