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A tipping point for democracy in African countries

Associated Press/Michel Euler
Benin President Patrice Talon, shown in this Nov. 9, 2021, file photo, appears to be re-establishing a dictatorship. Benin isn’t the only African nation to slide toward autocracy again, after a wave of democratization in the 1990s.

Sixty years ago, the British, French and Belgian governments began to transition 45 of their African colonies to independence. Most of the new African nations inherited multiparty democracies from their former colonial masters. However, it wasn’t long before many of those young democracies began to shift into single-party dictatorships. Eventually, poor decisions and mismanagement brought the pendulum swinging back the other way. 

The 1990s brought new constitutions, national conferences and multiparty elections. But I fear the pendulum is starting to swing again in some countries on the African continent, and democracies once more are at risk of regression.

In 1962, as a young American Foreign Service Officer, I was able to witness the transition in the British protectorate of Uganda. Elections were held to select a prime minister and members of parliament. There were two major competing political parties, the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) and the Democratic Party (DP). The election gave a plurality of the seats in the parliament to the DP, but not a majority. The UPC, with the second highest number of seats, made an alliance with the minor Kabaka Yekka Party to form a parliamentary majority. The day after independence, the head of the UPC, Milton Obote, became Uganda’s first prime minister; the head of the DP, Benedicto Kiwanuka, became leader of the opposition; and the last British governor, Sir Walter Coutts, departed for retirement in England.

The Uganda experience with an inherited multiparty democracy was repeated throughout Africa in Europe’s former colonies. Unfortunately, within a decade, most of Africa’s pioneer post-independence leaders became disillusioned with their democratic systems and began to change over to authoritarian rule. Multiparty democracy was abolished, and “single-party democracy” was installed.

African leaders justified single-party rule on cultural grounds. Africans, they argued, are not comfortable with heated public debate prevalent in multiparty systems. At the village level, when faced with an important decision, they prefer to discuss the issues softly and slowly. After a while, a consensus emerges. The African one-party state would make decisions at the national level in a similar manner.

After a few years, the African one-party state bore absolutely no resemblance to the subdued village “palabra” described. Every one-party state regime became authoritarian. Essentially, political opposition was outlawed, and legitimate disagreement was stifled. Parliaments became rubber stamps for the party leadership. The African one-party state was essentially a benevolent dictatorship that could make bad decisions with impunity — and they made lots of bad decisions.

For example, many states nationalized private enterprises, including banks, insurance companies, plantations and mining companies. Thousands of employees were hired who were not needed. In Uganda, where I was assigned to the U.S. embassy, the national airline had three passenger aircraft to provide service to the east African region. The airline had 5,000 employees, when around 250 would have been sufficient.

As a result of hiring surplus employees, enterprises lost money. They required government subsidies to remain alive. The money to pay the subsidies was taken away from health service, infrastructure maintenance and education. Populations became unhappy and governments became increasingly authoritarian to contain the discontent. In several countries — Nigeria, Mali and Ghana — military dictators arose to replace the civilians.

Democracy saw a resurgence in the early 1990s. More young Africans had attained higher education by then and provided the main impetus for democracy movements. One manifestation of this phenomenon was called the “sovereign national conference.” Driven mainly by civil society, various groups got together to debate the evolution of politics. The word “sovereign” signaled the intention to remake governance without interference from folks in power. The governments generally tolerated and protected these conclaves.

After writing new constitutions, various national conferences elected prime ministers from their ranks. These new chiefs of government started operating in an overall atmosphere of euphoria.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1991 (then called Zaire) the national conference selected Etienne Tshisekedi as prime minister. He had been one of the harshest critics of the single-party dictator, President Mobutu Sese Seko, and spent time in prison as a result. After Tshisekedi was selected, Mobutu refused to confirm him. I went to see Mobutu, who complained that the new constitution left him with nothing to do. “I am the head of state. I should be able to name ambassadors and greet foreign ambassadors,” he told me. I assured him that he would have full control over diplomacy and foreign affairs, but I insisted on his having nothing to do with finance and budget. With that conversation, Tshisekedi was sworn in as prime minister.

The success of this era of multiparty democracies was mixed. Some countries, such as Benin, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya, made governance truly democratic. The idea of policy being made by African citizens through their democratically elected representatives was slowly making progress. Good examples emerged in Mali, Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Chad.

Others, however, succumbed to corruption, election rigging and ethnic exclusivity. In Tanzania, for example, there was no way that the former single party, the Tanzanian African National Union, could be defeated in an election.

Now, many democracies find themselves precariously perched. Recent military coups in Mali, Niger and Chad have set the countries back. In Mozambique, the ruling Frelimo party became involved in a financial scandal in which $2 billion in bank loans raised for the purchase of tuna fishing boats disappeared. In Benin, President Patrice Talon appears to be establishing a civilian dictatorship. 

But the situation in Africa is not without some positive developments. In Angola, President João Lourenço is working to recuperate hundreds of millions of dollars allegedly stolen and exported by former President Dos Santos’s family. The same is true for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where President Felix Tshisekedi has signed a contract with an American company to advise his anti-corruption agency on recovering millions of dollars allegedly funneled to his predecessor Joseph Kabila’s family and associates.

Fortunately, there are signs that younger Africans rising to positions of power are focusing on the needs of their nations. Organizations promoting civil society are providing expertise and encouragement. Nevertheless, there is a long way to go. As of 2020, the African military coup has come back into fashion.

Herman J. Cohen was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1989-1993), U.S. ambassador to Senegal and The Gambia (1977-1980), a National Security Council member (1987-1989) and a 38-year veteran of the Foreign Service. He is the author of “US Policy Toward Africa: Eight Decades of Realpolitik.” The views expressed here are his alone. Follow him on Twitter @CohenOnAfrica.

Tags Africa African nations Democracy dictatorships Mobutu Sese Seko

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