The state, constitutionalism and democratization

Julius O. Ihonvbere

back to issue

Most (transitions in Africa) have turned out to be false starts; the democratization has often been shallow...But the pressures for democratization are so strong that for most of Africa it is no longer a question of whether there will be a democratic transition but when.1


THE current wave of political liberalization in Africa has witnessed unprecedented and monumental changes in the region’s political landscape. In fact, probably more than any other developing region, Africa has witnessed far-reaching changes which have impacted socio-economic, political and cultural relations, with profound implications for the region’s location and role in the emerging complex and competitive global divisions of labour and power.

Fed up with the suffocation of civil society, repression, corruption, and economic mismanagement, popular constituencies began to resist and reject undemocratic leaders and forms of governance. Workers, students, women, rural and urban associations, even sections of the military, joined in the agitation for political liberalization and a return to democratic politics and governance. Of course, the results have varied from country to country and from experience to experience. Generally, there is today no nation in Africa that is isolated from the wave of protests, agitations for change, and popular enthusiasm for democratic rule. All African states have witnessed the emergence of new pro-democracy movements, leaders, political parties and issues on the political agenda.

Perhaps, the most resounding manifestation of the ‘second liberation’ was in apartheid South Africa which was forced by a combination of internal and external factors and forces to acknowledge the inevitability of political pluralism and majority rule. Countries like Togo, Benin, Mali, Cameroon, Malawi, Zambia, Senegal and Uganda have not been left out of this new wave. So intense and robust is the new wave of liberalization that it is being generally referred to as Africa’s ‘second revolution’ or ‘second liberation’!

In this short contribution, we look at the factors and forces which gave rise to the new wave, the nature of the contestations, the constraints to democracy, and the future of democracy in Africa.



It is not uncommon in policy and academic circles to attribute the current liberalization processes in Africa entirely to the developments in Eastern Europe. To be sure, the largely unanticipated and unprecedented developments in Eastern Europe, in particular the collapse of the Soviet Union as a nation state and superpower, did give impetus to the struggles as most Africans came to see that no matter how brutal and well-armed a regime was, it could be overthrown. However, it is important to point out that the struggles for democracy, accountability, popular participation in decision-making and good governance in Africa, date way back to the 1960s and the failure of the nationalist project.2

As the new elites and nationalists appropriated the powers and privileges of the departing colonial lords, they initiated complex programmes of exploitation, discrimination, marginalization, concentration of power and resources in urban areas, and intolerance. They depoliticized the people, sacked opposition parties, instituted brutal one-party states, looted the treasury, and relied on defensive radicalism and diversions to reproduce the political system.

Within a few years of political independence, Africa became perceived in the eyes of the world as a continent awash with dictatorships – and bound to misery, incompetence, corruption, violence and misplaced priorities. It was at this time that peasants, workers, students, women, the unemployed, the marginalized, professionals, trade unions, students and their unions, began to initiate overt and/or covert modes of resistance against the neo-colonial state, its institutions and custodians.



In addition to this important historical point, however, we can identify a set of factors which have directly influenced the processes of democratic renewal in Africa:

1. The end of the Cold War which witnessed a drastic reduction in military and financial support for Africa’s dictators. The West, now preoccupied with a series of internal and regional problems, became unwilling to tolerate or subsidize the political excesses of many African leaders.

2. The imposition of new political conditionalities by western nations, as well as by multilateral organizations, credit clubs and other donors and international organizations, forced African leaders to accommodate new political demands and embrace political pluralism. As foreign aid, investment and technical support became anchored on political pluralism, respect for human rights, environmental protection, and so on, it dawned on the dictators, especially the military juntas, that a new global political dispensation was being established.

3. The delegitimization of the state, its custodians and institutions, contributed significantly to the democratization process. The African state simply lost its credibility and ability to govern. It could not pay salaries, repair roads, provide drugs in hospitals and maintain security. Most African capitals were taken over by armed robbers and gangsters. Debt, debt-servicing, corruption, the legacy of privatizing and plundering the public sphere and decades of insensitivity to the needs of the people, further eroded the ability of the state to take charge, redirect national politics and exercise control.



The state could not pay local and foreign contractors. Suppliers simply refused to do business with states that were rapidly becoming bankrupt. The state could not conduct national censuses, could not maintain peace and order, lacked a capacity to maintain a rural-urban balance and could not protect the environment. As corruption and waste spread all over the continent, the state remained helpless. It increasingly became totally ‘irrelevant’ to the people as far their daily lives and survival were concerned: it was a wicked, distant, corrupt, violent, aloof, irresponsible, elite-dominated and useless state.3 The people, their communities and organizations, realized this fact and took advantage of the openings to challenge the state.

4. The deepening economic crisis in Africa was, in several respects and inspite of the pains it has caused, a blessing in disguise. The UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) declared the 1980s as Africa’s lost decade. The failed adjustment programmes had deepened existing tensions, contradictions, coalitions, and conflicts. Africa was clearly the only continent that entered the 1990s with a negative on all indicators of development. The World Bank in its 1989 report pointed out that Africans were worse-off in the 1990s than they had been at the time of political independence! Deepening poverty, unemployment, inflation, infrastructural decay, social crisis, urban dislocation, hunger, contracting or expensive social services and uncertainty, alienated the people from the government and its institutions.



By the beginning of the 1990s, the continent had lost all economic credibility and owed over $300 billion in debt. Africa not only became the most ‘debt distressed’ region of the world, but also the most risky to invest in. Unable to provide security and hope to the people, under pressure from creditors, and totally unable to guarantee basic services, the region’s economic crisis delegitimized the state and its custodians, alienated the people and their communities, and redirected support and loyalties to opposition and ethnic movements. As the state became desperate for survival, it lost touch with reality, moved from error to error, and came to rely more on intimidation and repression to reproduce itself. Such repressive actions simply strengthened the opposition and bought it global support. The struggle for survival easily meshed with the struggle for democracy.

5. The emergence of new leaders, political parties, organizations, and pro-democracy movements also invigorated the struggle for democracy. As international organizations, NGOs, western leaders, lenders and donors, all came to endorse good governance and democracy, local leaders received a boost. The trend was set in 1989 when the World Bank, for the very first time in its history in Africa, openly focused on the political dimensions of the African predicament. Advocating good governance, gender equality, decentralization of power, human rights, the need to check corruption and waste, and the empowerment and involvement of the people in decision-making, the Bank abandoned its previous economistic interpretation of the African crisis.

The opposition in Africa followed up on this new position which was at par with those of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and ECA. They were not only able to articulate an alternative agenda to the people, but also mobilized financial, material, and political support from the outside world. In the context of systemic decay, alienation, and grinding poverty, the new leaders, politicians and movements organized and mobilized the people in a massive challenge to dictatorship.

6. Finally, we must mention the reinvigoration of civil society-based movements, the construction of alternative political platforms, the abandonment of old ideological basis of politics, and the increasing unpopularity of military rule. As well, a willingness by some elites to salvage whatever was left of the control they exercised over the state by abandoning the dictators and reaching some accommodation with the new opposition provided widespread support (even if conservative in several respects) to the democratic enterprise. How did African leaders respond to these demands?



Many African leaders were indeed taken aback by the spread of the demands and the constituencies they came from. In particular, the incumbent dictators were shocked that Church leaders, irrespective of denomination, openly attacked corruption, declared support for pro-democracy leaders, called for an end to one-party and one-person rule, and demanded immediate political liberalization. Trade unions, students, rural organizations, workers, women and NGOs, were unanimous in their calls for an end to military rule and forms of dictatorship. The involvement of diverse interests, cutting across ethnic, religious and regional lines, forced the leaders, even hitherto recalcitrant ones, to make concessions to popular organizations, liberalize the political systems, and introduce multiparty politics.



The response has of course, varied according to the strength and unity among the opposition, the degree of enlightenment of the leadership, the extent of external pressures often evidenced in the termination of foreign aid, the exit options open to incumbent leaders, and the dynamics of politics within each social formation. The responses reflected one or a combination of the following:

* open competitive elections

* guided liberalization

* overt and/or covert opposition to pluralism, forcing opposition leaders into exile or throwing them into jail

* attempts to divide the opposition through bribery

* the registration of scores of new opposition parties, cooperation, and
intimidation of opposition leaders

* emergency or hurried administrative reforms, cabinet reshuffles, the dramatic sacking of some prominent ministers and advisors

* wage increases to striking workers, scholarships to protesting students

* the legalization of previously banned opposition parties in their dozens, the release of detainees from detention, general amnesty to exiles

* the establishment of scores of panels and task forces to study a range of issues in the hope of keeping the people busy while the regime reconsolidates

* long-drawn out transition programmes usually between three and five years, in the hope of tiring out the opposition, stretching their thin resources, and providing room for divisions

* curious forms of endless constitutional debates and reviews, often designed to lay the foundation for a conservative transition that could be relied upon to result in very limited or no change in existing power balances, calling a ‘snap election’ in the hope of catching the opposition unawares. Part of this strategy also included delaying political activities and campaigns for as long as possible while the incumbent government or ruling one-party continued to organize, mobilize and campaign openly using public funds.



Irrespective of the adopted strategy, the new political movements succeeded in compelling military dictators to accept political pluralism, one-party regimes to allow for more parties, and one-person life-presidential systems to adopt multiparty political systems. The national conference reflects more of a Francophone phenomena which was successfully utilized in several countries.

Unfortunately, despite these monumental changes, Africa’s march to democracy is losing steam mid-way. In no country has democracy been consolidated. In a few cases the democratic process has been rolled back by the military. In Benin Republic, a previously disgraced and defeated military dictator was voted back to power in place of a democratically elected ‘new wave’ politician. In Kenya, several opposition leaders and activists are openly being bribed to abandon their constituencies and support the status quo. In Zambia, Frederick Chiluba who was voted into power as part of the democratic wave, has rapidly lost the support of his constituencies. This has culminated in the mushrooming of so-called opposition movements and parties. In Nigeria, leading pro-democracy activists had no qualms about abandoning their constituencies, teaming up with military juntas, and helping to terminate and dismantle democratic institutions and processes. Below, we discuss some of the constraints to democracy in Africa.



Most analysts are rather cautious or pessimistic about the transitions and restored democracies in Africa. It is now realized that formal compliance with liberal democracy, in the final analyses, changes very little. In fact, it is now acknowledged that liberalization is much easier than democratization. ‘Formal compliance’ has been commonplace in the continent but real changes, evidenced in the drastic and fundamental recomposition of the structures, institutions, patterns and goals of politics, have been very few and far between. Claude Ake is even more direct in his skepticism about the transitions:


With a few exceptions the democratization has been shallow; typically, it takes the form of multiparty elections that are really more of a democratic process than a democratic outcome. Authoritarian state structures remain, accountability to the governed is weak, and the rule of law is sometimes nominal. More often than not, people are voting without choosing.4


What then are the constraints to the transition, to regime legitimization, and to democratic consolidation in Africa?

The first major constraint is that the current struggles for democracy lack an ideological content. In most cases, there is a pathological fixation on aping World Bank and IMF prescriptions. There is very little creativity or originality. The world is conceived and related to through the eyes of lenders, donors, election monitoring agencies, and foreign funders. While many opposition movements and new political parties have capitalized on the economic and social failings of incumbent regimes, they have provided no concrete alternatives to foreign-packaged prescriptions. Their so-called alternatives hardly reflect the socio-economic and political realities and balances of their respective countries, and they completely ignore the historical experiences and specificities.



To be sure, this struggle to design liberal and rabidly pro-market programmes in order to satisfy foreign interests has also set the path to alienating, exploiting and marginalizing the people. Hence, it did not take long for several new governments to alienate the people. The lack of originality and creativity has resulted in a generally conservative political style based on diversions, lies, manipulation, bribery, violence, election rigging, and an inability to cultivate and nurture new political constituencies. On this score, African politics has not moved a step away from where it was in the 1960s: it is still an activity of the few and the rich with the masses serving as spectators or objects of manipulation.

Though it is true that democracy has spread rather rapidly in Africa, the new pro-democracy movements and political parties have tended to exhibit some common traits: corruption, opportunism, the marginalization of women, concentration in specific regions or urban centres, personalization of politics, confusion, fragmentation, excessive ambition and focus on raw power. The superficial, defensively radical, opportunistic, diversionary and narrow focus of the organizations, their politics and strategies have eroded their legitimacy, bred confusion, and made it easy for the incumbent governments to penetrate, divide and outmanoeuvre them in the competition for power.



The majority of pro-democracy movements or new political parties in Africa are not interested in the dismantling and reconstruction of the unstable, non-hegemonic, violent, exploitative and inefficient neocolonial state. Rather, the struggle is to penetrate and take charge of the very same state along with its institutions which the people had hated and challenged since the 1960s. How they hope to use the same repressive state which had shot at children, women, students and protesters yesterday, to mobilize the people for justice, democracy, accountability and mobilization today defies imagination. This is probably the greatest failing of contemporary democratic initiatives, and the reason why the new efforts have inspired so little enthusiasm among non-bourgeois constituencies.

The fact that the new actors and their organizations, like the early nationalists, want to maintain the status quo by keeping the repressive neocolonial state intact, demonstrates the struggle of limited objectives and a fundamental fraud in the new political balances and arrangements. The new elites simply wish to replace the old dictators with ‘democratic’ oppressors!

The rise of ethnic and social parochialism has become a major constraint to democracy and democratization. While this is not peculiar to Africa, and certainly reflects the emergence of hitherto repressed interests and coalitions, the reality is that ethnicity, statism, regionalism and religion have combined at various levels to weaken the opposition, divide the transition agenda, and militate against the construction of inclusive political platforms.

It is this division, coupled with opportunism (see below), that has made it possible for incumbent leaders in countries such as Namibia, Burkina Faso, Togo, Cameroon, Kenya, and Egypt to outsmart the opposition, splinter and manipulate them, make superficial concessions, and succeed in reducing the entire transition programme to one of mere elections. In the entire continent, these primordial factors have been the bane of a genuine transition to democracy. Many repackaged dictatorships, restored or new democracies have simply been unable to effectively manage the contours and contradictions of ethnicity, religion, region, gender, identity, and non-conformist cultures.



Thus, inspite of a transition to a liberal democratic system, Nigeria remains plagued by ethnic and religious violence. A lack of sensitivity to primordial attachments and sentiments, and the absence of practical programmes for constructing bridges and platforms for pluralism, has emboldened those groups that identify with the leadership and alienated those who feel marginalized or short-changed in the political balances. In some of the new democracies, the ‘new’ parties and movements lack national appeal, marginalize women, and just like the parties of the 1960s, they manipulate primordial fears and sympathies. This new parochialism is effectively mediating possibilities for constructing a national project and building viable democratic processes and institutions. This way, the new conflicts are tearing apart the foundations of nationhood, unity, stability, and peace constructed since the 1960s.



The proliferation of political parties has been a major constraint to democracy and democratization in contemporary Africa. The continent has never witnessed this sort of deluge in party formation and interest in state power. At one level, party formation is evidence of a robust and vibrant civil society, that opportunities exist for people and communities to organize and express their views and goals. Yet, it is also evidence of a lack of accommodation, consensus, dialogue and a willingness to trust each other, of political greed and opportunism. It is also evidence of the fact that elites with interests far beyond the restoration of democracy have hijacked the political process. This is even more so when we see the refusal of the leaders of these parties to reach accommodation with each other, form viable coalitions, and present common candidates and platforms.

Every dismissed minister has formed a political party. African multimillionaires seem to think that wealth must be translated into power as a strategy for total control of the political economy. Hence, they have formed parties, sponsored candidates, and even presented themselves for election to all sorts of political positions. Every political activist sees him/herself as a potential president. The tendency to form new political parties by the day further fragments civil society, confuses the people, encourages bitter politicking, and diverts attention from serious national issues.

In several countries a divided, poorly-led and severely weakened opposition frequently resorted to boycotting local and/or national elections once the impossibility of capturing raw power stared them in the face. Such escapist approaches tended to make it easy for military juntas to civilianize themselves and for dictators to relegitimate their brutal regimes through elections. The ‘new’ democrats were not reluctant to sell their principles, supporters, platforms and programmes, just to become part of an already discredited and desperate regime. Such actions easily exposed their understanding of opposition politics, and why they are at best, only marginally different from the ‘old buzzards’ of African politics.



The survival of the old brigade of African politics remains a challenge to the democratization process. True, every African has the legitimate right to participate in national politics. Yet, the so-called old brigade has done so much damage to politics in Africa. They are largely responsible for the contemporary unfavourable, even embarrassing socio-economic and political balances. They have been unable to restructure Africa’s location and role in the global divisions of labour and power. In the midst of poverty, pain, hunger, disease, marginalization, and brutal exploitation by local and foreign interests, most of the traditional leadership cadres have become rather soft. They have gotten so used to power and the perquisites of office that their ability to withstand the pains and sacrifices of genuine struggles for empowerment has become limited.

Hence, they are unable to resist imperialism, authoritarianism, military coups, and other abridgments of popular rights. As experience all over Africa has shown, their involvement in contemporary political agitations has culminated in the repackaging of old ideas, dictatorial political styles, and too many compromises with a status quo that needs to be dismantled and discarded. In Eastern and Western Africa in particular, these ‘old timers’ have ruined the initial progress towards genuine democratization, intensified reliance on regional and ethnic manipulation, and made a total mess of the struggle to change the character, direction, and content of politics in Africa.

The conduct, profile, and performance of the new wave democrats leaves much to be desired. They are more unreliable, impatient with democracy, corrupt, violent, manipulative, and are openly disinterested in the welfare of the people. To be sure, there are a handful of parties, movements and persons whose patriotism, honesty, vision and clarity cannot be questioned. Unfortunately, they are not just in the minority, but lack the resources and control over their organizations to really call the shots.



Without exception, it has taken only a few years for the new parties, politicians and movements, to alienate the people and disgrace themselves. In Benin, as mentioned earlier, a democratically elected president was easily unseated, in open elections of course, and replaced by a former military dictator because of, among other factors, the gross abuse of office, non-performance, and the unusually high profile of his spouse and family members in the power structure. In Zambia, some members of the cabinet were openly accused of being involved in drug trafficking, inflation of contracts, nepotism, and land-grabbing.

Some new ‘third wave’ presidents are more interested in having their photographs imprinted on the national currency! In Ibuahim Babangida’s Nigeria, where a pseudo democratic agenda was being crafted before he was unceremoniously chased out of power, the so-called National Assembly was unceremoniously disbanded by the military, and the politicians made a mockery of accountability. The short-lived assembly was probably the most profligate in that country’s history. Within a couple of months, the politicians had squandered the assembly’s budget on accommodation, entertainment, and other frivolous expenses. It was so bad that in May 1993, Assembly members were locked out of their rooms by the major hotels in the nation’s new capital over huge unpaid debts.

The process of political liberalization in Africa has, inspite of widespread expectations, failed to bring about fundamental and lasting changes. It was expected that the political upheavals and the political rhetoric of the new political leaders would heighten expectations among hitherto exploited, marginalized, oppressed, and intimidated communities and persons. Promises were made about food, water, shelter, health care, better roads, power supply, good schools, loans to farmers, better wages, inflation control, the termination of crime and prostitution, open governance, accountability, respect for human rights, and the involvement of the people in the political processes and in decision-making.



In short, the people were promised a better life. This has not happened in any country. The performance has been so terrible that the ‘third wave’ has turned into a ‘third wail’ and the discredited dictators are beginning to look like saints! This is the only way to explain the growing popularity of some former presidents-for-life, military dictators, retired military generals, and persons who were well known for corruption and human rights abuses. Interestingly, many of these previously discredited politicians have recently been encouraged to make a bid for power in the context of declining support for, and disorganization within the ranks of the new democrats.

It is interesting to note that in Nigeria, in the days of the struggle against General Sani Abacha’s diabolical dictatorship, one of the leading pro-democracy groups was in reality an association of retired generals, ex-governors, ex-ministers, traditional chiefs, and wealthy businessmen and politicians. As we have seen, the new parties and politicians have been unable to hold their communities and constituencies together.



Political liberalization in Africa has not improved African economies. It is true that in a handful of nations economic growth is said to be occurring, though this is yet to be reflected in the living conditions of the poor majority. Transitions have equally not attracted foreign investment as earlier anticipated or promised. What has been most evident however, is the continuing privatization of the state and its resources, mismanagement, and exploitation of the already underprivileged. As well, corruption, waste, the creation of extra-large cabinets, sinecure political appointments, and perks for parliamentarians have further put pressure on already scarce resources.

In a majority of Africa’s new or restored democracies, liberalization has not meant more freedom for individuals, the media, scholars, and students. Schools have been closed, unions proscribed, social critics jailed, discredited politicians rehabilitated without apology, and media houses raided by security agents, just as it had been under the dictators. For the majority of Africans, despite the suffocating propaganda by African leaders, western governments, and the international media, the political situation in the continent has hardly improved. The politicians have simply become more careful and sophisticated in practicing the usual politics of manipulation, nepotism, corruption, and repression. Unfortunately, these undemocratic traits and practices can be found in countries run by some of the new democrats!

Finally, the transition processes continues to largely exclude women. A majority of the new parties, human rights organizations, and pro democracy movements are led by men. Most of the cabinets of the ‘third wave’ governments are dominated by men. Powerful ministerial positions such as defence, foreign affairs, internal affairs and finance, remain the exclusive preserve of men. Less than ten per cent of Africa’s parliamentarians are women in a continent where women constitute the hard-working majority. It is doubtful that a political renewal process in which women are still very much invisible can be counted upon to lead to the drastic restructuring of political platforms and spaces.

The exclusion or marginalization of women in the current democratic enterprises has contributed significantly to the inability to penetrate the rural areas, mobilize the so-called informal sectors, galvanize cultural institutions, and has militated against an efficient and effective mobilization of resources locally. This is one reason why the so-called third wave movements focus on the West for resources rather than building local capacity for resource generation. Of course, the implication of a dependent resource generation strategy are too well known to be recounted here.



Irrespective of the points made above, the transition processes have been good for Africa in several ways. If for no other reasons, the processes need to be supported and encouraged because the transformation of the content and context of politics is proceeding at a rapid rate. Until the late 1980s, many African despots used to openly boast, with confidence and arrogance, that they had no time for multiparty politics; that it would only promote ethnic violence; that they would crush pro-democracy activists ‘like rats’ or feed them to their pet crocodiles. It is a mark of achievement that such unguarded boasts have disappeared from public, as of private statements by African leaders who now spend most of their time plotting how to contain the opposition or survive the new pressures for change.



The humiliating defeat of despots like Kamuzu Banda in open elections in 1994 and the humbling of Robert Mugabe in the constitutional referendum in February 2000 are clear indications that the context of political engagements is changing in Africa. The constraints and contradictions mentioned above can be regarded as part of the processes of transformation and reconstruction. Very positive examples are being set by several African nations with implications for inclusion, tolerance, leadership, accommodation, negotiation, accountability, and other features of pluralism. Among other positive outcomes of the transition in Africa, we can identify:

* the general acceptance of political openness, multiparty politics, and tolerance for opposition leaders and politics;

* the creation of thousands of parties, movements, NGOs, and organizations dedicated to the advancement of the popular will;

* increased international interest in Africa’s political renewal and recovery especially by western nations, the UN and its agencies and international NGOs;

* the reintroduction of new discourses on political and social reconstruction, human rights, the environment, minority rights, and other themes which, until recently, were branded as subversive;

* the organization of political action beyond primordial lines as evidenced in the creation of central organizations which bring together several political movements;

* the emergence of a new cadre of leadership schooled in new ideas, strategies, and hopes for Africa;

* the increasing unpopularity of military juntas and other forms of dictatorships in the continent and the open disposition of other African countries not to provide automatic recognition to such regimes; and

* a renewed interest in the rule of law, constitutionalism, press freedom, and political and social networking against corruption and manipulation.

These developments and tendencies are still weak in many countries and regions, yet they do reflect the direction in which African politics will likely go if capacity-building is facilitated, the state reconstructed, and civil society strengthened. Below we look at the various proposals for achieving this goal. In some countries in The Horn, Eastern and Southern Africa, bold and ingenuous constitutional pacts and arrangements have been initiated to reduce, if not contain, divisive tendencies, acknowledge minority rights, and promote social and political pluralism. Such developments have significantly heightened the popular enthusiasm for democracy all over Africa.



Inspite of the frustrations with ongoing liberalization programmes, the challenge of the present is how to expand, deepen and strengthen the democratic process. It is necessary to articulate an agenda for strengthening the new political parties and pro democracy movements, strengthening civil society, checking military adventurism, curtailing the irresponsibility and idiosyncrasies of the political elites, and promoting the interests of the people.



Clearly, for most new wave politicians, politics has little to do with mobilization, education, bridge-building, election of the best candidates to office, internal democracy within parties, articulation of public interests, confidence-building in the state and its institutions, and in constructing lasting political institutions and cultures. Rather, politics is still perceived as a business, an investment from which successful candidates reap maximum benefits. It is still seen as an opportunity to seize and privatize the state, its institutions and resources; loot the treasury; use the means of coercion to liquidate the opposition; and engage in primitive accumulation.

Overall, it would appear that the creation of an enabling environment for political organization, mobilization, alignment and realignment of political forces is critical not only to the nurturing and survival of the democratic process but also to its consolidation. The World Bank, in its 1989 report on Sub-Saharan Africa was emphatic on this point. In his introduction to the report, Barber Conable noted that an ‘enabling environment for the productive use of resources and efforts at building African capacities are necessary for overall recovery.5

The African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) has outlined the basic requirements for capacity building and for ensuring good governance which in turn is an essential requirement for democratic sustainability and consolidation. The conditions for ‘a strong enabling environment’ include: political stability, stability of economic policies, government auto-nomy, professionalism of civil servants, improved government efficacy (good governance), establishment of a ‘developmental elite’, widespread confidence in capacity building, and demand for local capacity.6



To attain these goals ‘good governance’ must be the overall framework reflecting: accountability, ‘existence of institutions and mechanisms to enforce government accountability and to redress transgressions’, transparency and consistency in government decision-making, openness and availability of information, ‘introduction of the rule of law for the conduct of government business’, ‘open dialogue and deliberation’ in policy making, an environment conducive to ‘independent thinking and free expression’, professionalism in the public services, job satisfaction, especially through adequate remuneration for researchers and policy analysts, political stability and security.7

Without doubt, these are very important. Yet, it is important that we do not ignore the constraints of a marginal location and role in the global division of labour, a fragmented and largely unproductive and dependent dominant elite, deep-rooted structural contradictions, negative coalitions and conflicts, and the continuing influence and power of a repressive, unstable and desperate state. These issues must be addressed before we can seriously speak of ‘capacity building’ or ‘good governance’.

Pierre du Toit has suggested a set of ‘incentives for sustaining democracy’ with emphasis on southern African nations but quite relevant to other developing formations. This ‘incentive based approach’ emphasizes appropriate constitutional rules to regulate the relationships between politicians and their supporters, regional institutions to mobilize and involve the grassroots in politics to facilitate ‘state distribution of goods’ and to ‘decentralize power’, and an autonomous state to contain, if not eliminate ‘parochial sentiments and practices’ in the political process.8



Without doubt this is a starting point. A critical factor has been why the state is so central in the political process. The non-autonomization of the state is the direct precipitate of the weaknesses of civil society and the weaknesses and tenuous relations of the dominant classes to productive activities. In fact, this tenuousness has turned the state into a means of survival and the main mode of production/accumulation for the elites. What this means is that until appropriate policies and programmes are put in place to promote the relative autonomy of the state, it would remain weak, unsteady, unstable, and totally incapable of effectively mediating the relations within and between social classes and political constituencies.

Claude Ake, the late Nigerian social scientist, articulated the sort of democracy ‘Africa needs’. Ake was of the view that:


In Africa political authoritarianism prevents the crystallization of the state or even of a political class. Rather, it tends to constitute a plurality of ‘informal’ primary groups that are largely the repository of loyalties. It unleashes powerful centrifugal forces that render the polity incoherent and unable to establish a common purpose, including a development project, and to pursue it effectively. In short, political authoritarianism is an important reason why the development project in Africa has not been able to take off.9


Because development has been unable to take off, the custodians of state power remain under intense pressure. This pressure compels the state and its agents to initiate complex ways of survival and in the process manipulate primordial loyalties to the maximum, thus further eroding the already tenuous legitimacy of the state. This is part of the reasons for violence, authoritarianism, the suffocation of civil society, and the squandering of scarce resources on security and the military.



Those who control power do not want to give it up because it is essentially the basis of their survival; those who are marginalized from the state and power see the state as their problem and strive to either take it over or to subvert it in every way possible. Ake is of the view that Africa must go beyond the liberal democratic plane to democratize the society by strengthening civil society because only a ‘vibrant civil society’, can protect citizens against the state.10 This, according to Ake, requires a transcendence of the current undue emphasis on elections, important as these might be:

‘in the hurry to globalize democracy in the wake of the cold war, democracy has been reduced to the crude simplicity of multiparty elections to the benefit of some of [the] world’s most notorious autocrats...who are now able to parade democratic credentials without reforming their repressive regimes.’11



To overcome this pseudo liberalization, Ake suggests that:

a) The consolidation and deepening of the process must include the establishment of a democracy ‘in which people have some real decision making power over and above the formal consent of electoral choice.’ This will of course include ‘a powerful legislature, decentralization of power to local democratic formations, and considerable emphasis on the development of institutions for the aggregation and articulation of interests.’12

b) A social democratic agenda that ‘places emphasis on concrete political, social, and economic rights’, rather than mere abstract political rights. Its core values will revolve around the ‘improvement of people’s health, education, and capacity so that they can participate effectively.’

c) An emphasis on collective as against individual rights. This sort of democracy will respond directly and openly to primordial contradictions and conflicts by recognizing ‘nationalities, subnationalities, ethnic groups, and communities as social formations that express freedom and self- realization and will have to grant them rights to cultural expression and political and economic participation.’13 This could take the establishment of special legislative chambers, consociational arrangements at all levels of governance, and proportional representation as well as special electoral formula.

d) A democratic process which pays full attention to the politics of incorporation bringing in mass movements, students, workers, women, ethnic associations and communities, all regions and religions, youth, labour movements, women’s groups, and all other marginalized interests and constituencies.

To achieve the above, Ake suggests a rapid democratic development agenda, a reinvigoration of the productive and management capacities of African elites, regaining control of the economy by the state and its custodians, reformulation of the structural adjustment programme away from the ‘one-sided emphasis on privatization, denationalization, and reliance on market forces,’14 and an increased utilization and reliance on non governmental organizations and community-based associations. As Ake concludes: ‘A major asset to democratization in Africa is the growing realization that there is no alternative to participative development.’15



This line of reasoning not only directs attention at the criticality of the state but broadens the meaning of democracy by emphasizing its socio-economic content. After all, if the people do not perceive tangible changes in their lives and if the numerous promises made by the elites and the parties are not met after a couple of years, the honeymoon blows over and the democratic process falls into jeopardy. How then do we know if an African country is making steady (even if painful and difficult) progress towards democracy and democratization?

The Africa Governance Programme at the Carter Centre developed a Quality of Democracy Index (QDI) several years ago, which included: access of social groups, autonomy of associations, constitutionalism and the rule of law, electoral process, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of conscience and expression, respect for human rights, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the media, and the control of the military by civilian authorities.16



Without doubt these are important requirements which provide open and general insights into the value of a nation’s democratic culture. Unfortunately, they assume too many things. The most important assumption is about the kind of state which has to be constructed before these can be guaranteed. Can the same neo-colonial, repressive and unsteady non-hegemonic state, perhaps with minor modifications, be relied upon to put in place all or most of the requirements of the QDI? More importantly, the QDI does not seem to pay adequate attention to the social, economic and cultural dimensions of democracy. These should be added to make the QDI more holistic and relevant to the needs and hopes of the majority of Africans.

Adebayo Adedeji, the former executive secretary of the ECA, has argued emphatically that if the current process of liberalization is to be sustained, and if Africa is to effectively be part of the 21st century, ‘it must undergo a second liberation which will result in the birth of a continent where democracy, political and economic empowerment, accountability and social justice prevail.’17 In fact, he contends that the sustainability of democracy is much more important and more challenging than its initiation.

Adedeji then lists three main preconditions for sustaining the democratic process in Africa. First, ‘the most careful and continuous nurturing of the process’ to avoid divisions and polarization which could become ‘dysfunctional and counterproductive’. Second, is the ‘widespread existence of independent people’s organizations’ which must be ‘genuinely grassroot, voluntary, democratically administered, and self-reliant.’ These organizations must, of necessity, be ‘rooted in the tradition and culture of the society so as to ensure community empowerment and self-development.’



A third requirement for the sustenance of the democratic process is to cultivate a political tradition that treats the process as both ‘an end and a means’, with emphasis on human rights and human dignity, freedom of thought and association, and the pursuit of happiness which are achievable only in a democratic environment. This environment is required to facilitate the region’s recovery from its deepening crisis. This recovery process must be human-centred to ensure ‘the well-being of the people through sustained improvement in their living standards. Unless this takes place, anti-democratic forces and sentiments may re-emerge and triumph.’18 The strength of Adedeji’s postulations can be found in the emphasis on people as the makers of history, the builders of communities and institutions, and as the initiators of political traditions and processes.

Adedeji’s human-centred ideas are more elaborately articulated in the 1990 African Charter for Popular Participation in Development and Transformation which outlines the strategies for promoting popular, people-centred development and the strengthening of civil society. The charter was preceded by the African Alternative Framework to Structural Adjustment Programmes (AAF-SAP) which had been a direct response to the IMF/World Bank’s orthodox adjustment package. The adoption of the African Charter in February 1990 was therefore a further attempt to provide an alternative framework for operationalizing or implementing the contents and prescriptions of the AAF-SAP within a people-centred democratic environment.

Its main strength lies in its redirection of attention to the political dimensions of the African predicament: that the deepening crisis is as political as it is social, economic, human, and legal. Until the political process is opened up, popular communities democratized and strengthened, institutions made more efficient and accountable, leaders become responsible and sensitive to the needs of the people, and civil society is strengthened, the Charter is clear on the fact that the continent’s crisis will continue to deepen. Its specific prescriptions for the state, women, youth organizations, labour, the media, trade unions, NGOs and VDOs, and the international community all carry this singular message of democracy, democratization, empowerment, accountability, mobilization, participation, growth, and development.



Unlike the majority of previous documents on the African crisis, the charter ends by proclaiming the ‘urgent necessity to involve the people in monitoring popular participation in Africa’ on the basis of indicators already agreed to by African leaders. These indicators include:

1) literacy rate as a measure of the capacity for mass participation in public debate, decision-making and general developmental processes;

2) the extent of freedom of association especially political association and the presence of democratic institutions such as political parties, trade unions, people’s grassroot organization and professional associations;

3) the degree of representation of the people and their organizations in national bodies;

4) the extent of the rule of law and social and economic justice including equitable distribution of income and the creation of full employment opportunities;

5) the degree of protection of ecological, human and legal environments;

6) the extent of press and media freedom as some measure of the extent of public debate;

7) the number and scope of functioning grassroots organizations with effective participation in development activities;

8) the degree of political accountability of leadership at all levels measured by the use of checks and balances;

9) the extent of the implementation of the 1989 Abuja Declaration on Women which emphasized the protection and involvement of women in the development processes; and

10) the degree of decentralization of decision-making processes and institutions.



While the indicators might look rather general and insensitive to the major differences within and between African states, the point must be made that it is a fundamental beginning with potential for establishing a basis for the future. Had African states adhered to such indicators and monitoring schemes in the past, some of the excesses of the ruling classes might have been checked. It is a document that needs to be popularized, given legal recognition and used to further the agenda of democratic development in Africa and elsewhere.

Democracy has taken a beating in Africa. Today, most Africans are confused as to the real meaning and content of democracy. Its recent reduction to elections which are then certified as ‘free and fair’ by election monitors who promptly depart and abandon the people to their misery under the leadership of ‘democratic dictators’ has made the situation even worse. Some leaders continue to see power as their birthright. Constitutions are openly subverted or manipulated by the custodians of the state. Governments have brutalized their people, including democratic governments. More than ever, Africans have begun to appreciate the limitations of liberal democracy in crisis-ridden, dislocated, marginalized and impoverished economies. Liberal democracy has not been accompanied by the pouring in of foreign aid and investments as anticipated.



What does the future hold for democracy in Africa? Notwithstanding the above problems and the deepening socio-economic crisis, the future of democracy is still bright. Inspite of the increasing marginalization of Africa, the continent cannot and should not be neglected by the outside world. Yet, the current crisis, elite opportunism, corruption, and political fragmentation have only strengthened the future of democracy. The crisis, ironically, has been positive in the sense that it has compelled most Africans to forge new alliances, ask new questions, and to advocate new platforms of politics and power.

It is becoming increasingly clear that democracy cannot thrive in Africa if the economic crisis is not addressed. Orthodox prescriptions, in an already devastated economy, will only worsen the situation. Equally, democracy cannot thrive without a reconstruction of the state. The need for an accountable, transparent, democratic, stable, predictable, efficient, and popular national state cannot be over emphasized. The reconstruction will include a restructuring of the military, a transformation of the bureaucracy, a revitalization of the judiciary, constitutional engineering, the guarantee of basic rights and liberties, and the protection of minority rights. These issues are already being articulated by the environmental movements, human rights and pro-democracy associations, and NGOs.

Finally, whatever the direction in which the region’s transition politics goes, civil society must be strengthened. To be sure, civil society can be the location for negative, intolerant and violent politics. Yet, the need to strengthen the people, their constituencies and communities, and the need to involve the people and their organizations in decision-making processes constitute a part of this process of strengthening civil society.

This is the only way to check the opportunism, betrayal, corruption, and excesses of the state and political elites, and pay due attention to issues of gender, environment, popular participation, accountability and responsibility in government. This is also the only way to acknowledge and respect the interests of minorities, contain or mediate primordial conflicts, and open up the political terrain to democratic contestations for power. This agenda for strengthening civil society has been endorsed by practically all nations, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, donors and lenders alike.

The challenge at this historical conjuncture is for democratic forces in Africa to take advantage of the global goodwill and expand the frontiers and realities of democracy in the continent. At best the outside world can assist Africa in the process but cannot, and should not (as is currently the case), dictate the content and context of politics, the patterns of politics, the acceptability or otherwise of elections, and which leaders should be accepted or rejected. These have to be determined by the people based on the internal dynamics of political alignment and realignments.




1. Claude Ake, Democracy and Development in Africa, The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., 1996, p. 136.

2. This writer does not subscribe to the argument that Africa’s colonial past should no longer be considered in trying to understand the roots of contemporary predicaments. While it is improper to blame or link all of the continent’s current woes on colonialism, neo-colonialism is still a reality. The structural deformities, contradictions, distortions, and disarticulations of the colonial experience continue to shape internal and external relations. It is rather opportunistic and defensive to argue that 30 or so years of political independence, in a very unequal and exploitative world, is sufficient to ignore these very critical historically determined constraints to peace, unity, stability, development and democracy.

3. See Julius O. Ihonvbere, ‘The "Irrelevant" State, Ethnicity and the Quest for Nationhood in Africa’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 17(1), January 1994, pp. 42-60; Claude Ake, ‘The State in Contemporary Africa’, in Ake (ed), Political Economy of Nigeria, Longman, London and Lagos, 1985, pp. 1-8.

4. Claude Ake, Democracy and Development in Africa, op. cit., p. 137.

5. Barber Conable, ‘Foreword’, in World Bank, Sub-Saharan Africa: From Crisis to Sustainable Growth – A Long-Term Perspective Study, World Bank, Washington, D.C., 1989, p. 12.

6. ‘An Enabling Environment for Capacity Building’, Quarterly Newsletter of the African Capacity Building Foundation 2(1), October 1994, pp. 1 and 7.

7. ‘Governance and Capacity Building’, Quarterly Newsletter of the African Capacity Building Foundation 3(1), January 1995, pp. 1 and 7.

8. Pierre du Toit, State Building and Democracy in Southern Africa: Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. U.S. Institute of Peace Press, Washington, D.C., 1995, pp. 234-238.

9. Claude Ake, Democracy and Development in Africa, op cit., p. 129.

10. Ibid., p. 130.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., p. 132.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., p. 133.

15. Ibid., p. 134.

16. ‘Introducing the Quality of Democracy Index’, Africa Demos 2(3), August 1992, pp. 8-9.

17. Adebayo Adedeji, ‘Sustaining Democracy’, Africa Report, January-February 1992, p. 29.

18. Ibid., p. 31.