Africa And The Challenges Of Democratization


Dedicated to Nigeria's History, Socio-Economic and Political issues




LUNARPAGES.COM and IPOWERWEB.COM - Despicable WebHosts - Read My Story









Gbenga Olawepo

Former National Deputy Publicity Secretary, PDP



Abuja, 2004


At the close of the 20th century Democracy was the most canvassed global concern. It remains the critical subject even at the beginning of this millennium. Kicking off with the momentum of a hurricane around the late eighties, by the close of the last century it has become a typhoon leaving fire and rubbles in its trail as it pulled down strong holds and iron curtains.


The year 1989 appeared to have been the turning point in the democratization wave that swept the entire globe from Tianamen square in China where the students revolted, to the massive rebellion against military dictatorship on the streets of Lagos, kano and the length and breadth of Nigeria; from the strident advocacy of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost, to the crusade and campaigns of vaclev in Prague; from the uprising in Port novo –Benin, to the strikes and marches in Gdansk-Poland the battle cry was Democracy.


Since then the democratic wave has refused to abait – sweeping the pariah regimes of apartheid in South Africa and semi dictatorship in Indonesia in the 90’s. So profound was the wind of democracy that Omar Bongo the strong man of Congo explained “the wind of the east are shaking the coconut trees!”


To appreciate the depth of the democratic current of the mid eighties and nineties we may have to turn to statistics. According to David Porter et-al in Democratization (“in 1975 68% of countries through out the world were authoritarian, by the end of 1995 only about 26% of countries of the world remained so.


What then has made democracy thick?

Why is its reach so overwhelming, tearing down physical and spiritual walls?

What is its staying power?


In addressing these questions we need to first answer what is democracy, its mores, values, its dynamics, its texture, its essence, what is it not.



Defining Democracy


The dictionary meaning of democracy is a government in which supreme power (sovereignty) is rested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agent under a free electoral system.

Abraham Lincoln called it a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Democracy can either be direct or representative in form, it could be parliamentary or presidential or mixed as in the French model. The first categorization depends on the size of the space where it is practiced. Direct Democracy is only associated with the village square representation as was in Athens, or village meeting in most of Africa. The second categorization will depend on the particular history of democracy the nature of alliance, class and group struggle for democracy.


In what- ever way we look at it, Democracy is associated with how to institutionalize freedom. And freedom is natural to man, it is innate and in alienable like the late Nigeria Afro beat maestro –Fela Anikulapo sang “Human right na my property”. Therefore the degree to which the political system of a state sets the institutional framework for the presentation of natural rights of man defines whether it is democratic or authoritarian.


Features of a Democratic State:


i)                Free and fair, competitive and periodic elections

ii)              The existence of competing parties and autonomous organization of civil society.

iii)            The open conduct of affairs of state in a transparent manner.

iv)            Provision of fundamental and basic Human Rights, such as freedom of expression, speech, right to life, freedom of association and assembly.

v)              Government by law and due process or what is called “The rule of law”


The state must be law governed and no one shall be above such laws that must be strictly adhered to. Every one must be equal before the law that exists. In a democracy the servititude to Law appears to be the only servititude tolerable. In the words of Cicero of Rome “we are in bondage to law in order that we may be free”.


Another component of the rule of law is the doctrine that no one should exercise absolute and unchecked powers. There must therefore exist institutional checks on the power of both elected and appointed officials, it is this that the French philosopher Montesque elaborated in his work “Esiprit des Lios” and properly described as the doctrine of separation of powers.


Democratic values and culture


It will appear from the above discourse that the central concern of democracy is on individual freedom, which raises the question of how to resolve possible conflict that could arise in the process of the multitude asserting their individual freedom, especially when society is pluralistic, and not everyone will relate to an issue from the same perspective.

The interesting answer is that it is the very way in which conflicts that necessarily arises through various individual attempts to assert their personal group interest that is the defining essence of the culture and mores of democracy. These are

(i)             Compromise and consensus building.

(ii)           Negotiations/concessions

(iii)         Debate and resolution of conflicts through dialogue


Democracy is an unfinished song, sometimes slow, sometimes fast.

Though it is true that human beings were created free and equal with natural rights that are inalienable but the acquisition over time of the instrument of subduing and dominating man by man over time has made that which is natural to all men become a subject of social struggles. It could no longer be taken for free but purchased at a price struggle and vigilance. Democracy like its core issue-freedom has had also to witness its operation, features and boundaries defined and redefined in the long stretch of human history. It is a tree whose root continues to be wet by the blood of its martyrs, from country to country, class to class, race to race and generation to generation. Let us travel briefly into humanities recent history to see democracy’s slow march in three classical democracies – Britain, France and America.




Britain best typifies the stage by stage expansion of democratic boundaries often given momentum by the very enormous amount of human suffering, strife, rebellion and some times severe reversals accompanied by massive repression spanning over four centuries.

The slowness in Britain’s movement along the democratic ladder is clearly demonstrated by the fact that whereas the civil war of 1640-1649 put paid to monarchial absolutism and transferring considerable power to the elected house of commons and the un-elected house of lords, it will take almost 300years 1929, before universal adult suffrage that covered women franchise would be introduced. The road to 1929 was tortous as suffrage in most of the years continued to be unified property qualification.


Their also existed a terribly corrupt electoral systems where electoral constituencies were massively skewed in favour of rural areas despite demographic changes in favour of urban counties. This increased the influence of the lords in the electoral system.


During the Napoleonic wars 1799 – 1815. Basic rights were also suspended followed by massive repression. The year 1832 however witnessed the expansion of suffrage in property ownership terms, preceded by struggles instigated by the chatterist movement; the suffrage now included middle class elements. Repression was however to follow after massive working class revolts. This repression was in the 1850’s. In 1867 a reform act was promulgated which enfranchised a large section in the cities and boroughs. In 1884 the reform act covered the shires and counties.


The first equitable distribution of parliamentary constituencies was achieved in 1885; this made it possible for 2/3 of men to vote and 40% of workers too. In 1911 the house of common limited the power of the un-elected house of lord after a raging battle over taxation. This was a remarkable gain which left British democracy with the un resolved question of Ireland as the only shadow on its democracy.




In America the process of democratization has been largely intertwined with the struggle for national liberation from colonization, and the struggle to overthrow enslavement of black people by American colonist. In 1799 the American war of independence was waged leading to the declaration of independence. In that war the battle cry was freedom and democracy.


The spirit of that struggle was captured in the legendary writing of Thomas Jefferson in the declaration of American independence (here him). “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Thus to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed”. Thus the Americans established a presidential democracy, comprising of an elected executive, legislatures and judiciary, under the principle of separation of powers with existing checks and balances.


As clear and strong as the spirit of Jefferson declaration was, its notion of equality did not extend to African American who constituted the slave population that was 20% of the population of the united states of America. Infact under American law then a black man was 2/3 of a white, so much for men created equal.


Among the white population too suffrage was limited by property and class, infact in most states literacy tests were conducted, as a pre-condition for registration on the electoral roll.


The process of getting the black population to enjoy franchise in US was to follow the path of a struggle, which started first as struggle to abolish slavery secondly to end discrimination and inequality. The mode of the struggle after the war fought to abolish slavery consisted of boycott, campaigns, street marches, rallies, sit-in etc.


Apart from black slaves, the women folk in American were also excluded from the coverage of Jefferson’s high-sounding declarations for nearly 200years. It was only after the First World War that women enjoyed franchise in United States of America.




The French republic was declared in1798 after Louis xvi the absolutist monarch of France was executed following the revolution that began in1789 sparked off by the conditions of France social economic by system.


Since after the dramatic event of the French of 1789 the journey to French democracy has been up and low, oscillating between democratic monarchy and even military rule with each era presenting new expansion in the boundaries of freedom depending on the balance of forces.


Between 1793 – 1794, the Jacobins lunched their terror, which precipitated a lot of crises. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte took over and recreated a monarchical empire, from then one type of monarchy to the other took place-restricting suffrage. By 1851 Lois Napoleon launched his coup and led France into a war of the powers, which saw him defeated.

With the defeat in war the Napoleonic regime collapsed. Elections were held in1884 giving victory to radical reformers who were able to emasculate                   the un-representative upper house in the distribution of power.


In France universal adult suffrage took a longer time to cover women and all eligible adult. Infact it was only in1946 elections that what can be referred to as genuine adult suffrage was introduced in France abolishing property restriction and gender limits, the road to freedom in France was fierce; it was revolution, revolt coup’de tat’s and wars.




In our earlier definition of democracy we averred that democracy is associated with the institutionalization of freedom, and that the desire for freedom is innate to all men. It therefore goes without saying that the struggle for democracy is an heritage, which Africa shares.


However, the pattern, tempo and the direction of democratization in Africa did not follow the patterns of the French and the American revolutions, essentially because the social economic framework of Africa were not the same as that of Europe and America.


To start with the feuded monarchical absolutism of France, Britain and the majority of pre revolutionary Europe which produced severe human suffering and alienation of Europe was not a common feature in pre-colonial and pre-oriental Africa. You needed such level of alienation such as that of France where very few families owned the entired land of France, for a revolution so fierce as that of 1796 to take places.


In Africa pre colonial and pre oriental, every family had access to land not as chattels and serfs but as freeborn.

Also at the political front in pre-colonial Africa the superintending political super structure where-as was monarchical, it was not absolutist. It carried in it features of modern constitutional democracy with the exception of electoral suffrages which in most cases were not completely achieved in Europe until after the first world war.


In Oyo, Asante and other Africa kingdoms before the influence of Islamic and oriental forces, there were laid down constitutional patterns of governance and established code of justice between the 16th and 18th century. The criminal justice system was based on tradition, which are well separated from the legislative function of the king council. (Both Alafin of Oyo and the Asantene had limitation to their powers as both could be dethroned or destooled for abuse of power. In the case of Oyo an Alafin that was found to have abused the office would be presented with a white calabash by the Oyo mesi-legislator/councilors and would be expected to commit suicide and abdicate the throne.


Women particularly in Oyo enjoyed a pride of place in governance as they were represented in Alafin’s council; they also administered justice as in the traditional judicial system.


Extreme inequalities, alienation and absolutism in very pronounced terms were to become more evident in Africa, only with the development of orientally influenced empires or the advent of colonialism which necessitated that freedom that were taken for granted in pre colonial African state would have to be bitterly fought for and canonized into a defined constitution. Therefore it is not accidental that we shall begin our discussion on the struggle for democracy in Africa, with the struggle against both the direct rule brand in British West Africa and settler colonialism in Africa. The second face of these discussions will be to look at democracy in the period of newly independent state against the background of dependent economy and the condition of alienation, and thirdly the latest democratization wave of 1989 till date.




By its very nature colonialism is contradictory to democratic governance because it is based on the political domination of an alien ruling elite whose primary responsibilities is to the metropolitan government rather than the colonized people.


The first wave of resistance to colonialism was first from traditional elites of pre-colonial Africa. It is in the second wave of nationalism that modern democratic concepts similar to those expressed by democratic agitators of Europe and America emerged. After all Africa had been forcefully annexed and casted as satellite and subsidiary outpost along Euro-America lines. Semi and budding prototype classes similar to that of Europe had emerged expressing similar democratic concern of the earlier first revolutionist and philosophers.


Playing a lead role in these are West African educated nationalists like Kwame Nkruma, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Julius Nyerere and other second-generation freedom fighters. For them the question of democracy was intertwined with the question of self-determination and independence. The fundamental question was how to exercise power after the overthrow of colonialism.


In this, struggle newspapers were formed, political parties organized, strikes organized by trade unions, protests by youth movements and agitation by women groups. The student’s movement such as the West African student unions also played lead roles.


In countries of settler colonialist like Kenya, Zimbabwe, the struggle also took the twist of armed struggle before the elections were organized. By 1960 most of Africa had achieved independence and electoral democracies under constitutions that were discussed and sometime subjected to referendum. The countries that did not immediately achieve independence were the settler colonial states and the colonies of backward colonial Portugal who underwent complicated and protracted wars that degenerated into protracted civil wars due to interference by western political powers during the era of the Cold War.




Independence and the triumph of elected government were short lived in Africa. As from around 1966 most of the elected governments on pluralist-multi party basis began to degenerate into one party rule or were already overthrow by military coup detas. This reality was later complicated by increasing interest of the Unites States to act as counterweight to the influence of the then soviet union which earned several allies in the victorious nationalist parties due to the soviet support to the nationalist movement.


The United States as the victorious leader of the western hemisphere intervened in Africa in some instances by financing and directly participating in military coups to overthrown the elected democratic governments in Africa. Such as congo where Patrice – Lumumba, the elected prime minister was overthrown and murdered, Mobuto Sese Seko who took over was to later unleash a regime of repression which left his country in an orgy of blood letting, wars and violence in his nearly three decades of dictatorship.


By 1979 most of Africa was either under one party rule or military rule. Democracy was on the retreat only to gain momentum in the late eighties to mid nineties.




Though democratic rule was relatively short-lived after independence. In Africa there was still the general feeling that it is what ought to exist and the idea of democracy remained a popular concern in what has come to be known as the mass movement in Africa. This includes the students, youth movement, the Bar, the press, the trade union and the now prevalent middle class and to some points the clergy and some sections of the ruling elite.


These popular concern were to later receive a lot of impetus by a major global development which in future will play serious role in whether Africa will be safe for democracy or not.


This major development was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the entire Warsaw alliance. By this major development the US dispensed with the services of its authoritarian front in Africa which it has used to maintain some balance of power in the continent since Africa accounts for ½ of a percentage of its total foreign investment the strategic need to maintain the “fronts” declined. Devoid of external propist was a matter of time for the US maintained dictators to  “wither away”. Besides the increasing role of multi-lateral agencies in Africa due to mounting foreign debt and the dominant role of western controlled Brettonwood institutions has made organizing Africa and the whole world in a new way other than old authoritarian format of the cold war era an imperation. Promoting democratization globally therefore become a component of the US foreign policy and infact part of the ‘conditionalities’ of Brettonwood Institutions – World Bank IMF, IFC etc etc.


This newly promoted democratization however is not ideologically neutral. As it came with a neo-liberalist category which include economic liberalization, privatization, devaluation of currency, removal of state subsidies, fiscal discipline, reduction of public sector finance etc etc


Beyond the external interest however democratization is a phenomena, which Africans are actively, participating in. it was what they elected for at independence and what they were prepared and still prepare to suffer and die for. For this reason the road to the recent stage of democratization in Africa has been the road of suffering and sacrifice.


The struggle for democratization and the sacrifice that goes with it has been in every region of the continent and broad based. In Nigeria it was ignited by the student’s movement, human right groups, the media and even a section

of the billionaires in dollars class. In fact it claimed the lives of the late business mogul Bashorun M.KO. Abiola, and his wife Alhaja Kudirat Abiola and a septugenarian businessman Pa Alfred Rewane.


In Malawi the struggle involved the clergy, led by Archbishop James ChionnG who issued his pastoral letter in 1992 against the government of Hasting Kamuzu Banda.


In Ghana the opposition led by the current president Khufour were exemplary, in Zambia the  congress of trade unions were unique.


To these continental wide struggles for democracy must we add the struggle for abolition of apartheid in South Africa and Namibia. South Africa was a peculiar theatre of mass struggle for the establishment of multi-racial democracy whose vision and features has long been in the freedom charter drawn up in 1955 at the congress of people.


The people of South Africa also had the guiding hand of a old organization with a rich democratic and organizational tradition-the African National Congress (ANC) born in 1912, seven years before the Bolshevik revolution. The struggle in South Africa has many watershed one of these was Sharplville massacre. A protest against the apartheid pass laws in 1960 organized by the pan Africa congress (PAC) leading to the death of 167 people by the apartheid police, the other was in 1973 by the trade unions strikes and the soweto massacre of 1976  of school children by the South Africa police, Soweto  particularly brought out the struggles in South Africa in bold relief. School children went on class boycott protesting the introduction of Afrikan. The oppressors language introduce as a language of instruction. The protest claimed the lives of over 400 children and that of the pan African’s leader of the black consciousness movement Steve Biko.


By early 80’s the essentially democratic content of the anti-apartheid struggles were coming out sharper and sharper, propagated majorly by the United Democratic Front (UDF) and congress of African trade union COSATU. The United Democratic Front was an umbrella of 600 – 700 civil organization who in 1985 came together with the congress of South Africa trade union as mass democratic movement demanding for a free democratic, non-racial South Africa.


Between 1985 – 1986 strikes as a weapons of agitation had increased by 90% while over 700,000 pupils boycotted school and local authority were in function. In 1986 state of emergency was declared with 29,000 people arrested and held without charge. Between 1984 and 1988 over 4000 people died or disposed as a result of apartheid clampdown and many state sponsored assassination of freedom fighter in exile took place.


The tempo of mass action did not abate. However with the defeat of South Africa troops in the battle of counterna valley by the Cuban volunteer backed Angola troops, and other international factors the apartheid government began to collapse rapidly. Development was the release of Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighter after 27 years imprisonment, return of ANC from exile, and rounds of negotiation leading to non-racial elections in 1993.


By and large by the mid 90’s most of Africa with the exception of Nigeria, Gambia, Sudan and the states under civilian have held multiparty elections. In 1999 one of the exceptions Nigeria joined the growing numbers of states who have held multiparty election and who could be said to be democratizing. The number makes an impressive percentage of about 70%.




That between 1889 and the 90’s Africa achieved fast track democratization in about 68% of the countries should present a great excitement, but lessons from history commends only caution. One of these cautions is that for democracy to be firmly established it has to be nurtured by vigilance and above all an economic environment that replaces despair with hope and poverty with prosperity.


Lesson from history instructs us that where you have democracy arrived at without the requisite balance of internal forces, and an economic environment that generates the prosperity of majority of people especially when democratic institutions are still fledging and fragile a relapse to autocracy is possible. Warning signs can be deciphered from the experience of Europe between 1919 – 1939.


At the end of world war 1, it initially appeared that liberal democratic governance triumphed in Europe following the terms imposed by victors and campaign led by American president Woodrow Wilson that the World be made safe for democracy following the defeat of the German-Austro Hungarian and ottoman empires.

But twenty years later after 1919 a catastrophic reversal of the initial democratization wave in Europe had taken place given way to authoritarian and military government in most of Europe, sparing only the British isle, Scandinavian, benignly countries and Switzerland.


The following is the sad chronology: 1922 Mussolini marched on Rome, pilsudslu made a coup in Warsaw in 1926, Salazar made his own in 1929 Portugal, Hitler arrived the Berlin chancery in 1933 and general Franco became victorious in the Spanish civil war in 1939. Scholars like David porter et al (British), have argued in their book – democratization, that severe economic difficulties, terrible social divisions, and the consequences of massive economic obligations of the loser state in the war, in the face of fragile democratic institutions provided a fertile ground for the return of authoritarian rule and the collapse of democracy in most states of Europe after world war II.


While fascism was never rationalized on the basis of prevailing post war economic and social conditions the impact of this cannot in anyway be underestimated.  For democratization and fledging African democracies after three decades of mostly authoritarian and military rule there is a lesson to learn. We can appreciate if we draw similarities between Africa in the post military and authoritarian era’s with Europe after World War 1.


Drawing this parallel we are persuaded to believe it is not an exaggeration. For most military and dictatorial regime of Africa after the overthrow of popularly elected government in the wake of independence of Africa where rampaging armies of internal colonization. They killed, they maimed, they raped and they looted. They marginalized and degraded; they conducted politics like warfare, and saw civil opposition as enemy maneuvers that must be crushed. Critics were seen as enemies to be decimated, captured and destroyed.


The dictatorial regimes embarked on massive borrowing as a result of their inability to efficiently run the economy as self-reliant entities while also embarking in massive transfer of loots to Europe. The consequence of this is low productive base in Africa, massive illiteracy, chronic underdevelopment, lack of substantial internal capital formation, high unemployment rate, inflation and deflation, and massive foreign debts. In some case the state dissolved into perpetual ethnic conflict, wars and programs and some the disappearance of the state.


The interesting similarity here is that where as western powers did not make a discrimination between the crushing economic obligations of fledging post world war 1 democracies of Europe from the fascist regimes that caused the war, they are also not making an exception of fledging democracies of Africa, as against defunct dictatorships.


African fragile democracies are required to commit massive resources to service, a crushing foreign debt and also required to mop up available paltry capital, cut spending on social sectors, and withdraw subsidies in order to meet foreign debt obligation to western creditors.


The import of this is that while Africa is democratizing, the poor masses of Africa continue to carry the burden of autocracy in increasingly dwindling social, condition, poverty and squalor.


The fear is that if immediate debt cancellation is not granted by our western friends in order to free resources for massive social development democratic institution and their symbol may soon be discredited, and inertia may soon set in, and a fertile ground may have been laid for some benevolent dictatorship, or neo-fascist regimes through the ballot or outside it just like it happened in Europe between 1919 – 1939 or worst still the increasing wave of terrorism may begin to creep into Africa with every turn of crushing poverty.


It is therefore in the self-interest of Africa democratic partners and friends in the global arena to heed to the call of African leaders for immediate debt cancellation for democracy to survive in Africa.


After all the people that brought dictatorship and caused massive foreign debts were sponsored through coup deta’t’s against democratically elected governments in Africa by the same western powers in the era of cold wars. To continue to demand for debt servicing and repayment will be tantamount to asking an aneamic baby to donate blood.






horizontal rule

© 1998 - 2015 Segun Toyin Dawodu. All rights reserved. All unauthorized copying or adaptation of any content of this site will be liable to  legal recourse.


Segun Toyin Dawodu, P. O. BOX 3969, Gettysburg, PA  17325-0969, USA.

This page was last updated on 04/08/15.