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The Uneven Wave of Democratization in Africa in the 1990s


In this essay, we will explore the miraculous and uneven wave of democratization in Africa in the 1990s. Africa experienced a wave of transitions to more pluralistic democratic systems after 1989 – as most countries in sub-Saharan Africa held some form of competitive party elections that removed some authoritarian rulers [1].

We will find that within a few years, power shifted back to authoritarian rulers – and only a handful of new democracies progressed toward fully participatory systems – and this creates an uneven wave of democratization that yields some democratic achievements.

Africa’s Wave of Democratization in the 1990s

The upheavals in much of Africa after the Berlin Wall was torn down in November 1989 have been referred to as a second independence and rebirth – and the anticolonial movement in the 1960s, which first granted many African countries independence from European colonial powers, was inspired and nurtured by the most quintessential democratic principle that is often omnipresent in any liberal democracy: the people should rule themselves through governments of their own choosing, and this government should treat all people equally under the rule of law.

About a decade after, forms of external political rule were removed – and Africa again distended into an authoritarianism that hardened cold war antagonists and their aid agencies bolstered their clients, proxies, and allies.

The wave of democratization in Sub Saharan Africa in the 1990s is often referred to as the third wave. The successes and failures of this third wave of democratization in Sub Saharan Africa are unique because with every democratic achievement, there was often a setback, making African democratization a double-edged sword. For instance, there were regular elections and occasional transfers of power during this wave of democratization, but they were often disrupted with increasingly illegitimate military interventions [2].

Democratic institutionalization became more prominent – but ongoing endemic corruption often poisoned these institutions. The institutionalization of political parties took place in sub–Saharan African countries and beyond in the 1990s – but there was a rise of an exclusionary (and often violent) politics of belonging.

To further demonstrate Africa’s uneven third wave of democratization, robust civil societies emerged in the continent in the 1990s, but local realities of violence and insecurity decelerated and haunted civil progress.

This period yielded new economic and political innovations in sub-Saharan Africa – but extensive political control and uneven development remained omnipresent.

Thankfully, sub-Saharan African countries are more democratic today than in the late 1980s. To ensure a renewed and more robust wave of democratization ­– there must be a more meaningful processes of democratization that seeks to secure civil and political rights, but also social-economic rights and the physical security of African citizens. Two main events accelerated and paved the way for Africa’s wave of democratization in the 1990s.

The first precursor to Africa’s wave of democratization began in February in 1990 in the French speaking West African nation of Benin – where popular protestors against the corrupt rule of Mathieu Kerekou yielded a “National Conference of Active Forces of the Nation”. This effectively seized power from the dictator and launched a transition to democracy [3].

The model of this conference would subsequently be borrowed, with mixed success, by a number of other African countries seeking a path out of autocracy and authoritarianism. For instance, in South Africa, the apartheid regime, realizing that it was running out of time to negotiate a peaceful transition to a more viable, open, and nonracial political order, released Nelson Mandela from nearly three decades in prison and lifted its ban on the African National Congress, the principle political organization representing the hopes for liberation of the country’s vast Black majority.

This was a beginning of a turn away from repression in favor of negotiation and a transition to democracy in South Africa. In that same month, the Constituent Assembly of Namibia, which had been ruled for seven decades by South Africa, approved a liberal, democratic constitution under which the country gained liberal independence the following month – which was a momentous achievement for democracy, liberalism and political pluralism.

When these events occurred in the early 1990s, there were only three democracies in Africa: Botswana, the Gambia and Mauritius – and each has been continuously democratic since independence, but only Mauritius had really seen an alternation and peaceful transition of the party in power to the next one.

In this same time frame, many other African countries had attempted democracy, some of them (like Nigeria, Ghana, and Sudan) repeatedly, but all had failed – and this demonstrates to us that Africa’s wave of democratization was indeed highly sporadic and uneven.

When looking at the democratic trends in Africa – specifically Sub-Saharan Africa, it is again crucial to emphasize that the year 1990 is indeed the turning point for democracy in Africa – because based on analysis of various definitions and measures of democracy, it seems the adaptation of democratic institutions in the 1990s initially led to a liberalization of the political atmosphere in Africa; however, the gains of the previous decade were short-lived – as the number of free and fair elections with protections of civil liberties stagnated, and in some cases degraded in the 2000s [4]. This phenomenon again illustrates to use Africa’s uneven record on democracy.

Even though virtually every country in Africa has held repeated multiparty elections over the past two decades, democratic development is progressing at an uneven pace across the continent.

In some countries there seems to be a deepening commitment to democratic norms and practices, but in others, this commitment is eroded and undermined both by the elites and the public. This has been a common theme in African politics in the post-colonial period, especially in the 1990s and beyond.

Countries like Ghana, Senegal and Zambia have enjoyed several peaceful transitions between political parties as a result of close and contentious elections ­– while countries such as Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have experienced sudden coup d’états of unpopular but constitutionally elected governments ­– and this demonstrates to us Africa’s uneven and erratic nature and record on democratization.

Some elections on the African continent don’t seem to produce any substantive democratic change whatsoever. Countries such as Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, and Angola routinely hold elections, but the opposition had no realistic chance of dislodging the incumbent party from power, and civil liberties in all three countries have either stagnated or regressed substantially over time.

One serious impediment to democratization in Africa that became omnipresent in the 1990s and beyond was the absence or weakness of real commitment to democratic values among political leaders [5].

When many African leaders are out of power, they have good reason to advocate for democracy – but when they are in power, the real test to these leader’s commitment to democracy assumes form. Most African leaders who have more or less abided by democracy, often do so grudgingly and they often do not vehemently uphold and defend democratic values.

The role of the economy and living conditions in suppressing Africa’s democratization is undeniable. Growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa are often sluggish and per capita GNP in Africa is stagnant during the late 1970s and declined at an annual rate of 2.2% during the 1980s ­– and these trends continued well into the 1990s and beyond. Unfortunately, this has created tremendous economic obstacles that have clearly created a tense atmosphere for democratization.

Growth rates and poor economic conditions often inhibit any serious democratization, and this is exactly what happens in sub-Saharan Africa through the 1990s. Economic development often makes democracy possible ­­– and unfortunately for Africa, economic development prospects for the late developing countries on the continent have been bleak and still look quite sluggish.

Despite these bleak economic prospects, there are sketches of democratic potential all around Africa during its wave of democratization in the 1990s. For instance, during the years 1992-93 in West Africa, the concept of democracy was gaining support, but democratic institutions, where they existed, remained substantially fragile and unstable [6].

Many West African countries were pursing the path of “controlled democracy,” where elections are held or at least scheduled, but candidates and political parties are screened carefully by ruling parties and elections often are marred by irregularities and fraud – and this form of “controlled democracy” exists in Africa today.

For instance, Nigeria – which is Africa’s most populous nation and one of its most influential – flirted with the controlled democracy path, though prospects for a genuine transition to a legitimate, democratic political system remained highly possible throughout the 1990s.

Nigeria never truly fulfilled its full democratic potential. In the early 1990s, Nigerian President Ibrahim Babangida placed the country on the democratic path – and the plan was scheduled to lead to the inauguration of a new, democratic president in January 1993 ­– but unfortunately, in October of the same year, the country’s Armed Forces Ruling Council cancelled results from the electoral primaries, and the country’s two parties were forced to start their primaries from scratch.

Despite human rights violations in Nigeria during the 90s, the country was truly one of the few countries in Africa that experimented with democracy in the post-colonial era; and it was sometimes governed by a democratic system. But overall, the military ruled for the majority of Nigeria’s post-colonial period, and it was not committed to let civilian rule run amok at the time.

The East African country of Ethiopia is another country on the continent that was ripe with democratic potential in the 1990s. Unfortunately, this potential was never fully realized. Ethiopia took a great stride forward in achieving at least the form of democratic governance in the first national elections since the 1991 overthrow of Marxist dictator Colonel Mengistu Halie Marian [7].

Inadequate protection of basic rights and the substance of the May 1995 polls, in which the ruling Ethiopian’s People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) scored overwhelming victories in national and regional contests as opposition parties boycotted the vote, and this raised concerns over future democratic progress and flourishing.

It is important to note that the May 1995 elections allowed the people of Ethiopia to choose their governments through a relatively free and fair electoral process for the first time – and most international observers declared the election to be largely free and fair, despite the opposition’s charges of rampant government abuse and manipulation.

Unfortunately, there were plenty of grim signs at the time that democracy was not organically assuming form in the country. This illustrates to use that Africa’s wave of democratization was an uneven mixed bag that was also a double-edged sword.

Mali saw real democratic flourishing in the 1990s, although it started to erode near the end of the decade. Mali began its democratic transition in 1991, when thousands of demonstrations gathered in the streets to demand the resignation of President Mousa Traore – who had been ruling the country for more than two decades with the help of the military [8].

On March 22 of the same year, the Malian armed forces fired on demonstrates, killing hundreds – and on March 26, then Lt. Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré launched a military coup d’état and arrested Touré.

When the general citizenry in Mali applied popular pressure for democracy, Touré quickly established a transnational government composed of military and civilian leaders, which handed power to a democratically elected government the following year.

This was a triumph for democracy – and this transnational government held an inclusive National Conference in the summer of 1991 to elicit ideas from diverse groups within civil society about the country’s democratic transition.

1997 was the year things began to take a dark turn in Mali – which was a country that just began tasting the virtues of political freedom. In the 1997 elections, Alpha Konare, a former educator and democracy activist, who won the presidency in January 1992, faced only one challenger and won a second term with almost 85% of the vote.

Many view this period as a turning point for Mali – as it was perceived as the beginning of the decline of a political opposition, which boycotted the second round of the legislative elections and the presidential race in general.

The democratization process in Mali was plagued with the reemergence of the Tuareg rebellion in the north during the early 1990s – and this lack of social cohesion is a common hindrance for the democratic process in Africa.

The Tuareg are ethnically related to Berber or Imazighen. They are a nomadic people that live in the northern desert region of Mali. When Mali gained independence from the French on June 20, 1960, the Tuaregs felt marginalized and feared that the government might seize their land, which prompted them to launch a rebellion in 1963. This illustrates to use that colonial fragmentations and ethnic divisions often disrupt the process of democratization in Africa.

As a result of this rebellion, the Malian military countered with harsh suppression, and this killed many and forced thousands more to immigrate to Algeria, Mauritania, and Libya.

About 30 years later, resentment fueled by a deadly mixture of harsh repression and continued dissatisfaction with government policies, coupled with perceived exclusion from political power led various Tuareg and Arab groups to begin a second rebellion against the Malian government in the 1990s. This is not a stable and pluralistic atmosphere for democratization and development.

Mali was ranked the 10th poorest country in the world in the United Nations 2010 Human Development Index, and 70% of its adults are illiterate. Despite its democratic progress and recent gains in school enrollment, infrastructure, and technology – Mali is a country that is economically malnourished – as it lacks the fiscal capacity to pay for its own development; so donors fund approximately 80% of development projects in the country.

As the Indian Economist Amartya Sen rightfully postulates – political freedoms and development go hand in hand – and unfortunately, although Mali experienced political freedoms and pluralism thought out the 90s, its malnourished condition in terms of development have created hurdles for democratization.

It is important to again note and emphasize the marvelous democratic achievements of South Africa in the 1990s – as it was a beacon for democratic flourishing during Africa’s’ wave of democratization in the 1990s. There is a crucial component to South Africa’s democratic innovation that is rarely invoked in the literature – the importance of business.

Business helped South Africa’s transition to democracy to succeed by spearheading the creation and running of institutions to curb political violence – because before those bodies were formed, the spread of local-level clashes in Black communities, stocked by elements seeking to destabilize the democratic transition, had all but halted the delicate negotiations for democratization that begun after Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 [9].

Business intervention in the democratic transition, while facilitated by narrowing differences Black and white leaders in civil society, took place in novel initiatives driven by self-interest, shifting loyalties, and deeply held values.

At the grassroots level, business intervention had helped to set up a framework which permitted communication, built trust, and survived flare ups of conflict among the warring parties, leading to local pacts to end violence, racial divisions, political fragmentation. This created new local elites transcending party and racial elites. These conditions create the best possible atmosphere for liberal democracy to flourish.

Again, South Africa has held pluralistic and peaceful election in the 1990s, mainly in 1994 and 1999, and all elections have been free and fair [10]. The long lines for the first open elections of April 1994 may be a faded memory of the past – but South Africans still believe in the basic principles of democracy learnt in voter education lessons that are part and parcel in any democratic and pluralistic political society.

During and after South Africa’s miraculous wave of democratization, observers have noted the new confidence and self-assurance of South Africans in the democratic era – and South African pride swelled in the wake of the first democratic elections in the 90s.

Thankfully, the South African Quality of Life trends study captures the post-election euphoria of the 90s when all South Africans reported that they were satisfied with life, especially Black South Africans, who were deeply dissatisfied during apartheid.

South Africa is a model for democratization in Africa – and it demonstrates the power of national dialogue, ethnic consolidation, democratic participation and development in creating grassroots democratization.


In the 1990s and even today, democracy in Africa is at a crossroads between autocracy, partial democracy and robust and healthy democracy. Instability and malnourished political institutions coupled with weak prospects for economic development have all suppressed the continents economic potential. The African countries with the strongest economies and best prospects for development tend to enjoy a higher quality of life and more opportunities for democratic participation.

The wave of democratization in Africa has been uneven to say the least, but there are cases of democratic flourishing and the continent shows tremendous democratic growth and potential.

Scholars have always noted that the reform experiments in Africa would be extremely fragile and difficult to consolidate – and as a result, many African countries in the 90s and today are not democracies but also do not necessarily continue with the old types of authoritarianism [11].

Africa is a unique continent with great geographical and ethnic diversity. Each country has its unique colonial, political and economic experiences and conditions. This leads to democracy in some states and other forms of political systems in others. Despite this, democracy and development in Africa will continue to grow and become stronger.

Sources [1] Joseph, Richard. "Democratization in Africa after 1989: Comparative and Theoretical Perspectives." Comparative Politics 29, no. 3 (1997): 363-82. [2] Lynch, Gabrielle, and Gordon Crawford. "Democratization in Africa 1990–2010: an assessment." Democratization 18, no. 2 (2011): 275-310. [3] Diamond, Larry Jay, and Marc F. Plattner, eds. Democratization in Africa. JHU Press, 1999.

[4] Burchard, Stephanie M. Democracy Trends in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1990 to 2014. Institute for Defense Analyses., 2014. [5] Huntington, Samuel P. "Democracy's third wave." Journal of democracy 2, no. 2 (1991): 12-34. [6] Malcolm, R. Bruce. "Freedom in the World: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties 1992-93." (1993). [7] Adrian Karatnyck. Freedom in the World the Annual Survey of Political Rights & Civil Liberties 1995-1996, Freedom House Survey Team [8] Bleck, Jaimie. "Countries at the Crossroads 2011–Mali." Freedom House 11 (2011). [9] Charney, Craig. "Civil Society, Political Violence, and Democratic Transitions: Business and the Peace Process in South Africa, 1990 to 1994." Comparative Studies in Society and History 41, no. 1 (1999): 182-206. [10] Møller, Valerie. "Quality of life in South Africa–the first ten years of democracy." Social indicators research 81, no. 2 (2007): 181-201. [11] Herbst, Jeffrey. "Political Liberalization in Africa after Ten Years." Comparative Politics 33, no. 3 (2001): 357-75.

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