Module Ten, Activity Five

Democracy and Africa's Second Liberation

Some political scientists who study Africa have called the decade of the 1990s Africa's Second Liberation or Africa's Second Independence. These terms reflect important political changes that took place in Africa during this decade. In the 1980s, only five African countries held competitive elections: Botswana, Gambia, Mauritius, Senegal, and Zimbabwe. However in the 1990s, 40 African countries held multiparty elections that, according to international observers, were free and fair.

What factors contributed to this movement towards democracy? Political scientists have two sets of factors that contributed to Africa's Second Revolution.

Internal Factors:

  • Demand for Human Rights and Participation: In the 1980s, there was an impression among some journalists who covered African affairs that Africans, from all regions of the continent, shared a feeling of fatalism. You have heard people say if something bad happens to them, "it is my fate?" What do they mean? Some journalists felt that Africans felt that whatever bad happened to them, including un-democratic governments, was their collective fate; they simply had to accept this condition. Well, the facts do not support this interpretation! Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, citizens in most African countries expressed their dissatisfaction with governments that were corrupt and not responsive to the needs of the people. However, since few reporters writing on Africa took the opportunity to travel widely within the countries they covered, they did not realize the level of political opposition. Moreover, journalists often had the tendency to speak only to officials of the government or organized opposition parties. Since opposition parties were not allowed in most countries, these reporters felt that there was no strong opposition to authoritarian governments.
  • Civil Society: Civil society is a term that college professors give to all public organizations that are not directly engaged in politics. Public organizations of civil society include religious organizations -churches, mosques, synagogues-, educational institutions (yes, your school is part of civil society), service clubs (Rotary, Lions, League of Women Voters), professional organizations (American Medical Association) and trade unions. A vibrant civil society is important to democracy. Public organizations provide citizens with the opportunity to be actively engaged in society. Moreover, effective public organizations can pressure government to be more democratic and responsive to the needs of society.

In African countries under military or authoritarian civilian governments, organizations in civil society provided an opportunity for ordinary citizens to express their economic and political needs. In the 1980s, a combination of religious, service, professional groups, and trade unions became more vocal in demanding political change in many African countries. The combination of opposition from groups in civil society with the voices of ordinary citizens provided a powerful expression for democracy and responsive government throughout Africa.

International Factors:

  • Democracy in Eastern Europe: Are you old enough to remember the Soviet Union? The Warsaw Pact? The Berlin Wall? In the period after World War II -your grandfather or great grandfather may have fought in this war-, there was a global political struggle between two super-powers, the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe (Warsaw Pact) and the United States and its allies in Western Europe. The Soviet Union and its allies did not have fully democratic forms of government. However in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe underwent a transition to a more democratic form of government. During the same period, countries in East and South East Asia that had authoritarian governments also underwent a transition to democracy.

When you are facing a tough situation in school, does it help to know that there are other students who deal with similar problems? This was this case with Africa's second revolution; the global movements to democracy provided strong encouragement to citizens in African countries who were working towards more democratic systems in their countries.

  • End of the Cold War: The next section of this module will look at Africa's relationships with other regions of the world in the post-colonial era. One of key issues will be the impact of the Cold War on Africa. The Cold War describes the nature of the very strained relationship between the two super-powers from 1945-1990. Although Africa was geographically distant from both the Soviet Union and the United States, as you will discover, the Cold War had a devastating impact on parts of Africa. Both super-powers helped to create and maintain some of the most un-democratic governments in post-colonial Africa. When the Cold War ended around 1990, the United States or the Soviet Union no longer had any reason to support their former allies. Consequently, authoritarian governments in Africa that had been supported by the Cold War lost their capacity to resist internal forces for democratic change.

Most political scientists agree that it is difficult to know which of these factors were most important in encouraging the second African liberation. However, it is important that the United States and other rich and powerful countries do all that they can to support the democratic transition in Africa.

Democracy in Africa faces many challenges. Democratically elected governments responsive to the needs of their citizens are faced with the very same economic and social challenges that confronted military and other un-democratic governments in Africa. The overwhelming evidence from the 1990s shows that African citizens from all regions of Africa are committed to democracy. However, support for democratically elected governments will depend on their ability to address the many legitimate economic and social needs of people. Unfortunately, democracy may have limited ability to change economic structures that stand in the way of economic development. Democracy in Africa may have little impact on globalization. The conclusion of Module Nine: African Economies raised questions regarding Africa's position in the global economy. Will democracy in African countries be able survive and thrive if the continent continues to suffer economically as a result of globalization?

Your Turn

Map Work

Look at the information on Table Two: Transition to Democracy. Your teacher will provide you with another political map of Africa. On the map identify the countries that made transitions towards democracy in the 1990s.

Go on to Activity Six or choose from one of the other activities in this module