Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Africans Chart a Course for Political Change

But often-violent power transfers and economic woes hamper process

AS calls for multiparty democracy sweep across Africa, there is a growing realization here that reforms, though desirable and inevitable, are fraught with problems. Just a year ago, only six of the continent's 53 countries claimed multiparty systems. Today, pressures for change have been or are being felt in almost every nation, and some have had their first peaceful transfers of power through the ballot box.

During the past year, some rulers have been ousted by coups or rebel victories, leaving in place fragile governments as in Somalia and Ethiopia.

About these ads

In many nations, reforms are at best halfhearted. Even where new governments take power, persistent ethnic tensions and economic problems undermine efforts at political liberalization.

"The transition from autocratic rule to stable democracy is fraught with a lot of dangers," says Michael Chege, a Kenyan social scientist based in Zimbabwe. "If we are not careful, the current euphoria could turn to disappointment. We could end up with ... cycles - as in Latin America - of democratic rule followed by autocratic military regimes."

On the plus side, Mr. Chege notes, is the fact that political pluralism is now firmly on the agenda. "A year ago," he says, "it would have been inconceivable for the Organization of African Unity to state that the question of democracy has to be addressed."

It is no longer possible for any African leader to "sit back and expect to get by," adds Jonathan Moyo, a Zimbabwean analyst.

Although elections have been held in the six countries claiming multiparty systems (Botswana, Gambia, Mauritius, Namibia, Senegal, and Zimbabwe), only in Mauritius have these led to a change in government.

In February, the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde made history when its Marxist president, Aristedes Pereira, handed power to the pro-capitalist Carlos Veiga after a peaceful election. That was followed by the end in Benin of the 19-year military rule of President Mathieu Kerekou, who lost an election to Nicephore Soglo, a former World Bank governor.

But the fragile nature of African elections was underscored by events in the Ivory Coast, where President Felix Houphouet-Boigny retained power amid charges of widespread electoral rigging. In Gabon - after a second election held at the insistence of opposition parties - President Omar Bongo clung to power but with a much smaller margin.

About these ads

In many countries, leaders' commitment to democratic reform remains dubious. For example, only as a result of intense pressure and after dozens of civilian deaths did Togo's President Gnassingbe Eyadema finally yield to demands for a national conference to begin June 24 to decide Togo's future.

In neighboring Ghana, Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings is holding a national convention to draw up a new multiparty constitution. But opposition forces have not been invited to the talks, political parties are still banned, and a "preventative custody" decree remains in place.

The conference is just "a way of buying time" without any real intention to give up power, charges student leader Paul Asare Ansah.

Nigeria is making a transition from military to civilian rule to be completed by 1992. President Ibrahim Babangida told his peers at the OAU summit this month that the African people were no longer willing to wait for their rights.

Governments in some countries such as Kenya have not even conceded the principle of a multiparty democracy, preferring, instead, to undertake reforms within the ruling party while still maintaining single-party elections.

In such countries, notes political analyst Moyo, "repression is bound to increase," leaving military coups or armed insurrection as the only avenues for bringing about change.

Already, the continent is littered with examples of what happens when strongmen refuse to yield.

In Mali, after former President Moussa Traore failed to respond to calls for reform, his own troops unseated him in March. Two other coups - in Chad and Lesotho - have taken place in Africa in the last year.

In Liberia, virtual anarchy has prevailed since the factional fighting that began after former ruler Samuel Doe was killed last year.

In Somalia, opposition forces joined together to unseat dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in January, but have since failed to pull the country together.

Peace in Ethiopia also hangs in the balance, as the rebel Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front tries to form a government in the wake of Mengistu Haile Mariam's departure last month.

What this set of countries - and especially Ethiopia - has highlighted, says Chege, is the difficulty of grafting democracy onto nations where ethnic loyalties remain strong, and colonial boundaries have thrust peoples together in unnatural groupings.

African nations, Chege says, have yet to come up with "constitutions that accommodate differences in ethnic origin and are not just a transient phenomenon."

Like many African analysts, Chege is concerned by a tendency among the public to view multiparty politics as a panacea to the continent's woes, ignoring the deep-seated problems that persist.

As a classic example, he cites Zambia, where businessmen, workers, and dissident politicians have banded together under the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). It is being led by trade-unionist Frederick Chiluba, in preparation for elections later this year.

It is questionable, Chege says, whether and how this alliance will hold together if it wins. Furthermore, it is likely that Mr. Chiluba would find himself in the position of administering the very same International Monetary Fund- and World Bank-imposed economic reforms his union has fought against, because the country has so few economic options, Chege notes.

Economically inspired social unrest may once more break out, and leaders like Chiluba will find that "getting into power is not the end of the problem. It is, in fact, the beginning."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.