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Democracy spreads across Africa

Ten years after apartheid, political freedom faces new pressures

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 27, 2004



JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA

As South Africa celebrates 10 years of democracy Tuesday - with grand festivities and speeches by everyone from Nelson Mandela to Tony Blair - it also marks the continent's progress on the path toward political freedom.

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Forty-three of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have held at least one multiparty election during the past decade, compared with 1990, when just three were solidly democratic.

Yet outside pressures threaten to derail or even reverse this progress. The geopolitical profile of Africa is rising as a key source of oil - it will soon export more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia - and as a potential terrorism incubator. And some observers worry that the US, a longtime backer of democracy here, may increasingly push for political stability over democracy in order to protect oil outflows and prevent terrorism.

There's a new focus on "securing oil platforms against attack - but little concern about the democratic future of people who live near those platforms," says Richard Cornwell, a senior analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

It's quite a shift from the years just after the cold war, when the international community began to focus on "democracy and human rights" in Africa, he says - for instance, when the UN and US sent troops to Somalia on a humanitarian mission. Then, he says, "After 9/11, we went back to hard definitions of security": strong states with robust police and military forces.

Several new US initiatives, in the Sahel Desert, and in East and West Africa, aim to bolster counterterrorism skills. They appear to be useful: Last month, for instance, Chad's military, with help from a US Navy plane, reportedly killed 42 Islamic fighters from Algeria who may have had Al Qaeda ties.

Given this shift, South Africa, the continent's economic and political powerhouse, may be key to shaping Africa's democratic future. Its just-reelected president, Thabo Mbeki, is a champion of "good governance" across Africa. Two initiatives he's pushing hard are the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and the African Union. Both reward good government and democratic stand-outs - and punish slackers.

"This begins to shift the balance in inter-African politics toward better-governed countries," says Francis Kornegay, a columnist for several South African papers.

But within the continent, the influence of those focused on oil and counterterrorism is growing.

Consider Africa's 10 longest-serving leaders - most of whom are undemocratic. Six of them preside over oil exports or are partners in US antiterror effort. (See box at right.)

Or take 10 of Africa's biggest oil exporters, including Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea. Fully six of them were labeled "not free," the lowest category in an annual global survey by US-based Freedom House. (See map at right.) Three of them are "partly free." Only the tiny island of Sao Tome and Principe is "free."

"If there's the faintest trade-off between democratization and oil, oil will win," says Steven Friedman of the Centre for Policy Studies here.

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