Dilemmas of democracy and state power in Africa

15Jan 2016
Our Reporter
The Guardian
Dilemmas of democracy and state power in Africa

WE begin the fifth year of AfricaPlus with discussions of two paradoxes in sub-Saharan Africa: the durability of both democratizing and authoritarian governments; and the expansion of economies despite their tepid structural transformation.

Cross section of African Union Heads of State and Government

Such dilemmas suggest the need for vigorous theorizing and debate, and their alignment with efforts to strengthen state capacities, build democratic institutions, promote entrepreneurship, and enhance economic governance.
A quarter-century after sub-Saharan Africa experienced an upsurge of democracy, a different and more complicated political era has dawned.
The expansion of liberal democracy has slowed in the continent just as it has globally. Several forces are responsible for this dénouement: the rise of China; the entrenchment of illiberal systems; intensified and multiplying conflicts in the Middle East; authoritarian nationalism in Russia and other countries; the harmonizing of market economies with non-democratic governance; and jihadist and other intractable wars.
The advance and retreat of democracy in Africa since the end of the Cold War have resulted in a new mosaic of political systems. Popular uprisings can still sweep away autocracies, such as that of Blaise Campaoré in Burkina Faso, or block their consolidation as under Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal. However, such movements can also be thwarted by determined autocrats as exemplified by Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni. Some of the most enduring systems of personal rule in the world can now be found in Africa, as the cases of Cameroon, Gabon, and Togo attest. Regimes that came to power by armed force, and have permitted restricted electoral competition, can crush political opponents with little harm to their external relationships. Such systems can be seen in Angola, Ethiopia, and Rwanda.
Over a decade ago, Robert Cooper predicted that the number of "fractured nations", lacking states with effective authority, was likely to increase in the developing world. In the case of Africa, his prediction is confirmed by the absence of governmental authority in much of Somalia, Eastern Congo, Darfur and other Sudanese provinces, northern Mali, northeast Nigeria, Central African Republic, and Libya. While the number of pure tyrannies has declined, those that persist - in Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, and Gambia - are very resistant to external pressure.
It is pertinent to reread arguments advanced by African historian and social theorist, Achille Mbembe, at the very start of the abertura in 1990:
We are stymied in evaluating the prospects for African capitalism and democracy that are not simply acquisitions, or impositions, of elements drawn from western societies. In brief, Africa's failures reflect also the failure of our theories and prescriptions... We risk reducing democracy to mimicry, or worse, to a convenient way of becoming more 'presentable' in the world... Regimes which long relied on modes of authoritarian governance are making an about-turn and verbally espousing democratic ideals... There is a danger that multipartyism will reflect, in the end, merely a new consensus among the elites on the reallocation of prebends.
It is important during the current era of heightened global conflict and uncertainty to revisit earlier prognoses about Africa's democratic prospects. What have been key factors and forces, in retrospect, that critically influenced these processes? What adjustments should be made to "our theories and prescriptions"? Finally, is democratic and constitutional governance likely to withstand the resurgence of authoritarianism?
Decades of political oscillation in Nigeria have contributed to the slowing of democratic momentum in the continent. In 1975, Nigeria embarked on one of the most systematic transitions to constitutional democracy ever attempted in a large and complex nation. Well ahead of the global democratic upsurge, a transition to multi-party democracy was carried out in Nigeria after almost fourteen years of military rule. On December 31, 1983, however, an elected government led by Shehu Shagari was overthrown in a military coup just months after being returned to power in highly flawed elections.
For the next decade, the most populous country in Africa was kept on the sidelines of democratic progress in the continent. When the vacillating military ruler, Ibrahim Babangida, finally allowed presidential elections to proceed in June 1993 - one of the best the country had ever known - it was abruptly annulled by his regime. Nigeria then succumbed to the tyrannical rule of General Sani Abacha, 1993-1998. All together, it took fifteen years before military rule was terminated in 1999, a longer period than the first military era, 1966 – 1979.
What Thomas Carothers has called "feckless democracy", and Larry Diamond "pseudo democracy", prevailed in Nigeria during the first sixteen years of the Fourth Republic, May 1999 - May 2015.[6] This period has been

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