The historic retreat of African autocrats

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Never before had pictures of endless lines of enthusiastic voters in front of polling stations defined Guinea’s international image. But on 27 June — after 52 years of independence and a turbulent political history — a festive atmosphere engulfed the West African country as millions were allowed to choose their leader for the first time, from among 24 candidates. “For many years, free elections were a dream,” Abdoulaye Baillo Diallo, an aide to one candidate, told a Wall Street Journal reporter. “Now it has become a reality.”

Since independence in 1958, Guinea has been ruled mostly by civilian or military autocrats. That was a general trend across Africa until the 1990s. One-party systems and military dictatorships were the order of the day.

Closed systems

In some countries nationalist parties and leaders established dominant structures that wielded exclusive rights to govern. In 1964, barely a year after independence, the Kenyan opposition joined Jomo Kenyatta’s party, which ruled for nearly four decades. In Gabon, President Bongo declared a one-party state in 1968, a system that lasted until 1990. From 1966 neighbouring Cameroon experienced a similar fate.

As discontent grew with regimes unable to lift up peoples’ living standards, military dictatorships came to the fore. In 1963 alone three governments fell to coups. By 1975 approximately half the countries on the continent were led by military or civilian-military governments.

Some proponents of one-party systems argued that multiple parties were not needed, since democratic values and institutions existed within traditional African cultures. Julius Nyerere, the president of Tanzania, suggested that African family life “was everywhere based on certain practices and attitudes which together mean basic equality, freedom and unity.”

Leopold Sédar Senghor, in Senegal, argued that African conceptions of democracy were based on “palaver,” or dialogue, in which everyone is able to speak in turn, “but once everyone has expressed his opinion, the minority follows the majority, so there is unanimity.”

Others argued simply that multi-party systems were costly and inefficient, especially when African countries were faced with so many challenges. Pluralism, they maintained, would breed division and hinder the construction of national identity and mobilization for development.

But the lack of popular checks on leaders’ decisions contributed to abuses of power by individuals and institutions, the violation of human rights and widespread corruption. With all legal means of political reform essentially blocked, civil conflicts erupted.

Turning point

In the early 1990s, pro-democracy protests reached their height. Many took to the streets to demand a right to be heard, to have free and fair elections and to have open public institutions. They called for radical changes in the basic style of governance.

“Africans are basically asking for three things,” Edem Kodjo, a head of the Organization of African Unity (which later became the African Union), said in June 1990, “transparency, accountability and participation in the political process.”

Under pressure for reform from both within and without, many regimes opened up democratic space. In the Congo Republic, Benin and Zaire (later renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo), among other countries, national conferences were organized in which incumbent authorities, civil society groups, religious leaders and opposition parties debated openly for the first time. In 1992, the peak of this surge, there were 32 presidential or legislative elections across the continent.

End of monopolies

“The culture of political authoritarianism manifested in military dictatorships and one-party systems dominant in many African countries has in the last two decades gradually given way to competitive party democratic systems,” the UN Economic Commission on Africa (ECA) stated in its first African Governance Report, published in 2005. “The government no longer monopolizes the public sphere; the people also participate in it.”

In a number of countries (including Ghana, Zambia, Mali and Benin), regime change through elections is becoming the norm. Presidential term limits are respected, and so is freedom of the press. Human rights violations have become less common and political parties and civil society organizations are involved in daily debates on policy options.

But in other countries elections are not always free, fair or transparent. Majority parties have used their control of government resources to bias the electoral process in their favour, and some elected presidents have unilaterally modified constitutions to try to prolong their stay in office. Press freedoms and civil society activities are frequently under threat.

But even in some countries that have not had regime changes for some time, governance has improved. In 2008 Rwanda became the first country in the world where women hold a majority in parliament, with 56 per cent of the seats, for example.

Continuing challenges

Even though the scope of African citizens’ representation in public institutions has widened, the degree of their real influence over these institutions is often limited. Access to justice is often expensive, and police and armed forces are sometimes the worst human rights abusers.

This mixed record underlines the need for initiatives like the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) an outgrowth of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the continent’s economic blueprint.

Established in 2003, it is a voluntary instrument in which participating governments agree to have various aspects of their political governance, human rights and economic management practices reviewed by their African peers. So far 28 countries have joined the APRM and 11 have undergone reviews, which have identified specific areas for improvement.

The Other Afrik  The Other Afrik is an alternative and multi-faceted information source from Afrik-News' panel of experts. Contributions include : opinions, reviews, essays, satires, research, culture and entertainment news, interviews, news, information, info, opinion, africa, african-american, europe, united states, international, caribbean, america, middle east, black, France, U.K.
André-Michel Essoungou
André-Michel Essoungou is a writer for UN Africa Renewal magazine based in New York City. Over the past decade he has worked as Foreign Correspondent posted in Canada, US, Tanzania, Uganda and Switzerland for international media including the BBC World Service and Radio France International. He covered and published extensively on African affairs. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Le Monde Diplomatique and French Daily Liberation, among other publications. He is the author of a book (Justice à Arusha, published in Paris at l’Harmattan in 2006) and he holds a Master Degree in Political Science from Université de Genève (Switzerland).
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