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Africa's Record on Democracy Mixed, say Analysts

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. In the first part of a series on democracy in Africa, VOA Africa Division reporter Cindy Shiner takes a look at the state of democracy on the continent.

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 1960s to the late 1980s, the continent had more than 70 coups and 13 presidential assassinations. Chris Fomunyoh is senior associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute, an arm of the U.S. Democratic Party, which works to promote democracy around the world. He 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," he said. "There was Senegal, the Gambia, Botswana and Mauritius."

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 Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 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 countries have undergone peaceful transfers of power from one political party to another since 1990.

But the National Democratic Institute's 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 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 it's a mixed bag," he said.

Brook Hailu is deputy ambassador at the Embassy of Ethiopia in Washington. He cautions that reform takes time. He says that Ethiopia's large size and pastoral population are among several challenges to consolidating democracy in the country.

"They're always on the move," he said. "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."

Although several opposition parties are active in Ethiopia, human rights groups accuse the government of repression. After a rare meeting with opposition parties, Ethiopia's ruling party agreed in October to key reforms of the country's electoral law ahead of next year's general elections.

Analysts say successful African democracies follow no set pattern. They can be poor, such as Cape Verde and Niger, or wealthier, such as Botswana and South Africa. They can be largely Muslim, Mali is an example, or mainly Christian, like Ghana.

But Mr. Fomunyoh 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," he said. "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 the examples of statesmen such as Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali. Mr. Fomunyoh says it is because of such leaders that he is still confident of Africa's democratic future, despite the crises that some countries are facing.