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Democracy Still Evolving in Africa


When the winds of multi-party politics swept across Africa in the early 1990s most Africans hoped multi-party democracy would soon be achieved in their countries. More than a decade later, multipartyism is widespread across the continent, but analysts say the lack of constitutional changes and supporting democratic institutions keeps genuine democracy out of reach for many Africans.

At first glance, democracy seems to be flourishing in Africa. There are multiple political parties, vibrant campaigns and elections are held regularly.

Under the surface, analysts say, the foundations of genuine democracy in many countries are weak. They cite feeble constitutional changes to uphold democratic practices, the lack of independent electoral commissions, and the continued influence of ruling parties. In addition, the analysts say, draconian press laws continue to limit press freedom in some countries, and justice systems lack independence.

Professor Haroub Othman teaches Development Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. He says constitutional reforms in many African countries have largely been cosmetic.

"First of all, we must understand that most of these African states went into the multiparty system reluctantly," says Professor Othman. "Most of them wanted to control the change, in the sense that they wanted to make sure the ruling parties were taking advantage and benefiting from the change. And that's why we found that in a number of countries the [old] political order, the legal system continue to exist."

Opposition leaders in Africa have routinely complained of harassment, indiscriminate arrests and beatings at the hands of state law enforcement. Several have been thrown in jail for allegedly conducting illegal activities such as unauthorized political rallies. Analysts say among the worst offenders to democratic principles are countries such as Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been at war for much of the last decade.

In Zimbabwe, the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, has been engaged in political duels with President Robert Mugabe's ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF. Members of the MDC have suffered jail terms and beatings.

A recent treason trial against MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai ended in an acquittal. Human rights groups say Zimbabwe's judiciary still maintains a degree of independence, despite increasing pressure by the ruling party.

MDC's Secretary General, Welshman Ncube, says the multiparty system has failed to set the pace for democratic reforms in Zimbabwe, because the ruling party has not made a commitment to change.

"We have a situation where we have a ruling party which does not believe in multipartyism," he notes. "[Itp simply runs a theoretical multi-party system, because that is the 'in' thing. We have a de facto one-party state, not by virtue of people supporting that political party, but by virtue of that political party closing all political space for any other political party to operate as would be the case in a democracy."

Analysts say that while many African countries have failed to make sufficient constitutional changes to support democratic reform, Zimbabwe has effectively legislated single-party rule.

The New York-based policy institute Freedom House, which charts democratic reform around the world, says that since 1987 there have been at least 15 amendments to the constitution by ZANU-PF. Freedom House says these amendments have made the constitution less democratic and given the government, and particularly members of the executive, more power. Among the changes were the scrapping of the post of prime minister in favor of an executive president and the abolition of the upper chamber of parliament, the senate.

In some cases, such as in Togo and Guinea, leaders have managed to change the constitution through ruling party-dominated legislatures to run for third terms in office.

Opposition groups in Africa argue that the political machinery in many countries remains authoritarian, and is used by the ruling parties to undermine opposition groups. Ibrahim Lipumba is a former college professor who heads the main opposition party in Tanzania, the Civic United Front or CUF. He says the country's ruling party, Chama cha Mapinduzi, or CCM, exercises control on electoral regulations and political funding to restrict opposition activities.

"The constitution has not changed enough to facilitate a level playing ground for multiparty politics," says Mr. Lipumba. "The ruling party conducts itself as if it was still [in] a single party system. We don't have the right to participate, for example, to suggest who should be in the electoral commission."

However, officials in Tanzania say multi-party democracy is still in transition, adding that problems encountered are democratic growing pains. The nation's registrar of political parties, John Tendwa, says over the last decade Tanzania has made steady and incremental reforms in the country's electoral procedures to ensure a fully democratic process.

"Anything transition is transition," says Mr. Tendwa. "[For instance] just before the general elections next year we'll be having [an] electoral commission which comprises members of all political parties. Political parties have to be represented. That was what was missing in the law."

Professor Othman of the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania says multiparty democracy in Africa will only be realized with fundamental changes in constitutions. Professor Haroub points out that when Tanzania decided to allow political pluralism the only constitutional change involved removing articles that had barred multiple political parties.

He says African nations also need to establish a clear separation between the civil service and political parties to avoid conflict of interest in the political process.

Observers say in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, where most civil servants are also card-carrying members of the ruling parties, the boundary between civil servants and the ruling party is so blurred that government officials are often required to perform ruling party duties.

Early this month, 13 opposition parties in Tanzania won a High Court injunction to suspend local elections on grounds that the country's Minister of Home Affairs would have had supervisory powers in the elections. The elections were scheduled for late November.

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