By Larry Diamond
From the early 1990s, Africa has experienced a “second liberation” that has opened up new prospects for democratic development on the continent. After 1990, most of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa legalized opposition parties and held competitive, multiparty elections. But those elections have often not met the minimal democratic criteria of freeness and fairness. Many incumbent parties have exploited institutional advantages to deny the opposition any chance of winning power in the new multi-party regimes. These regimes are best understood as #”pseudodemocracies” or what Richard Joseph has termed “virtual democracies.”
A distinction between a “merely” electoral democracy and a more substantial form, what may be termed “liberal democracy” is crucial to understanding the limits and possibilities of democratic development in Africa. In a liberal democracy, elected officials have power as well as authority, and the military and police are subordinate to them. The rule of law is upheld by an independent and respected judiciary. As a result, citizens have political and legal equality, state officials are themselves subject to the law, and individual and group liberties are respected. People are free to organize, demonstrate, publish, petition, and speak their minds. Newspapers and electronic media are free to report and comment, and to expose wrongdoing.
Minority groups can practice their culture, their faith, and their beliefs without fear of victimization. Executive power is constrained by other governmental actors. Property rights are protected by law and by the courts. Corruption is punished and deterred by autonomous, effective means of monitoring and enforcement.
If we are to understand the prospects for democratic development on the continent, we must have a clear conceptual framework for measuring the real extent of that progress. And we may also want to examine the relationship between the extent of democracy and the likelihood of its consolidation.
It is certainly plausible to argue that liberal democratic regimes—those which are more politically inclusive, accountable, and respectful of civil liberties—are more likely to become broadly valued and legitimate, and hence consolidated.
This is not to suggest, however, that a rapid transition to liberal democracy is everywhere realistic, or the only path to democratic progress. If, with Richard L. Sklar, we view democracy in developmental terms, as emerging in fragments or parts by no fixed timetable or sequence, then the presence of one fragment of democracy can provide space, experience, initiative, or inspiration for the emergence of others. From this perspective, every increment of democratic progress is significant and should be encouraged. Thus, the presence in pseudodemocracies of legal opposition parties that may contest elections and of somewhat greater scope for civil society groups to organize and educate the people can gradually erode the hegemony of the ruling party and even produce a surprising breakthrough to electoral democracy.
By the same token, although electoral democracy may have many illiberal features, the ability to turn the ruling party out of power is a crucial threshold for democratization, especially given Africa’s harshly authoritarian experience. Most liberal democracies that do emerge in Africa will probably do so after passing through (or even slipping back to) some period of “merely” electoral democracy.
The democratic situation in Africa today is very fluid. Many of the remaining African authoritarian regimes have weaker domestic support bases and face more vigorous and organized opposition, especially in civil society. Some of the pseudodemocracies, such as #Kenya and #Ethiopia, at least have more political pluralism and freedom. Senegal experienced a breakthrough in March 2000 from pseudodemocracy to electoral democracy, as a result of international pressure and domestic vigilance that produced a surprisingly free and fair election and the defeat of the ruling Socialist Party after 40 years in power.
Most remaining authoritarian regimes in Africa are fragile. The problem is that most of the new democracies are as well. Increasingly Africa is threatened by the specter not just of authoritarianism but of the breakdown or disintegration of the state altogether. Because of the low legitimacy and pervasive weakness of state structures of all kinds, the #democratic prospect appears more open-ended in Africa, more subject to the influence of a number of key variables, than in any other region of the world.
Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution
email: diamond@ hoover.stanford.edu