Sometimes, progress can look like a mess — particularly for those who prefer not to see it. An excellent example is the current state of African politics.

As it often does, the continent is offering Afro-pessimists — a long, fancy word for people who don’t believe black people in Africa can run anything — no shortage of ammunition right now.

Zimbabwe remains in authoritarian thrall, a reality confirmed by the brief arrest of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and continuing reports of police violence against government opponents. Kenya is wracked with violence after a suspicious election result denied the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) a likely victory. Nigeria continues to grapple with claims that its last election was stolen. And here, the election of a new ANC leadership has triggered gloom among those who believe that majority rule can only end in tears. What more could anyone need to show that the continent remains as much a mess as ever, that nothing changes when Africans govern themselves?

Those who think this way deeply misunderstand what is happening in Africa. There is a link between all these examples, but not the one the “Afro-pessimists” see. Africa’s problem is not that its inhabitants cannot govern themselves; it is that they have rarely been allowed to do so — “independence” meant usually that power was shifted from colonial rulers who imposed themselves on the people to local leaders who did the same.

What is happening now, in all the cases mentioned here and quite a few more, is that Africans are trying, more effectively than ever before, to win the right to govern themselves, to ensure that leaders lead because the people put them there and stay only as long as the people want them.

This threatens power holders who have no mandate from the people and so they are fighting back in the hope of stemming the tide. In some places they have failed; in others they are winning. But in all, we are seeing an unprecedented fight between undemocratic power-holders and a push for democracy. While this is often tragically violent and the good guys don’t always win, it is a groundbreaking attempt to move forward, not further evidence that nothing on the continent ever changes.

In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s government ruled largely unchallenged until 2000, when it lost a constitutional referendum, a thinly disguised signal that the people wanted it gone. This forced it into a lengthy attempt to stay in power despite the people’s judgement. Since then, politics in Zimbabwe has been about the elite’s desperate and often violent attempts to shore up their power in the face of democratic forces’ attempt to win change.

In Kenya, tensions were suppressed (but simmered below the surface) while Daniel arap Moi imposed his will on the people for two decades. Democracy was partly achieved when some members of the elite, most notably current President Mwai Kibaki, went over to the opposition and won the last election. But the Kibaki government proved far more like the one it had replaced than Kenyan democrats had hoped and so the ODM emerged to challenge Kibaki. Despite the mealy-mouthed response of the international community, the evidence suggests that the ruling elite thwarted this attempt to deepen democracy by creatively embellishing the election results. Again, the conflict is caused by democratic pressures and the old elite’s response to them.

In Nigeria, a new push for greater democracy began with the fall of the Abacha junta. Previous president Olusegun Obasanjo was elected at the polls but tried to change the Constitution to give himself a third term. Parliament rejected the attempt and so he relied on a strategy also tried in some other countries — he stayed on as head of the ruling party and hand-picked its presidential candidate. But he continues to face resistance, both because the election in which Obasanjo’s choice, Umaru Yar’Adua, won was riddled with irregularities and because Yar’Adua has not turned out as compliant as his predecessor had hoped (a problem that also faced some other presidents who tried to control their successors after their terms were up). Again, the cause of the conflict is the push for more democracy and the elite’s reaction to it.

Here, Jacob Zuma’s victory was prompted by claims that Thabo Mbeki was not accountable enough to the ANC — and fears that a third term would entrench him further. We do not know whether the new leadership will be more democratic than the old — but it remains possible that ANC activists will hold it to account if it is not.

The pattern is clear. The “right” of African presidents to rule for as long as they like, regardless of what their people may think, is under threat. In some cases, such as Ghana, the old order seems to have lost out: a president who was not an ally of military ruler Jerry Rawlings was elected in a free vote. In others, it is not yet clear whether change has brought greater democracy or a new elite insulated from its people. And in still others, the old order is winning thus far. But in all these cases, we are seeing not a continuation of the old Africa but an attempt to build a new one in which people will acquire a say in their lives.

One reason this is happening is that the international climate is more hostile to undemocratic rulers. Fears that the “war on terror” would thwart democratic pressure as the United States and Britain embraced any autocrat who supported them have not been realised, although in some cases — such as Ethiopia — rulers can get away with flouting democracy if they do what the US wants. Another is that, as a result of economic changes, Africans are beginning to gain the independent resources they need to challenge their rulers — key groups are less dependent on government and more willing to try to hold it to account.

Most of those pressing for greater democracy are not grassroots leaders but members of the elite who are using popular pressures to seek power. But around the world this is usually how democracy is established: grassroots people lack the resources they need to challenge power and the task is left to those who do have them — often dissatisfied members of the elite. So, the fact that the forces of democracy are often led by people who care far more for themselves than the people is not necessarily a problem: once democratic pressures bubble up, they often can’t be controlled by the elites who want to use them and then rein them in.

Africa is, therefore, not imploding. It is struggling to become free, often in the face of great odds as ruling groups with power and resources hit back. The question is not why Africans can’t govern themselves, but whether the push to claim that right will succeed.

Self-government in Africa has not failed — it has rarely been tried. What we are seeing now is not a descent into more chaos, but an attempt to win it for the first time.


  • Steven Friedman is a research associate at Idasa and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University. He is a newspaper columnist and a media commentator on South African politics. His academic speciality is the study of democracy. He wrote Building Tomorrow Today, a study of the trade-union movement, and edited two studies of the South African transition.


Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a research associate at Idasa and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University. He is a newspaper columnist and a media commentator on South African politics. His academic speciality...

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