How to keep Africa from backsliding

Black Africa, unlike its North African or Middle East neighbors, has made epochal strides in building open societies.

The decade of the 1990s witnessed unprecedented political progress in virtually all sub-Saharan African states. Military dictatorships and authoritarian one-party states were either swept aside or forced to adopt democratic reforms by popular upheavals.

Even so, democratization in black Africa has in recent years either stagnated or witnessed serious reversals. The euphoria of change has not had a lasting effect on the political cultures of many African states. Regrettably, recent success stories of democratic reform are turning into tragedies. The future hangs perilously in the balance unless there is a dramatic shift in the culture of governance.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, long a darling of Washington who has been in power since 1986, rammed through parliament a constitutional amendment to remove term limits so that he could run for a third time. In Ethiopia, governed by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (dubbed by former President Bill Clinton as among the new democratic breed of African leaders), scores of peaceful demonstrators protesting the outcome of elections in May were killed by government forces.

Even in Kenya, the pivotal East African state that in 2002 underwent a historic and peaceful regime change since independence in 1964, democratic reforms have been derailed. The government of President Mwai Kibaki is rife with corruption. It has reneged on all key reforms. Last week, it resoundingly lost a referendum on a divisive draft constitution. Kenya's star has dimmed amid ethnic tensions, a government in disarray, and a despondent population.

Tanzania, once an oasis of calm in a turbulent region, has been rocked by violence as protesters have clashed with security forces in Zanzibar, its autonomous archipelago nation. The opposition disputes an election that was won by the ruling party.

Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe has completely run his country into the ground. He has quashed a democratic movement, ordered land invasions, and isolated Zimbabwe from the world.

And in Liberia, soccer-star George Weah has refused to concede defeat to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the Harvard-educated former World Bank economist. President-elect Johnson-Sirleaf will be the first woman African head of state with an excellent opportunity to end Liberia's string of despotic regimes.

Elsewhere on the continent - in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, lawless Somalia, and the Ivory Coast - dysfunctional or failed states continue to tear the fabric of society. Despair among the population is increasing in countries with more stable states such as Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Malawi, Botswana, Zambia, and even democratic South Africa.

What has gone awry so soon after a decade of democratization? Meaningful political and economic reforms will remain elusive unless Africa's traditional political class is exorcised from the landscape. This will require both a complete renewal and a broad expansion of the political elite.

Second, politics must be detribalized. One ironic paradox of multipartyism and open political competition has been the tribalization of politics. African political parties - the only vehicles through which modern democracy is practiced - are barren receptacles for tribal barons and ethnic demagoguery. They are parties in name only, not substance. They do not mobilize the population and only heighten ethnic tensions and fragment the political landscape when they do. Political parties must be national vehicles grounded in political ideologies and economic philosophies.

Third, democratic development is not possible without the demarginalization of women and their full inclusion in the public square. In African states, the female gender is the voice of the powerless. Women till the fields, raise families, and nurture society. Yet, their voices remain excluded from political participation. Their knowledge of the conditions of powerlessness makes them the critical variable for lifting Africa from its deathbed.

The West must play its role to help Africa overcome the barriers to development and democracy. Fairer terms of trade are better than aid. So are debt forgiveness and more equitable terms for loans. Nor should protest diplomacy be abandoned. It is reasonable that the United States should express its concern when Kenyan legislators pay themselves more than members of the US Congress in a country with a per capita income of less than $300. Denying American visas to Kenyan ministers would send a clear message that corruption is not acceptable.

But the future of black Africa rests squarely in the hands of Africans. African leaders must understand that societies are only as great as their elites. Politicians must develop a national sense of the mission of government. Self-aggrandizement and personal interests cannot be allowed to trump the national interest. Africa's first liberation overthrew colonial hegemony. The second liberation swept away blatant dictatorships. The third liberation must consolidate and deepen democracy.

Makau Mutua is a professor of law and the director of the Human Rights Center at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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