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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 April, 2004, 11:47 GMT 12:47 UK
Africans crazy for democracy
By Patrick Smith
BBC Focus On Africa magazine

Vote boxes in Nigeria
Elections in Africa are often controversial
"Democrazy? Dem all crazy, what a crazy demonstration!" fumed Nigeria's late Fela Anikulapo Kuti when asked what he thought of elections in Africa - although that didn't stop him running for president.

Fela wanted Africans to look to their own traditions for political development. Pre-colonial Africa had its military dictatorships, but many regimes were bound by constitutions and forms of accountability.

Oyo kings were obliged to commit suicide if presented with a calabash by a delegation of elders. Ashanti princes could be dethroned.

African civil society, nice and nasty, goes back much longer than today's non-governmental organisations.

Euphoria fades

Doubtless the high point for African democracy was 27 April 1994, when South Africans trooped to the polls to elect a government led by Nelson Mandela in the country's first democratic elections.

Indeed, a decade ago it seemed democracy in Africa would have a bright future.

Queues to vote in South Africa
South Africa's 1994 elections suggested a bright future for democracy in Africa
Tyrannies in Benin, Ethiopia, Liberia and Mali had been ousted and many more were under threat. Opposition activists in Francophone Africa organised national conferences holding leaders to account on claims of corruption and brutality.

Pro-democracy activists in Ghana and Nigeria stepped up their campaigns, and advocates of one-party rule such as Ivory Coast's Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Kenya's Daniel arap Moi and Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda were going or had gone.

And in step with the new mood, Western powers started criticising their former autocratic allies in Africa. Britain, France and the US threatened to cut aid. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), technically barred from invoking political conditions on loans, joined the chorus.

The US government even published a road map listing the steps to democratisation: struggle, transition, institutionalisation, elections and then consolidation.

But the reality has proved more stubborn. Presidents Houphouët-Boigny, Moi, Mobutu and Togo's Gnassingbe Eyadéma adopted multi-party political systems against their will - but they then subverted them by sponsoring splinter parties to divide the opposition.

Incumbents became adept at winning polls: doctoring voters' rolls; stuffing ballot boxes and using violence against opponents.

Some opposition parties, like Zambia's Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD), did rise to power. But it is now blamed for increasing economic hardship through its policy of privatisation and retrenchments in the civil service.

In neighbouring Malawi, some voters feel the same about the government of President Bakili Muluzi and his United Democratic Front (UDF) party. Elections are scheduled to take place in May and former president Kamuzu Banda's old Malawi Congress Party (MCP) is making a bid for power as part of a coalition.

Even in South Africa, the euphoria has now given way to worries about the ANC's dominance and the lack of credible opposition parties.

Struggle continues

So has Africa's decade of democracy succeeded or failed?

Despite setbacks and thwarted hopes, the democracy glass is at least half-full.

People in cybercafe
The internet has helped the growth of political activity
There have been outright successes: popular opposition parties and coalitions have won multi-party elections in Ghana, Kenya, Mali and Senegal.

And opposition parties owe much to the hard work of civic activists and journalists who have campaigned against oppressive laws. Independent local radio stations have unleashed a torrent of political debate calling governments to account.

Technology has helped too: mobile phones and mini-video cameras are now part of the armoury of election observers, who can quickly record and report abuses.

As Africa gets wired to the internet, the rapid dissemination of news and argument is shaping political agendas.

However there have been years of bloody conflict in countries such as Congo-Brazzaville, DR Congo, Ivory Coast and Liberia.

When it comes to real political power, the sword - or at least the AK-47 - is still mightier than the pen in these areas.

And politics remains too often an expensive game with the spoils of office being shared between members of the same elite wearing different political colours.

Economic uncertainties chip away at idealism and new style regimes find it easier to co-opt and corrupt rather than to bludgeon their opponents.

The democracy movement in Africa is here to stay, but the struggle continues.

Patrick Smith is the editor of the London-based newsletter 'Africa Confidential'. A full version of this article can be found in the April-July issue of BBC Focus On Africa magazine.

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