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Africa Democracy

Explanations Of Africa's Democratization

By the turn of the new century, then, much had changed on Africa's political map. Democratic regimes, at least in terms of electoral politics and constitutional changes of government, had become quite common. Indeed, many countries were into their second or third round of multiparty elections, but several countries were still in the grip of authoritarian rule and autocratic tendencies persisted in many of the new democracies. Also, some elected governments were overthrown and several intrastate and interstate wars raged across the continent, all of which raised serious questions about the content and direction of the continent's democracies. Clearly, the trajectories of this wave of democracy in Africa have been quite complex and uneven.

Debate on Africa's democratization processes and prospects has centered on four interrelated issues: the relative roles of (1) internal and external factors; (2) historical and contemporary dynamics; (3) structural and contingent factors; and (4) economic and political dimensions. Those who stress the primacy of internal factors behind the democratic transitions tend to underscore the strength of domestic political protests and prodemocracy movements engendered or energized by the failures of development, the economic crises of the 1980s and 1990s, and the disintegration of the postcolonial state's legitimacy and capacity. They also highlight the demonstration effects of regional transitions, such as Benin in Francophone West Africa, Zambia in southern Africa, the Palestinian Intifadah for North Africa, and South Africa, across the continent. Those who emphasize external forces point to the decisive impact of the end of the Cold War, the demonstration effects of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and the imposition of structural adjustment programs and political conditionalities by Western bilateral and multilateral financial institutions. But some have questioned the West's commitment to the promotion of democracy in Africa, arguing that it is more rhetorical than real and is motivated by donor interests rather than recipient needs.

Proponents of the two approaches tend to place Africa's transitions to democracy in different historical contexts, either in terms of global waves of democracy or in African histories of struggles for freedom. Advocates of the first approach tend to see Africa's democratization as part of what Samuel Huntington calls the third wave of democracy, which apparently began in the 1970s in southern and eastern Europe. While each democracy wave is propelled by a different constellation of factors, it is said to be a process driven by the victorious democratic hegemonic powers. Others argue that, while Africa's democratization was influenced by developments elsewhere in the world, it was primarily rooted in the continent's long history of struggle against slavery, colonialism, and postcolonial misrule. Mohamed Salih talks of Africa's own "'waves of democratization' (colonial, early independence, postindependence, and the 1990s)" (p. 19). At the very least, the 1980s and 1990s—the era of democratization—represented a period of struggles for the "second independence"; the "first independence" was fought for in the 1950s and 1960s—the era of decolonization. Thus, African democratic struggles are linked to, structurally and symbolically, the rich reservoirs of earlier struggles against exploitation and oppression.

Observers also do not agree on the extent to which democratization is a product of structural factors as opposed to individual actions and events. Proponents of the latter approach stress the role of specific leaders, closely following the ebb and flow of events and tailoring their interpretations accordingly. Their focus tends to be on contingent factors, the unpredictability of developments, and human agency. Structuralist analyses, on the other hand, dwell on the structural conditions that have forestalled and facilitated and might sustain or frustrate democratization. These include colonial legacies, levels of economic development and education, size of the middle classes, the nature and vibrancy of civil society, and impediments imposed by the global system. Predictions of the prospects for the democratic project in different countries and across the continent—whether positive or negative—are often based on how these "democratic preconditions" are evaluated. To many commentators, from Western cynics and beleaguered African leaders to pessimistic intellectuals, the prospects of democracy in Africa are undermined by the enduring realities or legacies of underdevelopment.

Finally, there is considerable debate as to whether Africa's democratization is attributable to economic or political factors. The first approach examines the role played by post-colonial development failures and, particularly, the economic crises during the "lost decade" of the 1980s, which were exacerbated by structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and generated widespread opposition from various social groups, especially the pauperized middle and working classes, who spearheaded the democratic reform movements. The second approach concentrates on the political crisis of the postcolonial state, particularly its inability to forge nationhood and manage the centrifugal forces of postcolonial society, specifically ethnicity. As Dickson Eyoh has argued, scholarly disenchantment with the performance of the postcolonial state was not only expressed in the accretion of demeaning epithets to describe the African state, it spawned the rapid growth of "civil society" as the master concept around which the dynamics of politics were increasingly debated and the possibilities of African renewal invested.

A comprehensive understanding of democratization in Africa would have to transcend these dichotomous analyses. Clearly, the struggles for democracy in the 1980s and 1990s represented the latest moment of accelerated change in a long history of struggles for freedom, an exceptionally complex moment often driven by unpredictable events and new social movements and visions, anchored in the specific histories, social structures, and conditions of each country, in which national, regional, and international forces converged unevenly and inconsistently, and economic and political crises reinforced each other, altering the terrain of state–civil society relationships, the structures of governance, and the claims of citizenship.

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