Sixty years ago, the British, French and Belgian governments began to bring 45 of their African colonies to independence. Most new African nations inherited multi-party democracies from their former colonial masters. However, it was not long before many of these young democracies began to transform into one-party dictatorships. Eventually, poor decisions and poor management swung the pendulum the other way.
The 1990s brought new constitutions, national conferences and multi-party elections. But I fear that the pendulum will begin to swing again in some countries on the African continent, and that democracies will once again be threatened with regression.
In 1962, as a young American foreign service officer, I was able to witness the transition into the British protectorate of Uganda. Elections were held to select a prime minister and members of parliament. There were two major competing political parties, the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and the Democratic Party (DP). The election gave the DP a plurality of seats in parliament, but not a majority. The UPC, with the second most seats, made an alliance with the minor Kabaka Yekka party form a parliamentary majority. In the aftermath of independence, the head of the UPC, Milton Obote, became Uganda’s first prime minister; the head of the DP, Benedicto Kiwanuka, became Leader of the Opposition; and the last British Governor, Sir Walter Couttsleft to retire in England.
Uganda’s experience of inherited multi-party democracy was repeated across Africa in former European colonies. Unfortunately, within a decade, most of Africa’s pioneering post-independence leaders became disillusioned with their democratic systems and began to transition to authoritarian rule. Multi-party democracy was abolished and “one-party democracy” was installed.
African leaders have justified one-party rule on cultural grounds. Africans, they argued, are not comfortable with the heated public debates that prevail in multi-party systems. At the village level, when faced with an important decision, they prefer to discuss issues softly and slowly. After a while, a consensus emerges. The one-party African state would make decisions at the national level in the same way.
After a few years, the one-party African state no longer resembled the submissive village “palabra” described. Every one-party state regime has become authoritarian. Essentially, political opposition was banned and legitimate dissent stifled. Parliaments have become rubber stamps for the party leadership. The one-party African state was essentially a benevolent dictatorship that could make bad decisions with impunity – and they made a lot of bad decisions.
For example, many states nationalized private enterprises, including banks, insurance companies, plantations, and mining companies. Thousands of employees were hired who were not needed. In Uganda, where I was stationed at the US Embassy, the national airline had three passenger planes to serve the East African region. The airline had 5,000 employees, when around 250 would have sufficed.
Due to the hiring of excess employees, companies have lost money. They needed government subsidies to stay alive. The money to pay the subsidies was taken from health services, infrastructure maintenance and education. People became discontented and governments became increasingly authoritarian to contain discontent. In several countries – Nigeria, Mali and Ghana – military dictators have arisen to replace civilians.
Democracy experienced a revival in the early 1990s. By then more young Africans had attained higher education and provided the main impetus for democratic movements. A manifestation of this phenomenon has been called the “sovereign national conference”. Driven mainly by civil society, various groups have come together to discuss policy developments. The word “sovereign” signaled the intention to remake governance without interference from those in power. Governments generally tolerated and protected these conclaves.
After drafting new constitutions, various national conferences elected prime ministers from their ranks. These new heads of government began to operate in a general atmosphere of euphoria.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1991 (then called Zaire) the national conference selected Etienne Tshisekedi as prime minister. He had been one of the most vocal critics of the one-party dictator, President Mobutu Sese Seko, and spent time in prison as a result. After Tshisekedi was selected, Mobutu refused to confirm it. I went to see Mobutu, who complained that the new constitution left him nothing to do. “I am the head of state. I should be able to appoint ambassadors and greet foreign ambassadors,” he told me. I assured him that he would have full control over diplomacy and foreign affairs. , but I insisted that it had nothing to do with finances and the budget.With this conversation, Tshisekedi was sworn in as Prime Minister.
The success of this era of multi-party democracies has been mixed. Some countries, such as Benin, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya, have made governance truly democratic. The idea of a policy made by African citizens through their democratically elected representatives progressed slowly. Good examples have emerged in Mali, Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Chad.
Others, however, have succumbed to corruption, election rigging and ethnic exclusivity. In Tanzania, for example, it was impossible for the former single party, the Tanzanian African National Union, to be defeated in an election.
Now, many democracies find themselves precariously perched. Recent military coups in Mali, Niger and Chad have set countries back. In Mozambique, the judgment Frelimo Party was involved in a financial scandal in which $2 billion in bank loans collected for the purchase of tuna fishing boats have disappeared. In Benin, President Patrice Talon seems establishment a civilian dictatorship.
But the situation in Africa is not without positive developments. In Angola, President João Lourenço is working to retrieve hundreds of millions of dollars were allegedly stolen and exported by the family of former President Dos Santos. The same goes for the Democratic Republic of Congo, where President Félix Tshisekedi has signed a contract with an American company to advise his anti-corruption agency on the recovery of millions of dollars. allegedly sent to the family and associates of his predecessor Joseph Kabila.
Fortunately, there are signs that young Africans rising to positions of power are focusing on the needs of their nations. Civil society advocacy organizations provide expertise and encouragement. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go. From 2020, the African military putsch has returned to fashion.
Herman J. Cohen served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1989-1993), United States Ambassador to Senegal and The Gambia (1977-1980), member of the National Security Council (1987-1989), and a veteran 38 years old from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Service. He is the author of “American policy towards Africa: eight decades of realpolitik.” The opinions expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @CohenOnAfrica.