THE West African nation of Ghana recently completed a round of elections that said much about the difficulty of transplanting Western concepts of democracy on this continent. Judged by those concepts, the district assembly elections were a ``nonsensical exercise,'' says a Western diplomat in Accra. The elections, which ended in late February, were staggered over three months, were contested by people without party affiliation, and will send winners to a national assembly by means not yet spelled out.
But many Africans argue that a combination of culture, strong regional loyalties, and the imperatives of development make western-style democracy and political pluralism a luxury they can't afford.
Ghana's election highlights a number of these issues, which are pushing a growing number of African countries toward single-party, centralized rule.
One-third of the National Assembly will be filled by government appointees - an arrangement officials say is necessary to ensure sufficient expertise in the body, given the country's high rate of illiteracy.
And, Ghanaian officials justify the non-partisan nature of the local elections as in the country's best interests. `THE party system in Ghana in the past polarized the country to an extent where it was difficult to build any kind of consensus,'' says Secretary for Local Government Kwamina Ahwoi.
Critics say such are the classic arguments put forward by African leaders to justify their autocracy.
``Organized political groups are the paranoia of any politician,'' says a Ghanaian opposition figure who has been detained several times. ``Who is taking the decision that parties are not working? Those who want to stay in power, of course.''
In former colonies such as Mozambique and Angola, the strongest parties in the struggle for freedom assumed power at independence and are still in place.
Most countries where the transition to independence proved more peaceful initially adopted Westminster-style multiparty systems. But these soon fell to military juntas, as in the case of Ghana and Togo, or converted to one-party systems, as in the case of Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, and Kenya, to name a few.
Several efforts have been made by military governments to hand over to civilians following elections. Nigeria's military government, led by Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, says it will hand over to a civilian two-party system in 1992.
However, an almost universal feature of previous efforts by the military to make way for civilians - in Nigeria and elsewhere on the continent - is that the succeeding governments have been short lived. Of more lasting impact are the efforts - such as in Ethiopia and Zaire - by long-entrenched military juntas to create their own single political parties.
About half a dozen African countries claim to have multiparty systems, though some of these claims are arguable at best. In Zimbabwe, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union and the opposition Zimbabwe African People's Union signed a merger agreement last year leaving, in effect, only one opposition member of parliament.
President Robert Mugabe has indicated that the British-brokered Constitution that ushered in Zimbabwe's independence in 1980 is up for review next year, at which time the de facto one-party system in Zimbabwe is enshrined in law.
Ghanaian leader Flt. Lt. Jerry Rawlings remains vehemently opposed to a multiparty system.
``Party politics has tended to be a competition, on the one hand to stay in power and on the other hand to oust the ruling party and get into power,'' Lieutenant Rawlings said in a recent interview. ``So much time and money, not to mention acrimony, has been spent on this, instead of being channeled toward positive development.''
Candidates in the recent district elections had to subscribe to the broad policies espoused by the military ``provisional national defense council,'' but stood on their own individual platforms.
The Ghanaian opposition source criticizes this approach as ``an element of authoritarian paternalism in the attitude of those who argue that they have determined the political course for everyone.''
If put to the test of a national referendum, as was done in Algeria earlier this year, African elites would be surprised at the public opinion in favor of the multiparty system, this source argues.
Willie Musarurwa, a former editor of Zimbabwe's widest circulation newspaper, the Sunday Mail, and a respected commentator on African political affairs, agrees. But Mr. Musarurwa says that political pragmatism rather than his gut feelings convince him that the one-party state is the only way to go. In both Zimbabwe's indigenous Shona and Ndebele languages, he points out, the words ``opponent'' and ``enemy'' are synonymous, and ``the idea of a `loyal opposition' is quite alien.''
African political parties, such as ZANU, which has its power base among the Shona, and ZAPU, which had its power base among the minority Ndebele, tend to be formed along regional and ethnic lines, Musarurwa adds.
These factors, the political analyst contends, combine to make ``violence an inevitable component of most multiparty systems in Africa.''
The few countries in which the multiparty system has worked, such as Botswana, are characterized by a high degree of tolerance particular to that culture, Musarurwa observes. In addition, ``the opposition parties are so small as to render them a nuisance value, rather than a real threat to the status quo.''
For most African countries, according to Musarurwa, it boils down to a simple choice between ``the anarchy and violence of the multiparty system'' or ``the peace with the possibility of dictatorship'' offered by the single party system.
In Zimbabwe, for example, soon after the announcement of the merger between the two main parties, attacks in the southwest ZAPU stronghold of Matabeleland ``miraculously vanished,'' he notes.
The establishment of a de facto one-party state in Zimbabwe has had a side effect on the ruling party itself - apparently lifting the lid on frustrations and opening one of the most lively internal debates in Zimbabwe's nine-year history. MUSARURWA cites the cases of the outspoken ruling party member of parliament, Edgar Tekere, who lost his party post, and the promotion to a PR post of an newspaper editor whose work exposed a government corruption scandal. He predicts that the Mugabe government will gradually clamp down on this sudden spurt of introspection. But, Musarurwa argues, even this is preferable to the carnage in Matabeleland prior to the unity pact between the two main parties.
Similarly, analysts say, a striking feature of Ghana's ``no party elections'' was the absence of political violence for the first time. Candidates were closely scrutinized, and several ordinary Ghanaians believe that they have a chance to pin politicians - albeit only at district level - to their promises for the first time.
On the other hand, several leaders of the opposition New Democratic Movement languish in jail. Rawlings claims that these have committed crimes ``very much more serious than mere criticism.'' But numerous Ghanaians and observers are skeptical of these charges.