Africa's Autocrats Buck Tide of Reform Despite Foreign Pressure, New Freedoms

AS one African country after another holds its first democratic elections, stubborn authoritarian rulers are using a variety of devices, and sometimes brute force, to maintain power.

In countries such as Togo and Nigeria, military heads of state are either blocking or censuring democratic reforms, African and international analysts say.

In Kenya, Cameroon, Zaire, Senegal, Gabon, and other states, civilian leaders are manipulating the election process, according to these observers.

"Democracy - but with me!" is the way many African incumbents are proceeding down the reform path, says Peter Anyang' Nyong'o, secretary-general of the African Association of Political Science in Nairobi, Kenya.

But whether or not such tactics return ballot victories for incumbent rulers, new checks on power resulting from domestic and foreign pressure have accelerated democratic movements.

The latest example of an incumbent doctoring a multiparty election process is in Cameroon, experts say.

Final results in the West African state's first democratic presidential elections are expected Oct. 25. An early provisional count, however, shows that incumbent Paul Biya won the Oct. 11 vote by a wide margin.

Foreign observers and two leading opposition candidates have charged that the poll was fraught with irregularities. Three weeks before the vote, they say, the Biya-controlled parliament changed the law to drop a runoff requirement. With the opposition split, the new law favored Biya.

In the aftermath of the vote, the government has warned foreign ambassadors not to intervene, and tribal violence has broken out in several towns.

"I think you're not going to get a clean sweep" by democratic challengers of the authoritarian incumbents, says Pauline Baker of the Aspen Institute in Washington. Even in countries where an incumbent loses, the winner may be part of the "old political elite."

"No matter who wins," however, new checks on the power of Africa's authoritarian leaders are emerging, Ms. Baker says.

These checks include "a relatively freer and more open press" and "a movement toward legalization of opposition parties," says Michael Schatzberg, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin.

"What's going on in Africa right now is a retreat from autocracy," Professor Schatzberg says. "Whether that will produce democracy is an open question."

Baker sees "a shift, not dramatically from dictatorship to democracy, but from dictatorship to competing centers of power," including a more politically active and pro-democratic middle class. Kenya's election drive

This is true in Kenya, where the middle class has been the driving force in the opposition as the East African country prepares for its first democratic elections.

President Daniel arap Moi legalized the opposition last December due to a foreign-aid suspension and mounting domestic pressure. He is expected soonto set the date for the poll, which must be held by March, according to the Constitution.

Critics charge that the Moi government has harassed the press, obstructed opposition rallies, mishandled voter registration, and blocked opposition access to state-run radio and TV.

To the south, one of Africa's most stubborn rulers, President H. Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, bowed to domestic and donor pressure on Oct. 19, calling for a national referendum on multiparty elections. No date was set. The military factor

Roots of reform are also taking hold in some military states, analysts say, as democratic demands pressure military heads of state to move toward civilian rule.

In Mali, Lt. Col. Amadou Tumani Toure, who seized power from a civilian government in March 1991, stepped down in April of this year after civilian reformist Alfa Omar Konare was elected in a democratic poll.

The Nigerian military is scheduled to hand over power to an elected civilian president Jan. 2, 1993. But following charges of massive corruption in the presidential primaries, the military has halted the election process. Last week the government dissolved the executive committees of the two legal parties.

In Togo, Gen. Gnassingbe Eyadema, who took power in a military coup in 1967, is under increasing pressure from critics for using security forces to oppress reformists.

In Zaire, civilian President Mobutu Sese Seko also has used the military to suppress the current drive by reformists for multiparty elections.

"Mobutu will try to trick everyone along the track as long as he can," says Conor Cruise O'Brien of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. "He'll probably succeed for a long time."

Mr. Mobutu, Professor O'Brien contends, is the "Machiavelli of tropical Africa." Mobutu's supporters, however, say he alone can hold Zaire together.

In the aftermath of Angola's first free elections, analyst Baker notes with concern rebel leader Jonas Savimbi's immediate refusal to accept defeat.

As it turned out, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos failed to get the 50 percent necessary to prevent a runoff. But Mr. Savimbi's allegations of ballot fraud and his threats to return to war set a possible precedent, Baker says.

"Will others do the same thing if they have armies?" she asks.

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