Reagan and the new Africa

By , Robert I. Rotberg is professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The incoming US administration will find an Africa exhibiting trends very different from those which greeted President Carter in 1977. Within the last year, there has been a rebirth of liberalism in the nations of Africa. The government led by President Reagan will thus have a striking opportunity to encourage, support, and extend the influence of that new liberalism.

Over the course of nearly two decades, the nations of Africa almost universally rejected the parliamentary models of their departing colonial masters. Sometimes after a year or two, sometimes only after six or seven years , one African nation after another (Botswana and the Gambia excepted) either suffered the convulsion of a military-led coup or found other ways to deny full political participation to their citizens.

Some decided that one political party was good enough, and their legislative assemblies became rubber-stamping factories. Some popularly elected politicians refused to hold elections. Many were intolerant, most leaders were or became authoritarian, and there were three celebrated leaders (Idi Amin, Emperor Bokassa I, and Francisco Macias Nguema) who ran their states with a peculiarly manic dictatorial ferocity.

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Black Africa in 1980 still has its military leaders, its authoritarian politicians, and a few petty despots. But the tendency is dramatically in another direction. If we count people, not countries, more than a quarter of all of Africa is now firmly democratic. More than a year ago, Nigeria's military command legitimized a presidential-style government modeled on the United States, sponsored elections, and handed over power to a civilian government elected by the more than 100 million Nigerians. During the past year that new government has responded to the wishes of its citizens, welcomed dissent, obeyed the courts, endured a virulent free press, and functioned by a large as most democracies function.

This is not to imply that Nigeria has no corruption, or that some politicians have not tried to interfere with the free expression of criticism. But Nigeria appears well on the way to showing the rest of Africa that political participation and tolerance of opposition is not incompatible with economic and political development in a troubled world.

Nigeria is wealthy, from the sale of more than $30 billion a year of oil, and that gives its government handsome advantages. But Nigeria is nonetheless the striking political model for the rest of Africa in the 1980s. The new US administration will want to cooperate vigorously with Nigeria if for no other reason than to demonstrate how advantageous it will be for other Africans to adopt a form of government similar to that of Nigeria.

The US will also continue in its own self-interest to work closely with Nigeria, which is its second largest supplier of imported petroleum. At the end of this calendar year, Nigeria is also expected to overtake Japan as the country with which the US runs its largest trade deficit.

Beyond Nigeria's borders, the tide of liberalism continues to run strong in Botswana, where multiparty elections and an atmosphere of tolerance have been hallmarks since independence in 1966, and the Gambia. Zimbabwe, independent this year, has joined their ranks. Senegal and the Ivory Coast have begun to encourage multiple political parties and to hold parliamentary elections for the first time since the early 1960s.

On the negative side of the ledger, Upper Volta's democratic experiment was ended in November by a military coup, and Guinea-Bissau, not strikingly democratic or tolerant, also had a forced change of leadership in November.

Ghana has again moved away from military rule. Last year there were multiparty elections and the installation of a civilian government which appears determined to keep Ghana from again enduring undemocratic vicissitudes. In this case, the US might wish to help further to reschedule the country's massive external debts and be willing, if asked, to assist in the internal management of a chaotic economy. If the economy collapses, as it might, Ghana will doubtless slide back into authoritarian.

There is a category of country in Africa which has experimented with one-party rule and has found a unique way to encourage political expression despite the ban on more than one party. In Tanzania, Kenya, and Zambia there have within the past year been elections in which up to 50 percent of the incumbent party candidates have been voted out of the office in their constituency polls. Although there was some interference with this process in Zambia, in the other two countries the participation of the electorate has been as profound as that in the countries with multiparty systems.

No new administration will want to judge Africa simply on the basis of the outward form of its government. Instead, in the 1980s it will want to examine the real nature of elections, the extent of a free press, whether or not dissent is tolerated, whether trade unions operate, whether the citizenry of a country fear the security police in the night or informers in the day, and -- not least -- whether they are free from want (from famine and malnourishment). President-elect Reagan and his new team will be ideally placed to stimulate continued African moves in the direction of free, unfettered, and full participation in the political process.

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