African Democracy's Twisting Path

AFRICA continues its democratizing pace, but there are important exceptions. As Zaire resumes its discussion of a new constitution, progress toward real political choice remains slow in Kenya and almost nonexistent in Malawi.

In Zaire, President Mobutu Sese Seko, the giant country's arbitrary ruler since 1965, this month again permitted the "conference" that was closed down in January to resume. The legal but harassed opposition parties that dominate the "conference" are demanding that President Mobutu resign before national elections and not attempt to manipulate them.

If Mobutu again refuses to negotiate, or closes down the "conference," renewed rioting in Kinshasa is likely. Although his legitimacy is much diminished, Mobutu still controls the national purse and has military support.

Western nations, including the United States, want Mobutu to leave Zaire for good. But they also worry that instability might follow an abrupt departure. An orderly transition, culminating in free elections, would be a welcome outcome of the resumed deliberations by conferees.

President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, another autocrat, has been in office since 1978. Thanks to Western pressure, including the withholding of significant sums in foreign aid, President Moi did an about-face last year and permitted the formation of opposition parties. Political prisoners have been released and allowed to travel, and some freedom of expression has been restored. Elections may be held next year.

But Moi's government continues to harass political opponents. Although the Nairobi Law Monthly is no longer banned, copies of two other upstart monthlies, Finance and Society, continue to be impounded. Also, the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), and the Democratic Party, the two leading opposition groups, are being hindered by a series of obscure technicalities from campaigning nationwide.

Kenya and Zaire both need independent electoral commissions capable of organizing elections without official interference or funding. When the votes are held, international observing teams (as in Haiti and Zambia) will be necessary, but it is during the year or so of campaigning that unimpeachable support for the process and for political freedom is essential. Kenya's last free election was in 1963; Zaire has never had a free national vote.

Kenyans and some Zairians look hopefully to Zambia, where an opposition party received the overwhelming support of voters in October and immediately assumed power. Former President Kenneth D. Kaunda stepped down without a fuss after ruling since 1964, and the local military refused to intervene. International observers ensured a fair poll; during the months preceding the election, they assisted a Zambian electoral commission in arranging for the balloting.

MALAWI is a 300-mile long sliver of a country east of Zambia. Since its independence from Britain in 1964, its sole and thoroughly arbitrary ruler has been Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Educated in the US, Dr. Banda practiced for decades in Britain and Ghana before returning to Malawi in 1958 after an absence of more than 50 years.

President Banda is over 90, but as dogmatic as ever. Democrats and other opponents have always been dealt with summarily, and there are political prisoners throughout the country. When a brave young challenger (the leader of the Zambian-based United Front for Multiparty Democracy) flew into Lilongwe, Malawi's capital, in early April, he was promptly hustled away (in front of the foreign press) to jail and, probably, torture.

Earlier, eight of the country's Roman Catholic bishops circulated a pastoral letter condemning the government's violations of fundamental human rights. They also called for greater political freedom and, to the amazement of Malawians, dared to criticize Dr. Banda directly. The security forces were sent to find the bishops, who promptly went into hiding.

Banda recently told dissidents that they would become "meat for crocodiles" if they opposed his rule.

Clearly, there is still fire and brimstone in President Banda's aging authority. But because of his age, and because all around Malawi Africans are continuing to opt for democratic rule, the end of his regime may be near. In May, aid donors will meet. If they, including the United States, follow Britain's lead in halving its assistance levels, Banda may be compelled to pay attention. If he doesn't, long stable but repressed Malawi could be Africa's next scene of bitter bloodshed.

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