Despite Setbacks, Democracy Gains in Africa

By Howard W. French
January 11, 1997

In 1990 President Francois Mitterrand of France spoke enthusiastically of a "wind blowing from Europe that has begun to sweep Africa." The speech was widely credited with speeding up moves toward democracy afoot in many countries in the continent.

African democracy has experienced a handful of giddy highs and discouraging setbacks since then, leading many to conclude that the public enthusiasm of outsiders like Mr. Mitterrand, who died a year ago, was premature. But well into what some have called the continent's decade of democracy, last year saw 18 multiparty elections, more than have ever been held before in Africa in a single year.

Now Africans and outside students of the continent's affairs alike say that two sharply divergent groups of countries have begun to emerge: those in which the spirit of true election competition is fast taking root, and others that have tinkered at building a facade of democracy behind which the power of incumbents faces minimal risks.

In a radical change from the continent's past, in which one-party dictatorships were the rule in most countries before the 1990's, and presidents for life, declared or otherwise, were commonplace, nowadays no government in sub-Saharan Africa feels secure dodging the political question of popular choice altogether.

The year 1996 included striking examples of what advocates of African democracy say are the best and the worst trends in the continent's politics. In countries like Chad, Niger and Gambia, former military leaders who seized power at gunpoint stage-managed their transformation into elected civilian leaders. This was achieved only by barring major opponents from running, muzzling critics, and, in the first two instances, maintaining tight state control over the administration of the elections.

A result in all three countries has been continued sharp political divisions at home, in which the opposition has boycotted the elections or contested the legitimacy of the Government, and deeply strained relations with foreign donors.

In Ghana, in the last major national elections of the year, Jerry J. Rawlings, a former flight lieutenant who seized power in in 1979 and, after a brief period of civilian rule, again in 1981, swept to victory last month in his second competitive presidential election, in a vote that was widely seen as fair. Unlike most African countries, Ghana's Constitution limits the President to two terms.

The opposition asserted that his first electoral victory, in 1992, was subject to blatant Government manipulation, leading to a four-year parliamentary boycott by the losers. Changes since then, like the opening of the process to include opposition participation in drawing up voter lists and the use of transparent ballot boxes, led the opposition to accept its defeat this time, and gave the country its first multiparty legislature in 16 years.

By pulling off a democratic election, Ghana joined a select circle of African countries, including Benin, Sierra Leone and Uganda, that conducted what were generally considered free elections in 1996. What made Ghana even more unusual in the often bitter setting of African politics is that after the Rawlings victory, the losers promptly congratulated the winner, and Mr. Rawlings, in his inaugural speech on Tuesday, reached out to the opposition, saying, "Let us all, no matter what our differing opinions and party loyalties, work toward our common goal, which is the prosperity and well-being of all Ghanaians."

A. J. Kufuor, the losing presidential candidate, said in an interview in which he put aside continuing reservations about the conduct of the vote: "We are moving away from a non-democratic state toward democracy. The glass is at least half full, and there is a new spirit in which people are making the right noises. We must now add substance to those noises."

This year promises to be every bit as pivotal as last for the emergence of democratic politics in Africa, with important votes tentatively scheduled for two of the continent's largest and most perennially troubled countries, Nigeria and Zaire, and national elections in countries as far-flung as Kenya, Cameroon and Burkina Faso.

Already this year, Madagascar has seen what outsiders say is a successful democratic presidential election, which saw the return to office of a former Marxist dictator, Didier Ratsiraka. And Mali, which saw one of the continent's first democratic transitions at the start of decade, is widely expected to conduct another fair vote. But for many other countries, the prospect of truly democratic elections is considerably more muddled.

In many of them, incumbents have already begun to lower expectations by arguing the case for government control over electoral commissions and casting doubt about the appropriateness of "Western" democracy for African countries.

One of the most articulate advocates of this line is the Congolese President, Pascal Lissouba, whose country narrowly avoided a full-blown civil war earlier this decade. "There is nothing African, nothing from us, in the values of this imported democracy," Mr. Lissouba said in an interview with the Paris-based magazine Jeune Afrique. "We need a long transition to democracy, as long as possible so that we may assimilate and adapt it." One of the central justifications for this line, heard in many parts of Africa, is that democratic politics are too divisive for a continent riven by ethnic divisions, and risk fueling polarization and outright violence. But for Mr. Lissouba's critics, this kind of language is seen as an excuse for perpetuating his grip on power. The Congolese Government, like the governments of other French-speaking countries in Africa, recently ruled out the creation of an independent electoral commission, and has maintained tight controls on freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary. Nonetheless, elections in places like Ghana, in which the Government and the opposition have largely agreed upon the rules and peacefully accepted the results, have begun to have powerful ripple effects elsewhere in the continent.

From the Ivory Coast in West Africa, to Zambia in southern Africa -- both countries that recently saw the opposition boycott recent elections because of what they and many outsiders perceived to be unfair Government manipulation of electoral rules -- political experts approvingly took note of Ghana's recent elections as pointing the way forward.

"By having a good election, Ghana has been able to focus attention on itself as a country that is not only making the right choices in economic development, but also with regards to democratization and political liberalization," said Chris Fomunyoh, director for West Africa of the National Democratic Institute, an American nonprofit group that monitors elections in many countries.

"But by increasing the number of countries that have been able to successfully conduct democratic elections, it also allows others to draw conclusions about what is needed to have free and fair elections."