Africa's Struggle for Democracy

Longtime one-party governments are being challenged by calls for multiparty elections

AFRICANS are gaining ground in their struggle for democracy. A year ago, following Eastern Europe's pro-democracy upheaval, protesters in only a handful of African countries were calling for multiparty elections to challenge one-party, authoritarian governments. Today the multiparty movement has spread to much of the continent from Cape Verde to the Comoros Islands.

This "yearning for democracy is going to sweep Africa," says Francis Deng, a former Sudanese ambassador to the United States, now at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

African and Western analysts caution that, even with multiparty elections, some leaders may be able to continue their authoritarian ways. But, gradually, continued multiparty elections are likely to lead to greater personal freedoms for Africans and less repressive, more democratic governments, they say.

In the past 12 months, at least nine countries, including West Africa's Benin, Cape Verde, and Gabon, have held multiparty elections - most for the first time since independence. Another dozen or so countries, including Mozambique, Zaire, and Congo, have adopted reforms designed to lead to such elections.

"More governments introduced multiparty politics in the last year than in the previous 25 years combined," says Salim Lone, editor of Africa Recovery.

Leaders in at least a half dozen other countries, including Kenya, Mali, and Ghana, are under growing pressure to allow multiparty elections.

A key impulse in the timing of the reform movement, says Mr. Deng, was the explosion of popular demands for democracy in Eastern Europe, China, and the Soviet Union, events closely followed in Africa by shortwave radio and newspapers.

Public demands for change are also fueled by the failure of most African leaders to raise living standards.

"Africans saw the one-party system being undermined in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and felt that it had failed in Africa, too," says Joe Ryan of the New York-based Freedom House. "In most cases, such as Congo and Benin, one-party regimes were not successful economically, and by reforming their political systems they also hope to reform their economies. In addition, in economic terms it is helpful for foreign aid purposes for a country to say its going multiparty."

IN several countries, including Ivory Coast, Gabon, Niger, and Zambia, heads of state approved multiparty reforms only after public demonstrations, strikes, and riots. Trade unions, students, and civil servants have been in the forefront of many of the confrontations with governments.

In March 1990 in the West African state of Benin, Mathieu K 142>r 142>kou, president since 1972, was forced to hand over power to multiparty reformers. But on March 10 this year, he finished second in a multiparty race against Nicephore Soglo, the man who replaced him as temporary head of state. A runoff is scheduled for March 24. (See story, Page 5.)

In the Ivory Coast last year, 30-year head of state Felix Houphou 145>t-Boigny bowed to a wave of public strikes and violent clashes with police and allowed opposition parties to form. These parties won a few seats in parliamentary elections, but in the presidential race, Mr. Houphou 145>t-Boigny was reelected amid charges from his opponents that the vote was rigged.

In Zaire last April, long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko agreed to multiparty elections. Since then, dozens of parties have been formed. His supporters say Mr. Mobutu is still the most popular politician in Zaire and can win a multiparty election.

Despite the possibility of current rulers winning some of those elections, both Mr. Nzongola and Joe Garba of Nigeria, a recent former president of the United Nations General Assembly, are optimistic.

"They [the incumbents] might win this time around," says Mr. Garba. "People are scared to go into the unknown. In some cases, their livelihood depends on [patronage jobs from the incumbent]. The next time around, [the opponents] will give the incumbent a real run for his money."

Even the failure of multiparty elections to bring fresh leaders and a rapid move toward more democracy can have a positive effect, says Nzongola.

THE move to multiparty politics has brought a new freedom of the press in Zaire, he notes. And even if opponents of the government lose, they at least "will see the need to multiply their efforts and create more civic organizations of lawyers, other professionals and workers," he says.

"Just holding a national election is not going to turn them [African countries] into a democracy," says Gray Cowan, a longtime African analyst and now a consultant to the US Agency for International Development on the issue of democratization.

"Development of the rule of law, including the courts, sharing of [government] power, formation of interest groups" are also key parts of the democratization taking place in Africa today, Mr. Cowan says.

Chart Data:


Algeria: Held competitive local elections in June 1990. Multiparty parliamentary vote expected in 1991.

Burkina Faso: Multiparty presidential vote is set for Nov. 3, 1991.

Congo: Abandoned official Communist ideology in December 1990 and legalized opposition parties Jan. 1.

Guinea: Legalized opposition parties as of Jan. 1.

Madagascar: Opposition parties legalized in March 1990.

Mozambique: Government promises competitive national elections this year.

Niger: Following student and labor unrest in 1990, president promised to adopt a multiparty system.

Nigeria: Government allowed multiple political associations in 1989, but then outlawed all but two parties. Held local election in 1990. Plans state elections in 1991 and presidential elections in 1992.

Zambia: Allowed multiple parties as of December 1990, following a year of riots. Plans elections by July 1991.

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