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close this bookThe Courier N 138 - March - April 1993 Dossier: Africa's New Democracies - Country Reports : Jamaica - Zambia (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
close this folderDossier: Africa's new democracies
View the documentAfrica's new democracies
View the documentThe patterns of transition to democracy
View the documentAfrica in search of institutional revival
View the documentThe future for the new democratic regimes
View the documentApplying the solutions of the 21st century to 10th century problems
View the documentDemocracy and structural adjustment in Africa
View the documentCommunity support for setting up and strengthening democracies
View the documentAutopsy of a Transition
View the documentA society full of tensions
View the documentA survival economy

Africa's new democracies

Democracy, according to Winston Churchill, is the worst form of government-except for all the others! The African people, who against their will, have had plenty of experience of all kinds of dictatorship and who, it must be said, have paid the price for this, are now increasingly following in the footsteps of others who have experienced the wisdom of Churchill's maxim. It has become commonplace to say that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of that other modern form of organising states-communism-has contributed to this democratic surge. The influence of events such as Frans Mitterand's famous La Baule speech in 1990 is also stressed. In retrospect, one can but regret that these 'liberating' remarks were not made much earlier.

While one African country after another embarks on the road to democracy, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and in the face of varying degrees of resistance, questions are increasingly being asked about the validity of Western-style democracy for the continent at the present juncture. As, here and there, the democracy movement suffers reverses, these questions become increasingly pointed.

Some suggest that Africa should work out a model for itself by marrying democratic principles to its own cultural heritage. This is a view which is put forward in several of the articles in this Dossier although the practicalities are deliberately left vague and those elements of African civilisation (if it is possible to talk of this in the singular) which ought to be incorporated in the model are not specified.

Others take a contrary view, believing that democracy is a set of universal principles which apply everywhere in the same way. They reject any idea of a specifically African dimension, fearing that this can only lead to a situation which the international community, having acknowledged the right to be 'different', will be much less able to condemn. Those who take this view find it difficult to understand why the former communist states, facing similar ethnic conflicts and economic crises, do not receive the same advice as that proferred to the African countries. The former, according to this logic, should be inventing a democratic system which also takes account of their particular history and culture.

An objection of a different kind is to be found in the thesis that Africa does not meet the optimum conditions for the establishment and development of democratic systems. African countries are indeed very poor, and none of the new democracies has been able to pay for the organisation of its elections. Even Senegal, which has a longer democratic tradition than most, had to have recourse to outside help for the financing of its recent presidential poll.

Without development, therefore the future of the democratic process is, to say the least, compromised. What would happen if this providential support were lacking? And the situation is exacerbated by the fact that African states, unlike countries elsewhere which have moved to democracy in recent decades, have not been able to meet the other important requirement for a successful democracy, namely, having a population the majority of whom are educated. Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad/ Tobago, to take just a few ACP examples, are countries where democratic alternation has been the rule since the 1960s. They are also countries where literacy rates are very high (90% in Barbados). It is a very different situation in Africa.

For people who are poor and illiterate, the temptation is consequently very great to regard democracy purely in terms of utility. If the new system delivers a noticeable improvement in living standards, they will support and defend it. If it does not, can we really be surprised if they view it as something which is alien to them? And it is this risk of rejection which underpins the arguments of those who support adapting democracy to African realities- so as to give it sure foundations.

Using the same line of reasoning, there must be the fear that the people will be prepared to accept limits on their freedom if their material needs are satisfied. This is one of the lessons that one can draw from the past experience of Cot'lvoire, Gabon and Malawi. For much of the period from the 1960s to the 1990s, these countries experienced steady growth. This was reflected in social stability which only began to crumble-albeit rapidly- when the government coffers emptied because of the economic crisis. Cot'lvoire and Gabon were in fact, the first countries in the period after the La Baule speech to face upheavals and to hold multi-party elections. Democratic aspirations may not entirely merge with economic ones, but they clearly intermingle to some extent.

It is interesting to speculate whether the experience of Lithuania may not hold some lessons for Africa. The people of this Baltic state recently elected the excommunists-under whose earlier management, they had faced fewer hardships-in place of the 'champions' of democracy.

In this issue of The Courier, we seek the clues, if not the answers, to some of the main issues arising from the flowering of democracy in Africa. Two case studies are presented. In the Country Report on Zambia which precedes this Dossier, we look at an English-speaking state where power was transferred peacefully following elections-although since this Report was prepared, a state of emergency has been proclaimed which illustrates only too clearly the vulnerability of the democratic process. And at the end of the Dossier, we consider the case of Mali, a French-speaking country where blood had to be spilt before democracy could put down roots and where major difficulties have still to be overcome.

Amadou TRAOR