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Challenges Remain to Consolidating Democracy in Several African Countries

It has been 15 years since the Cold War ended and the democracy movement began to sweep Africa. It led to elections in most countries. In some, democracy has taken root. In others, observers say elections have been little more than political theater. First came independence from colonial rule. Then came the demand to be free from post-colonial authoritarian leaders.

Africa had a long way to go. From the early 1960's to the late 1980's, the continent had more than 70 coups and 13 presidential assassinations. Chris Fomunyoh, of the National Democratic Institute in Washington, says by the end of the Cold War there were only a handful of African democracies.

"In 1990 there were only four African countries where multi-partyism was allowed. There was Senegal, the Gambia, Botswana and Mauritius," he says. African leaders were spurred on to accept multi-party politics, in part, by Western donors who had begun to condition aid on democratic reform. Cold War loyalties no longer mattered. Now, every sub-Saharan African nation has held elections, except for the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire. The degree of fairness of polls across the continent, however, has varied widely.

The New York-based policy institute Freedom House, which charts democratic reform around the world, says about 18 African countries can be considered genuine electoral democracies. A dozen African nations have undergone peaceful transfers of power from one political party to another since 1990. But Mr. Fomunyoh says that, while progress has been made, more needs to be done:

"In a number of countries, whether it's Zimbabwe or Gabon or Cameroon or Togo or Guinea-Conakry, you have leaders who have been in power for well over 20 years who have outlived their usefulness but continue to cling to power and have become part of the problem rather than the solution to democratic governance. And so when you look at the African continent I would say it's a mixed bag."

Brook Hailu is deputy ambassador at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington. He cautions that reform takes time. He says that Ethiopia's large size and pastoral population pose challenges to consolidating democracy: "They're always on the move. They move around the country. Election requires that they need to have an electoral area, constituency. One needs to have electoral voting procedures to undertake and because of their high degree of mobility this takes time, as well as to gather the results."

Some former Cold War allies have tried to appear as democrats but effectively prevailed through one-party rule. Analysts point to Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Zaire, who manipulated his country's democratic transition until he was overthrown in 1997. Democracy still eludes the country, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mr. Mobutu's neighbor, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, reacted differently to the new African paradigm. He installed what he called no party democracy, saying Ugandans were not yet ready for multiparty politics. Mr. Fomunyoh, of the National Democratic Institute, says there is only one way to prepare Ugandans for democracy:

"There's no university for democracy where you can shape 8 million Ugandans or 10 million Ugandans to go through a four-year undergraduate program and all graduate as democrats. They are going to become democrats by the practice of democracy and you cannot have the opportunity to practice democracy if you don't have democratic institutions in place."

President Museveni's efforts to fight HIV / AIDS and introduce free market reforms helped assure continued Western aid to Uganda. He argued that multiparty politics could inflame ethnic tensions. More recently, he has softened to the idea of a more diverse political life in his country.

Mr. Fomunyoh says democracy supports ethnic diversity: "Ethnicity in Africa is a constant. It's going to be with us whether we're under democratic rule or military rule or one-party rule. The difference is that in democratic societies you have institutions in place that can help us deal with the issue of ethnicity or ethnic diversity on the African continent."

Beko Ransome-Kuti of the Campaign for Democracy in Nigeria agrees: "I mean, democracy means your future in your hands and somebody cannot now come and say, I know better, therefore you must do it the way I see it. I think that is just going to breed conflict."

Some Nigerians are calling for a national conference to help chart Nigeria's democratic future. Others fear a conference would open a Pandora's box of troubles and split the country apart.

National conferences were held in a handful of African countries in the early 1990s to help lead the way to democracy. The meetings built on traditional African ideas of finding consensus.

Some of Africa's most successful democracies have incorporated traditional structures. Mr. Fomunyoh: "Some countries have created a second chamber on the legislative side that would have a house of representatives but then also have a senate that would cater to the special interests of traditional leaders and traditional society. In some countries there used to be a house of chiefs who would have their say and make a contribution to how national policy was formulated."

In some countries, political parties have formed along ethnic lines, although a number of African constitutions prohibit this practice. Human rights groups say some leaders have played the ethnic card as a tactic to divide and rule.

Human Rights Watch points to the case of Ivory Coast, where the main opposition challenger, Alassane Ouattara, was barred from contesting presidential and legislative elections. Officials said Mr. Ouattara could not prove he was an Ivorian citizen. Much of his support came from northern Ivory Coast, which differs ethnically and religiously from the south. The military became politicized and the country has been split in half since civil war erupted two years ago.

Analysts say successful African democracies follow no set pattern. They can be poor, such as Cape Verde and Niger. Or more wealthy, such as Botswana and South Africa. They can be largely Muslim - take Mali for example. Or mainly Christian, like Ghana.

But Chris Fomunyoh of the National Democratic Institute says successful democracies in Africa do appear to have one common factor: "I do think the countries that have been successful in their transitions have relied very strongly on leadership that had a vision for the country and that was itself committed to democratic governance. I think that is what makes the difference say between a country such as Benin and its neighbor such as Togo. That's what makes a difference between a country such as Botswana and a country such as Zimbabwe."

Mr. Fomunyoh says he hopes that African leaders who have resisted change will see that there is a future beyond the state house. He points to statesmen such as Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali. Mr. Fomunyoh says it is because of leaders like them that he is still confident of Africa's democratic future, despite the crises that some countries are facing.