Africa's Democratic Deficit
Issue 6.2 Summer/Fall 2005

By Chris Fomunyoh

After decades of autocratic, personal, and military rule, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the emergence of the third wave of democracy provided new opportunities for the longsuppressed democratic aspirations of Africans to rise to the surface.1 Since then, there have, indeed, been genuine transformations, including the end of apartheid in South Africa and the quelling of violent civil strife in Mozambique, Angola and even Sierra Leone. But overall, democracy's record in contemporary Africa is a mixed bag of accomplishments, challenges, and largely unmet aspirations. Ultimately, the causes of the democratic deficit in Africa are multiple. This paper will explore several, including the role of the predatory state, the extreme personalization of politics, and the overwhelming poverty factor, and suggest further steps that must be taken to foster democracy in the heart of Africa.

Without a doubt, the third wave of democracy found fertile soil on the African continent in the early 1990s. A confluence of factors seemed complicit in propelling democracy to the fore. First, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire produced what some African capitals fondly referred to as "the wind from the East." The ripple effects reached far across the continent. A range of left-leaning African governments, satellites of the Soviet bloc, eventually collapsed under the weight of state dysfunctionality. Countries that had embraced Marxist-Leninist principles-including Congo (Brazzaville), Madagascar, and Benin-and where the morning bells once rang with nationalistic salutes of "revolution or death," began rewriting their constitutions and renegotiating the social contracts so as to redefine the relationship between the citizenry and political elites.

That was the era of national conferences and citizen activism, similar to the sort now sweeping through parts of the former Soviet Union. Pro-western African governments in countries such as apartheid South Africa, Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire, and then Zaire awoke to the new era in which political pluralism and democratic governance were exalted within the realm of international relations.2 New political parties formed, vibrant civil society organizations emerged and a freer media began to blossom across the continent. Nelson Mandela, the world's longest serving political prisoner, walked out of prison in 1990 and four years later became president of a free and democratic South Africa. Between 1990 and 1994, approximately a dozen African autocrats and / or military rulers lost power either through credible competitive elections or as a result of mass movements.3 Africans of all political leanings celebrated the end of military and single party rule. In short, the continent's future looked promising.

Surprisingly, even former military leaders who initially came to power through coups abandoned the uniform and side pistol in favor of suits and the rhetoric of democracy, civil rights and citizen participation. Individual countries began to fine-tune existing institutions to meet the demands of more competitive politics, and by the end of the 1990s, the continent-wide Organization of African Unity transformed itself into the African Union (AU), which placed a premium on political and economic reform, respect for human rights, and the rule of law. The cause of democracy became the rallying cry of Africa's leaders, just as previous generations of rulers had professed their common destiny with Africa's then nascent independence movements.

The preamble of the AU's constitutive act highlights the common vision of an Africa that caters to all segments of society including women, youth, and civil society, and one that is "determined to promote and protect human and peoples' rights and consolidate democracy."4 By 2000, the flurry of nascent initiatives such as the Peer Review mechanism, a cornerstone of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), raised additional hopes that African political leadership would lead the march toward democracy. Even regional organizations such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and ECOWAS renewed their eagerness to champion the adoption of new democratic standards, including free and fair elections and more open and representative governments.

Chris Fomunyoh is is Senior Associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute.

© Georgetown Journal of International Affairs