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Excerpts from “Africa’s Bumpy Road to Democracy”
by Paul Tiyembe Zeleza

It is generally agreed that events in Benin played a crucial “demonstration effect” in western Africa, especially among the Francophone countries, as those in South Africa did among the Anglophone countries in the southern parts of the continent. The Benin transition wrote the script on using sovereign national conferences as a mode of democratic transition.

The events in Benin electrified people throughout Francophone Africa, and the model was followed in one country after another, although the outcomes varied depending on the strength of the social movements and the responses of the incumbent regimes. Resting on principles of popular sovereignty and the right of people to renegotiate the social contract, this model reflected deep popular yearnings for change and tapped into the heritage of the French Revolution, whose bicentennial was in 1989 and was widely marked in the Francophone world. Pro-democracy activists appropriated the moment and incorporated its history into their unfolding culture of politics. Where the ruling parties were able to manipulate and control the process or divide the pro-democracy forces, as happened in Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire and Zaire, the ruling parties remained in power. Where they were not able to do so, as was the case in Congo, Mali and Niger, new governments were voted into office. France, which maintained strong connections with its former colonies and sustained their autocracies, was forced to bow to the pressures as well. At the June 1990 Franco-African summit, President Mitterand at last expressed support for democratization in these countries.

Africa’s transitions to democracy will continue to take many forms and directions because of the varied constellation of state forms, social movements, class and ethnic forces, regional and international developments facing each country. Visions of what democracy should mean are also going to be different. Democracy is a virtue we all claim to cherish, but its meaning is often in the eye of the beholder. Even tyrants swear by it, often calling their totalitarian contraptions democratic republics. If Africa’s new democracies are to be sustainable they must be molded form Africa’s progressive historical and contemporary traditions and visions, those that are rooted in the proliferation and richness of associational life. Pluralism has to mean far more than periodic electoral contests, and the badge of citizenship has to entail more than the privilege of casting a vote once every four or five years. It has to be an affirmation of each person’s humanity in all its dimensions – political, economic, cultural, social and moral. And these new democracies will be judged by their ability to deliver economic well-being to their citizens. As in the struggles for the first independence, ordinary Africans are looking for democratic developmental states.

Some academics and journalists who make a living channel surfing from one country and one continent to another have already concluded, pointing to Rwanda and Somalia, that the African democratic transitions have failed, ignoring that there are dozens of other countries where progress, usually slow and contradictory, as the historical process usually is, is taking place. Africa is too large; it has too many stories for such glib generalizations. Those of us whose lives, whether by choice or by chance, are implicated with Africa, and it should be all of us as human beings, cannot afford the moral luxury of indifference, the intellectual fatalism of Afro-pessimism, the belief that Africa has no future, or that its salvation lies in benevolent recolonization or the periodic charities of Band Aid.

Africa must, and one hopes, will forge its own modes of good governance, its own development models, in short a more generous way of living and being human.

Paul Tiyembe Zeleza is the Director of the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois.


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