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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 December 2005, 10:34 GMT
Africa's year of democratic reverses
By Patrick Smith
Africa Confidential editor

The political news coming out of Africa this year has got worse as the economic news has improved.

A demonstrator stands draped with the red, yellow and green flag of Ethiopia
Ethiopia's disputed elections sparked White House protests

After a decade of triumphs for Africa's democrats - the ending of apartheid in South Africa, the ousting of Congolese tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko and free multiparty elections in Ghana, Kenya and Senegal - several regimes have reverted to violent repression and election-rigging to cling to power.

Despite this, African economies are growing on average at 5 per cent a year, better than they have since the 1970s, say the IMF and the World Bank. National incomes may be rising but so is social inequality, fuelling political tensions.

The UN's Human Development index says incomes per head are stagnating and life expectancy rates are falling.

The fruits of higher growth are not going on social development.

Security rules

That raises more awkward questions as 2005, which UK Prime Minister Tony Blair had said would be the year of Africa, draws to a close.

The campaigners in Africa and the West who called for more aid, less debt and fairer trade for Africa and bolstered British government efforts to negotiate a better deal for Africa from the rich countries' G8 club have won important concessions.

But in most states, regime security trumps the development imperative.

It's a reversion to political relativism in Africa which tolerated the worst tyrants and kleptocrats on the principle that every regime has something to hide.

More than 30 African states have abandoned single party rule in favour of some variety of multiparty elections since 1990 but now the wind is blowing back.

After Ethiopia's disputed national elections in May, government forces shot more than 80 people dead and arrested 8,000 more after clashes with oppositionists in Addis Ababa.

In Tanzania, the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi was accused of rigging an election victory on the volatile islands of Zanzibar in October.

And in neighbouring Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, in power for two decades, persuaded parliament to allow him to a third elected term, then presided over the arrest of leading opposition candidate Dr Kizza Besigye.

Tyrants unchecked

This embarrasses Britain's Africa enthusiasts: Ethiopia's Meles and Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa were appointed to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Africa Commission, and Britain is the leading aid giver to the Museveni regime in Uganda.

More importantly, it's a reversion to political relativism in Africa which tolerated the worst tyrants and kleptocrats on the principle that every regime has something to hide.

The list goes on.

This year Gabon's President Omar Bongo, in power since 1967 won another seven-year term; Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore, ally of warlord Charles Taylor, circumvented the constitution to get another five-year term; Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo unilaterally postponed elections which were to signal the end of the country's civil war; and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe bludgeoned and starved the opposition Movement for Democratic Change into defeat.

Not all the blame should go to the incumbents.

Many opposition movements are weak and divided.

And Western governments' indignation is highly selective: oil-rich states such as Angola and Equatorial Guinea escape censure while resource-poor states are pilloried.

Sad end

But the biggest tests are in Africa's own institutions.

The African Union, set up in 2002, has been a huge improvement on the old Organisation for African Unity, known as the dictator's trade union.

The AU has adopted a credible development plan known as Nepad, and introduced a revolutionary system of peer review under which member states' commitments to democracy and human rights are measured by independent monitors.

The AU sent 5,000 African peacekeepers to the Darfur region where Sudan's Islamist regime has been accused in several high-level UN reports of mass murder and ethnic cleansing, as well as training and arming ethnic militias.

An African Union peacekeeper
African Union forces have been stationed in Sudan

Although the Sudan government failed to block the deployment of AU troops in Darfur, it has persuaded the AU to hold its summit in Khartoum next month (January) to dampen growing criticism.

The UN Security Council has referred Darfur to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Several senior Sudanese officials, including President Omar al-Bashir, are under investigation but they refuse to recognise the ICC's jurisdiction.

Allowing Khartoum to host the AU summit and President Bashir to chair it blatantly contradicts the AU's avowed democratic ethos, Sudan oppositionists and human rights campaigners say.

For many, Mr Bashir's leadership of the AU will resurrect the dog days of the OAU when it elected Uganda's Idi Amin as chairman while he organised the massacre of thousands of his fellow Ugandans.

A sad end to the year of Africa.

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