How Africa’s past will shape its future While many countries on the continent have made significant strides with regard to democratisation and bringing about peace, the same cannot be said for others.
tihe s “Africa Rising” narrative a reality or a myth? This is the question that continues to define the debate about the present state of the African continent and its future trajectory. A salient aspect of the debate revolves around whether African countries have regressed in terms of consolidating the democratic reforms they began implementing in the mid-1990s. In particular, the question is whether African countries have made meaningful progress in respect of managing leadership succession.
At the height of Africa’s “lost decade” in the 1980s – marked by, among others, gross economic mismanagement, a devastating debt crisis, disastrous structural adjustment policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank as well as inter-state and intra-state conflicts – the notion of an orderly and peaceful transfer of political power was widely frowned upon by the continent’s leaders. Dictatorial rule, epitomised by the dominance of military governments and the ubiquitousness of coups d’état, was the norm rather than the exception.
The end of the Cold War, and the defeat of apartheid in South Africa, brought about far-reaching geopolitical changes across the continent and heralded what became known as the “golden age” in African leadership. This is a period that saw the ascendancy of a new generation of modernising leaders, including SA’s Thabo Mbeki, Tanzania’s Benjamin Mokapa, Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade.
These leaders championed African renewal and conceived the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad). Nepad was a pledge by African leaders to end poor governance, corruption and conflicts in their countries.
Despite some shortcomings, Nepad succeeded in promoting democratic norms and fostering political, economic and corporate accountability in several countries through its peer review mechanism.
Nonetheless, some countries on the continent have continued to be plagued by leadership succession failures.
Countries that have experienced problematic or failed political transitions include Guinea-Bissau, Egypt, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Togo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
These governance setbacks, however, have been offset by successful leadership transitions in countries such as SA, Mozambique, Ghana, Zambia, Tanzania, Malawi and, recently, Nigeria. for more than three decades and have never had a handover of political power to new incumbents.
Some key points
A few insights can be discerned from African countries’ attempts to grapple with the complex processes of democratisation over the past two decades.
Some countries have proven to be better than others in getting transitions right. These countries have succeeded in developing well-defined, regulated, transparent and constitutionally-based mechanisms for determining leadership succession.
The “Big Man” syndrome has remained a key aspect of the continent’s political landscape. Although Africa has made remarkable strides towards embracing democracy, autocratic and self-serving rule has continued to shape politics across the continent.
Faster economic growth has led to a rise in middle classes, who have demanded more accountability and transparency from their governments. The growth of the middle classes has coincided with a growth in civil society organisations, which have been at the forefront of the struggles for democratic change.
Africa’s youth will play a critical role in shaping the future of the continent. Making up the bulk of the continent’s population, many young people have not benefitted from the rapid economic growth experienced by their countries in recent years. If Africa is to have a secure political and economic future, it is essential that youth participation in political processes and decision-making is promoted.
Moreover, even though Africa has made impressive economic progress, political institutions in many countries have not kept pace. Shoring up political institutions, such as legislatures and the judiciary, is crucial to building enduring democracy and preventing a default into authoritarian rule.
In sum, the democratisation and political succession story in Africa is one of achievements, setbacks and regression.
Encouragingly, the continent’s problems in managing transitions are outnumbered by its accomplishments.
Even so, African leaders cannot claim to be active champions for reform in global governance while domestically induced problems of political misrule, endemic corruption, human rights abuses, high levels of capital flight and gross fiscal mismanagement continue to linger on unchecked.
Nepad succeeded in promoting democratic norms and fostering political, economic and corporate accountability in several countries.