The march of democracy slows

Threats to democratic rule in Africa are growing, but time and demography are against the autocrats


Zambia’s marred election this year is a particular disappointment. In 1991, it was the second country on the continent to expel an incumbent ruler at the ballot box, following Benin by a few months. It again booted out the ruling party in 2011, establishing a healthy pattern of alternation that now seems threatened.

Zambia is an unnerving example of how democracy, which had seemed finally to be about to bloom on the world’s poorest continent, is still struggling to take root in many parts of it.

Looked at through a wide lens of history, Africa’s standard of governance is almost unimaginably better than it was at the end of the cold war. Then a dart thrown at the map would almost certainly have landed on a one-party state, military junta or outright dictatorship.

Economic liberty was much scarcer then, too: various forms of socialism abounded, from Tanzania to Ghana, Ethiopia to Angola. Freedom House, an American think-tank, reckons that in 1988, just before the cold war ended, only 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa could be classified as “free” or “partly free”. Since then, the organisation reckons that 29 of the 48 countries in the region can be considered “free” or “partly free”.

Yet zoom in the historical lens to view the past few years and it seems that the picture is mixed. Some places are seeing progress. In South Africa, the African National Congress, which has ruled since the end of apartheid, lost its majority in several major cities in local elections this month. Despite efforts by its president, Jacob Zuma, to hollow out institutions such as the prosecutors’ office, national broadcaster and anti-corruption agency, a critical press, independent judiciary and vocal opposition are keeping the government on its toes. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, a corrupt and incompetent ruling party was voted out for the first time since the end of military rule in 1999.

Yet, elsewhere, democracy appears to be withering. The most recent tally of free countries has fallen from a peak of 34 a decade ago (see chart). A number of countries that, like Zambia, had been becoming more open and free have seemed to slide backwards.

It won’t be built in a day

The most recent threats to democracy in Africa vary, even if some are familiar. They include the short-term interests of Western countries; a demand for minerals and oil; and the rising influence of new powers such as China. Underlying these are the bigger enduring problems of poverty and weak institutions.

Modern Africa’s first taste of democracy came in the form of fledgling parliaments bestowed by departing colonial powers. As Britain and France dismantled their empires, they left behind crude carbon copies of their own forms of government (though Portugal, a dictatorship until 1975, left its colonies in Mozambique and Angola mired in civil war). Indeed, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first prime minister, closed his speech at

Nigeria’s independence ceremony with the words: “God Save Our Queen”.
Yet in the early days of independence most African leaders swiftly imposed their own stamp on the fragile states they had inherited, reshaping institutions they often condemned as colonial impositions. New ideas such as “African socialism” swept the region, along with the notion of a specifically African form of democracy. Leaders such as Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana led the way in arguing that new states needed to put national unity ahead of multi-party democracy, often imposing one-party systems of government that swiftly turned into bullying autocracies. In many cases—witness Ghana and Nigeria—unity was supposedly saved by military coups that were easily mounted because armies were the only strong institutions inherited from empire…

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