Cover Image
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

The patterns of transition to democracy

by Tesfatsion MEDHANIE

There is no uniformity in the way political change is occurring in Africa. The goal in all cases is democracy. But the mode or the process of the democratisation varies.

There is a marked difference between the Francophone and the Anglophone states as regards the mode of launching the process. As will be discussed later, the National Conference is the 'norm of redemocratisation' in the former, while in the latter constitutional revision and direct elections is the form.

Each African state-whether it is in the Francophone or the Anglophone zone-has its specific political history and 'unique internal dynamics'. These certainly affect the mode of launching, the transition and the outcome, thus distinguishing them to some extent from each other.

The intensity of the struggle for democracy is not the same in all the African states. This means, among other things, that in some states authoritarian regimes are able to preempt situations and entrench themselves, at least for some time.

Within every African state concerned the movement is not evenly spread. It does not encompass all communities and social groups to the same degree. For one thing, it is still concentrated in urban areas; rural communities are not yet significantly involved.

Patterns of transition

National Conferences:

This mode of transition, which has been termed 'the Jacobin model', is in the style of France's 18th century Estates General. Its theoretical elaboration is founded on a credo echoing the ideas of the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that 'all power emanates from the general will of the people'.

The National Conference is a forum in which not only the political parties and elites but all of 'the country's social, ethnic, economic, regional, religious and occupational groups' are represented. The aim is to launch a process that would subject the authoritarian leadership (if it is not removed) to the will of the people, and eventually to revise the constitution and hold 'fully fledged multi-party elections'.

It was Benin that set the example of transition through National Conferences. President Mathieu Kerekou was stripped of his powers but was granted full and irreversible amnesty.

As developed on the basis of the Beninois experience there are internal and external prerequisites for the success of National Conferences. In the case of Benin (i) internally, the financial and economic situation had collapsed. The elites and the components of civil society had not only defied the regime, but also demanded that a meeting be held which was sovereign and in which all the social and economic groups were represented; and (ii) externally, the regime was denied financial and other help until the sovereign meeting was held.

The conjunction of such internal and external factors enabled the consummation of National Conferences, which, as in the case of Benin, led to multi-party elections following a transitional government. In Benin, by the time elections were held, the old ruling party was dissolved.

In several Francophone countries, including Cot'Ivoire, Gabon, and Togo, the National Conferences did not succeed fully. To some, these cases only show that the internal and external prerequisites were not fully met. But to others they only confirm that National Conferences are not as effective as they were initially thought to be. It is not easy to mobilise forces from the various social groups and hold National Conferences. Entrenched authoritarian regimes easily find time and space to frustrate the planned meeting and derail the process.

Constitutional revision and multi-party elections:

This is the model of transition in the Anglophone African states. It was first applied in Zambia, which became the pace-setter in Anglophone Africa in the same way that Benin was in the Francophone states.

In this model a loose coalition of parties emerges, becoming the dominant -but not the sole-opposition force. Examples of such coalitions are the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) in Zambia, and the Forum for Restoration of Democracy (FORD) in Kenya.

In Zambia such a coalition, the MMD, defeated the incumbent regime, which was constrained by internal and external pressures similar to those that had beleaguered Kerekou's government in Benin. The MMD made several demands including the holding of free elections attended by international observers. After some resistance Kaunda's regime agreed. The elections were held and won by the MMD.

In such a model the incumbent regime cooperates in the process risking its own ouster. But it cooperates more because of lack of choice than genuine conversion to the principles of democracy. Unlike in National Conferences, in such cases the old ruling party is not dissolved. Rather it continues to exist as an opposition, as Kaunda's party does in Zambia.

Peaceful transfer of power in elections:

This is one situation where a ruling party in a one-party state freely and willingly cooperates in holding elections risking its own defeat. The incumbent regime is not as authoritarian, unpopular and isolated as Kerekou's was in Benin and Kaunda's in Zambia. Such a smooth transfer occurred in Cape Verde, where the situation was different in some important ways from those in Benin and Zambia.

Cape Verde's socio-economic situation was better than most others in Africa even though the country lacks 'virtually any natural resources' and is a victim of 'continuous drought'. There were significant achievements in this small island state, whose population is more or less homogeneous. The economy was relatively sound with income per capita increasing. Quality of life had improved, life expectancy had increased and infant mortality had dropped. The country had even embarked on a reafforestation programme to rehabilitate the ecology. There was much less corruption than in the rest of Africa. Furthermore, the society had a tradition of rule of law and functioning parliamentary and judicial systems.

In Cape Verde too, the situation, though not bad, was ripe for change. The people were eager to carry out a political transformation and 'reduce external dependency'. There was also international support for a transition to multi-party democracy. Hence, in a fairly conducted election, the ruling party was defeated and handed over power to the opposition.

UN-assisted transition:

In this model, elections are held under the auspices of the United Nations. The sole example in the current process is Namibia, which attained its independence in 1990 following a multi-party election supervised by the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG).

Namibia has proclaimed probably the most advanced constitution-and thus the most competent constitutional framework for multi-party democracy-in Africa. The constitution, which has been hailed as a 'model', is an epitome of conflict resolution, an outcome of a process of compromise-both internal and external. The Constituent Assembly which was set up following the elections comprised representatives of seven political parties. On the basis of the principle of Proportional Representation (PR) the parties were represented in the Assembly in proportion to the votes they received in the elections. As determined previously in the 1982 UN Security Council Document S/15287 (commonly known as the 1982 principles), motions on the drafting of the constitution could pass if supported by two-thirds of a]l the members of the Assembly. Each of the parties, including SWAPO (which had fewer than two-thirds of the seats) realised 'there was a need for a broad compromise'. After a 'wonderful give and take' the parties agreed on the contents of the constitution.

It is significant that each of the political parties involved, from the reformist or 'left-wing' SWAPO to the 'ultra-right' Action Christian National (ACN), had expressed reservations about the constitution; but still, in the spirit of compromise and national reconciliation, the Assembly adopted the constitution by acclamation.

The Namibian case benefited from the international situation which prevailed at the end of the 1980s. The thaw in the East/West confrontation had made possible a compromise between the US, the USSR, South Africa and Cuba concerning the implementation of Resolution 435 on Namibian independence.

Transition following overthrow of a regime:

There are a few cases in which processes of democratisation are launched following the ouster of a regime by force. Mali and Ethiopia are two examples.

In Mali, popular discontent and demand for change erupted in early 1991. By order of the President, Moussa Traormeasures were taken to crush the popular movement. But soon after this event some military officers staged a coup and arrested the president. Uniquely, the officers immediately started a process of effective transition to civilian rule. Multiparty elections were held in early 1992, resulting in the victory of the Alliance for Democracy in Mali (ADEMA), which now rules the country.

The case of Ethiopia is slightly different. A Transitional Council was established following the military defeat of the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Council, which comprises representatives of several organisations, is dominated by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the armed movement that defeated the regime.

A National Conference held in Addis Ababa issued a Charter which is the supreme law for the transitional period. The Charter guarantees fundamental human, civil and political rights and has all the cardinal elements of a liberal democratic constitution. Freedom of expression and association are now realities in Ethiopia. The Charter also enunciated the principle of self-determination, recognising the right of any nationality or ethnic group to determine its status, including the option to separate.

Ethiopia is making progress in political democracy, but it is also encountering severe problems as a result of power struggles and a politicisation of ethnicity -problems that sometimes appear to threaten its territorial integrity.

Cease-fire, multi-party elections and compromise:

This was a new pattern seen first in Angola. The Angola process was distinct in a few important ways: (i) A genuine multi-party election in which the party in power participated following a cease-fire; (ii) the parliamentary election, judged 'free and fair', was won by the incumbent (MPLA), which had been socialist-oriented for a long time. (iii) if there are going to be obstacles to the democratisation process they are more likely to come from the opposition than from the MPLA which, by almost all accounts has been cooperative in the process; (iv) efforts are being made to bring about compromise and understanding between the main protagonists in the Angola process. The MPLA declared its willingness to establish a coalition government even if it won the elections. The fact that there would be a run-off of the presidential election just because the MPLA received 49.5% and not 50% of the votes is itself a mark of compromise. (UNITA got only 40%.)

Limited and controlled democratisation from the top:

This is a process in which a regime in power presides over an election among political parties of its own choice or even of its own creation. This approach to democratisation is being applied in Nigeria, where the regime has seen to it that only two parties are established-the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Party. The former is described as 'a little to the left' end the latter 'a little to the right' of centre.

There is controversy about the process in Nigeria. Some describe it as a 'programming' of democracy from the top, suggesting that it is a genuine and realistic process of change. Others view it in effect as a pre-emptive device by the ruling elite. A few even focus on the control of the process by the regime and call it 'authoritarian democracy'. This characterisation sounds increasingly appropriate, especially in the light of the fact that the regime itself dissolved the readerships of the two parties in late October 1992.

Nigeria's may be described as a situation which is half-way between democratisation and authoritarian retention of power. Other cases which can be categorised as such are those in Ghana and Uganda. But there are also other states-like Botswana and Senegal- which are usually referred to as multiparty democracies, but which are more of a blend of democracy and authoritarianism.

One-party-dominated multi-partyisrn:

This is the situation which obtains in Botswana and Senegal; it may also be what Tanzania is heading towards.

Botswana has important features of parliamentary democracy. For example there is some degree of freedom of association and of the press. And elections are held every five years. The problem seems to be that the opposition parties are 'not free to compete on equal terms with the ruling party' which has the monopoly of access to the media and other infrastructure necessary for political competition. In Senegal, the situation is similar. There are a few political parties, but the ruling party is by far the dominant one. Following the events in Benin, Senegal's ruling party has sought 'to build bridges" with the opposition and has taken steps towards a 'government of national union'.

Indemnity clause and multi-party elections:

This is the situation of Ghana, where for a long time, the government resisted the demand for democratisation. Given the democratisation in several African countries and the pressure exerted by the economic and financial institutions, the government agreed to effect a transition to democracy. Political parties have now been legalised under the new constitution, which has been overwhelmingly approved in a referendum. A crucial provision in the constitution is the 'indemnity clause' which gives the incumbent regime, which has ruled Ghana for 11 years, amnesty for whatever crimes and abuses it may have committed. Besides, the constitution also makes it possible for the present leader, Jerry Rawlings, to run for the presidency as a civilian.

Blend of authoritarianism and 'participatory democracy':

This refers to the political system the government in Uganda is experimenting with. The government has not banned political parties. The parties still exist but they can 'function' only 'tinder restricted circumstances'. However, there are also structures for 'political participation'. These structures exist within the framework of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), which actually controls them. They extend from the village level all the way to the highest body, the National Resistance Council. The elements of democracy in the Ugandan system comprise the 'preservation of personal freedoms' and 'popular participation'. Related to these are the government's efforts to realise 'national reconciliation and political stability'. The element of authoritarianism lies in the government's control of the structure and its limitation of the extent to which the political parties can function. In this respect the regime is said to be similar to the government of Zimbabwe even though it does not claim or seek a 'complete political monopoly'.

The situations and patterns in Nigeria, Botswana (Senegal and Tanzania), Ghana and Uganda are half-way between authoritarianism and democratisation. But characterising them as such is not to underrate the significance of the positive in them. New political space is being opened up in these situations also, which is helpful.

Modes of resistance

Thus far, incumbent regimes have been resisting democratisation to varying degrees. A variety of modes or tactics can be identified:

Repression by force or intimidation:

In the initial phase of the democratisation wave, some African regimes, like Moussa Traor in Mali, resorted to open measures of military repression. A few regimes continue to use brute force against democratic opposition. Among them are the fundamentalist military regime in Khartoum, and to some extent, the regime in Malawi, which is still harassing and detaining leaders of the pro-democracy movement.

The fall of Moussa Traors well as the observed consequences of military resistance to change-as shown in Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Sudan-was a lesson to other regimes in Africa. Several have thus avoided the use of brute force, resorting instead to more subtle and calculated means of undermining or blunting the process of democratisation. And in order to accomplish this, they needed to appear supportive of democracy.

Pre-emptive elections or national conferences:

Some regimes have survived by exploiting the ill-preparedness and lack of organisation on the part of the opposition. Two such regimes are those in Cot'Ivoire and in Gabon. The former hurriedly called for presidential and legislative elections before the opposition could organise itself and develop strategies. It won the election and hence, gave itself new legitimacy, at least in the formal sense. Likewise the Gabonese regime called for a National Conference when the opposition was still 'embryonic'. The Conference which was not quite sovereign, decided on a multi-party system, but the President's powers were not 'affected ... in any way'. Elections were held subsequently and were won by the incumbent regime, whose status was even 'enhanced'.

Reversal of the democratisation process

A few regimes survived by reversing or halting the democratisation process. Examples are those of Togo and Algeria.

In Togo, the regime was on the verge of being ousted following a National Conference in which the president was deprived of some of his powers and elections were scheduled. But the president promptly acted through his supporters in the army and restored some of his powers and his party's legal status. He even brought pressure to bear on the interim legislature. Having blunted the process, the regime continues to stay in power.

In Algeria, democratisation was launched following the economic liberalisation of late 1988. A new constitution was adopted providing for multi-partyism and other political freedoms. Local elections and the first round of general elections were held in mid-1990 and late 1991 respectively. Both were won by the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Alarmed, the regime declared the second round of the general elections cancelled. It then proceeded to suppress the FIS, thus reversing the process of democratisation. This is not to suggest that Algeria would have been on the road to genuine democracy had the FIS become the government. The point here is only that the democratisation that was going on was halted and reversed.

Threat of election rigging

It is not difficult for ruling parties in Africa to rig elections. After all, the election officers are close to and appointed by the party in power. In a few cases the incumbent regimes appeared so determined to rig the election that opposition parties became discouraged. Several opposition parties have given up and withdrawn from the contest, which means the incumbents continue to stay in power. This was said to have happened, for example, in Cameroon. Surprisingly, the ruling party had already lost an election; it managed to stay in power only by establishing 'an alliance with an opposition group' in a nominally reconstituted government. Later, in October 1992 new national elections were held and won by the incumbent regime. But opposition groups as well as international observers have insisted that the regime rigged the election; the former has asked for the cancellation of the election results.


Some regimes hold on to power by temporising-i.e. procrastinating and delaying the process using one or other pretext. Their hope is that as time goes by, the pro-democracy challenge will 'dissipate'. An example of such a regime is that of Zaire. The President delays matters by concentrating on issues of preliminaries and 'dragging out the question of form'. In the meantime, he has worked hard to co-opt or neutralise some members of the opposition.

Situations of ethnic violence

Ethnic violence is rife in a number of African countries today. One of these countries is Kenya. The regime there had for a long time opposed multi-partyism, arguing that such a system is dangerous in a multi-ethnic society. Due to external pressure and increasing internal challenge, it finally agreed to allow political parties and hold elections eventually. But soon after the regime gave in, ethnic violence erupted in parts of the country where the opposition has some of its strongholds. As a result, people fled their homes, their usual places of residence, which means that they cannot be registered for voting. Many, especially those in the Kenyan opposition, suspect that the regime itself instigated the violence. Whatever the truth in this regard, the important point to note is that such situations are used in various ways to prolong the span of an incumbent regime. Two of the ways are: (i) the regime may declare a state of emergency to rationalise postponing the elections, thereby prolonging its stay in power; or (ii) it can hold elections when, in those regions it is not confident of winning, the people are still dispersed and cannot vote because they have not registered.

Manipulation of electoral law

The regimes in power easily manipulate electoral law to suit their aims. For example, they fix constituency bounderies and determine the laws on party organisation in ways favourable to them.

Fixing constituency boundaries is done in such a way as to give an advantage to the ruling party. For example, the section of the country where the ruling party is strong will be divided into several constituencies, sometimes with each constituency having a very small population. Conversely, the parts of the country where the opposition is strong would be divided into a few constituencies (or just one constituency) even if it is heavily populated. In this way the ruling party gains more seats in parliament.

Definition of a party

One method is to leave the meaning of political party not clearly defined in the law. Any group of people, even a few friends or family members, could be organised and called a 'political party'. This means there can be a number of small entities that are in no sense viable and cannot really function as political parties. They are no threat to the regime in power, which uses them as 'evidence' multipartyism, in the country. Some opposition groups in Botswana allege this is one of the methods the party in power uses.

Requirements the opposition cannot meet

According to journalists and the opposition movement in Kenya, this pattern of resistance is now being attempted by the regime there in a refined way. The regime has lately introduced a constitutional amendment bill. This bill requires that in order to be declared a winner in the presidential elections the candidate who receives the highest number of valid votes should also get 'a minimum' 25% of the votes in 'at least' five of the country's eight provinces. Critics argue this amendment is unfair to the opposition groups, who do not yet have the necessary infrastructure in various parts of the country. But the amendment would give the regime a clear advantage. Over the years the ruling party had established extensive machinery and networks for running its elections.

Opposition threatens civil war

This is a new pattern coming from Angola. One thing that makes it new is that it is the opposition (UNITA) and not the incumbent that seems poised to hamper democratisation. The UNITA leader threatened to go back to the bush and resume fighting, alleging fraud in the election, which, according to UN and other international observers, was largely free and fair. The fighting which has since erupted has brought the democratisation process to a halt. T.M.