African Winds of Democracy

THE winds of the West continue to blow strongly in Africa. Despite a few recidivist nations, Africa is exhibiting more and more democratic, pluralistic tendencies. Most of its peoples are claiming long suppressed rights. If the recently announced cease-fire in Angola becomes a reality after 16 years of civil war, that once Marxist country will soon join the growing list of African states preparing to hold their first open elections.

The willingness of both the governing Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) finally to agree to a cease-fire monitored by the UN and elections to be arranged with the help of Portugal, the US, and the Soviet Union, is a legacy of the end of the cold war. The US (and South Africa) have backed UNITA; the Soviet Union supported the MPLA.

Their mutual willingness also recognizes the force these days of the winds from the West and the successful outbreak of democracy in Eastern Europe. Namibia, Angola's neighbor to the south, made the successful transition last year from a cold- war object and South African control to well-celebrated independence. Even South Africa is stirred by the winds of change.

In preparation for major shifts at home, the MPLA, like Communist parties in Eastern Europe, has already abandoned its commitment to Marxism. Along with formerly Marxist Mozambique, another Portuguese-speaking state, the MPLA has also permitted new political parties of the moderate center to emerge.

The MPLA had few other choices. With the return home of 50,000 Cuban soldiers, it could not expect ever to defeat UNITA on the battlefield. Nor could UNITA hope to achieve an outright victory, particularly without South African backing (withdrawn last year) and without the promise of continued military support from the US.

Moreover, the wider lessons of Africa are clear. Directly to the east, in Zambia, President Kenneth Kaunda, in office since independence in 1964, last year was compelled by the threat of urban riots to concede an election and to license more than his own political party.

Ever since, his United National Independence Party (UNIP) has lost prominent followers to the upstart Movement for Multiparty Democracy and other parties. Few expect UNIP to win, or President Kaunda to remain in office. Nor do many expect his rivals to govern more effectively, however responsive they claim to be toward ordinary Zambians.

In Zambia, the shift from one-party dominance to the promise of democracy came about with comparative ease. Zambia's acute economic distress, and the failure of President Kaunda's attempts at fiscal legerdemain, helped, as did the winds of democracy that blew across Africa after perestroika.

Elsewhere there have been coups, most recently in Lesotho and Mali. Both of the victorious juntas denounced the corruption and illiberality of their predecessors. But they also declared themselves closet democrats. They profess to want to lead their nations toward democracy, and promise to provide elections.

So has Mobutu Sese Soko, the dictatorial president of Zaire, and the leaders of Gabon and Niger. Formerly Marxist Benin held elections in March; the people chose a technocrat with first-world experience over a home-grown, long-serving dictator. In Cape Verde, the people voted out a one-party state in April.

Soon there will be carefully staged and controlled elections in Nigeria, and military rule will again give way there to democratically-aligned civilians. If, and it is a big if, the center holds in Africa's most populous country, the process of democratic transformation will develop strong roots there for the first time.

The important exceptions to the wave of change and democratic renewal are four: The Sudan, which sinks ever more deeply into its economic morass and embraces Islamic fundamentalist law rather than freedom of expression. Somalia, where a clan-based civil war has ousted a dictator without establishing either peace or the infrastructure of democracy. Ethiopia, where the last Marxist political monopoly on the continent can no longer hope to stave off the onrushing rebel forces of two northern competitors, a nd where peace, brokered by the US, could break out. And Kenya, where President Daniel Arap Moi has ruled increasingly capriciously and corruptly since 1978, and has during the past year continued to jail lawyers, journalists, and politicians for daring to publically express discontent.

Kenya's 22 million people have known the rudiments of democracy, and have voted openly. There the winds of the West have long blown strongly and prosperously. And there, as in so much of Africa, the chances of them blowing with renewed force are stronger than ever.

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