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.
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.
Or consider 10 major hot spots for US counterterrorism efforts, including Somalia, Djibouti, Niger, Chad, and Kenya. Three of them are "not free." Six are "partly free." One - Mali - is "free."
There is a strong debate about how the US should tackle the war on terror in Africa. It could aim for stability by helping states gain strong antiterror military capability - even if this means supporting dictators, as during the cold war.
Or it could take a more democracy-friendly approach. "If you're going to really deal with the threat of terror, you need politically capable states" that bolster citizens' rights - thus preventing the disaffection that can breed anger, argues John Stremlau, head of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand here. And, he says, you don't get that "by putting boots on the ground. You need ballots in the box" - democracy.
Indeed, the US has started to attach good-governance strings to its aid through the Millennium Challenge Account, a new program started by the Bush White House.
Africa's tilt toward democracy is evident from a more-nuanced Freedom House measurement of political rights and civil liberties in each country. In 2002, the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa racked up a total score of 417 points. In 2003, it was 407. In 2004, 403. The lower the score, the more freedom.
Yet there's evidence that Africa's decade-long push toward democracy is stagnating. Of the 13 possible elections this year, there's only one in which the ruling party might conceivably lose: Mozambique.
The ability to toss out a ruling party is key to maintaining public support for democracy, according to the Afrobarometer, a poll conducted in 15 countries.
In Nigeria, for instance, support for democracy plummeted from a high of 85 percent in 2000 (after the military ceded power to civilians) to 35 percent in 2003 (in the wake of incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo's re-election). By contrast, when Ghanaians threw out one ruling party for another in 2002, support for democracy jumped 18 points.
Overall, according to Afrobarometer, two-thirds of Africans prefer democracy over other forms of government. And with shrinking outside pressure for democracy, its success may depend on the willingness of Africans - including those celebrating in South Africa Tuesday - to demand it.
Five of sub-Saharan Africa's longest-serving heads of state are either major oil exporters or are partners in America's war on terror. (Bold names signify a significant oil exporter. Underlined names signify a US partner in the war on terror. Year leader took power is in parentheses.)
1. Togo: Gnassingbe Eyadema (1967)
2. Gabon: Omar Albert-Bernard Bongo (1967)
3. Equatorial Guinea: Teodoro Obiang Nguema
4. Angola: Jose Eduardo dos Santos (1979)
5. Cameroon: Paul Biya (1982)
6. Mauritania: Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya (1984)
7. Guinea: Lansana Conte (1984)
8. Uganda: Yoweri Museveni (1986)
9. Swaziland: King Mswati III (1986) 10. Mozambique: Joaquim Chissano (1986)
Source: CIA Fact Book, World Almanac