|Africa's Valuable Assets - A Reader in Natural Resource Management (WRI, 1998, 464 pages)|
|1. Africa's Wealth, Woes, Worth|
In the past few years, many Africans have witnessed radical shifts in economic policies and seen their governments relax control over political activities. Noteworthy trends include legalized political opposition; expanded freedom of association, expression, and the press; increased access to information and justice; and greater protection of persons and property against arbitrary action by the state through constitutional and legislative reform. More than 30 African countries have held popular elections in the past seven years; many have held several elections at the national and local levels.
Many of the world's new democracies have been established in sub-Saharan Africa.21 Reluctant rulers are being challenged, and, though some reverses in the movement for democracy are to be expected, "the age of the dictator and 'president-for-life,' while not yet over, is waning."22 The opening up of the political arena has created opportunities for Africans to participate in government decision-making, including policy, to monitor government actions, and to demand transparency, consent, compliance, and accountability. Harking to democracy's call, many citizens have mobilized NGOs, private companies, and special interest groups that are pressing for reforms and working to keep governments open, participatory, and accountable.
Pluralist political systems are also giving rural Africans the right to a voice in policy-making. For cotton farmers in Mali, the ability to establish independent organizations to defend the interests of producers and represent them in policy-making has been the single greatest reward of democratization.23 In fact, to the vast majority of people who live in the countryside, the significance of democracy may lie in the freedom to associate openly, to elect their own representatives to local government, and to have more say in how natural resources are managed. This kind of devolution of authority means far more than the creation of a "centralized multiparty democracy" that does not necessarily increase opportunities for true grassroots participation.
Countries such as Uganda and Ghana are on their way to democratizing the local governments that will participate more actively in future resource-management decisions and actions. In Tanzania, pressure from local opposition parties is mounting, along with a movement to create a truly independent judiciary (as well as legislature). Judicial reforms are also underway in Mali, Mozambique, and Zambia. In brief, even if all African countries cannot soon make a complete and permanent transition to multiparty democracies, the new democracies that have emerged on the continent in the last few years alone illustrate a trend toward greater political freedom that will be hard to reverse.