Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-AFRICA: Democracy Takes Root in Some Countries, Falters in Others

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Mar 9 2007 (IPS) - The progress of democracy in Africa has come under discussion this week at a conference in the South African commercial hub of Johannesburg.

Michael Chege, advisor to Kenya’s Ministry of Planning and National Progress, recalled that the Cold War years were not promising for multiparty politics.

“Between the 1960s and 1989, African countries that elected governments on the basis of multiparty elections were a small minority: Botswana, Mauritius, Senegal and The Gambia,” he noted.

“The rest of Africa…was dominated by single party states and military governments,” Chege added.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 heralded the end of the Cold War, and improvement in the fortunes of democracy in Africa.

By 2006 some 23 African countries were practicing multiparty politics, although 14 were still deemed fundamentally undemocratic by Freedom House, a New York-based non-governmental organisation. The remainder were considered “partly free”. Africa has 53 states.

“For the first time since independence in the 1960s, the majority of Africa’s population is enjoying the right to vote and the civil liberties associated with democratic freedoms – free speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of worship,” said Chege.

Countries that continue to resist democratic reform include Swaziland, Eritrea, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea.

“When I see the people of Guinea struggling for their rights, it reminds me of journalists who are sacrificing their lives for freedom on our continent,” Alpha Oumar Konare, chairperson of the Commission of the African Union – and former president of Mali – told the gathering.

“The people of Guinea deserve our solidarity. We don’t accept autocracy.”

Guinea’s ailing president, Lansana Conte, has ruled the West African nation for 23 years, and shows no inclination to step down. Some 60 people died during recent demonstrations against falling living standards and alleged misrule in Guinea.

After delivering his speech, Konare left to attend celebrations for the 50th anniversary of independence in Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence. The West African nation is considered one of the most democratic on the continent, something that irritates its main opposition party, the National Democratic Congress.

“We have a subtle dictator in Ghana. (President John) Kufuor’s party, for example, doesn’t provide airtime on TV and radio to the opposition. Government agents constantly harass the opposition. There’s no level playing field in Ghana,” Nana Agyeman-Rawlings, the wife of former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings, said in an interview with IPS.

But, a Ghanaian campaigner disagreed with this assessment, pointing out that the situation in the country had improved vastly since Rawlings seized power in military coups in 1979 and 1981: “There is democracy in Ghana. You can say whatever you want and no security agents will harass or arrest you like during Rawlings’ days.”

Media reports said Rawlings boycotted Ghana’s Golden Jubilee Tuesday.

The conference also discussed women’s participation in politics, key to ensuring that the benefits of democracy are felt by all.

“We have seen African women rising to take their rightful place in the public spheres: more than 48 percent women representation in parliament in Rwanda, more than 30 percent women representation in South Africa and Mozambique, one female head of state for the first time in the history of Africa – Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, president of Liberia,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, deputy president of South Africa, told delegates.

“In Mauritius we saw women representation making a giant leap from a paltry five to 17 percent in 2005.”

These successes notwithstanding, various factors persistently undermine women’s participation in politics.

“I think African governments, civil society groups and researchers should interrogate the factors that hamper women’s empowerment. Sometimes husbands prohibit their wives from attending night meetings because they have to look after children. Others prevent their spouses from mixing freely with their male counterparts for religious reasons,” Thabiso John, a researcher at the University of South Africa, told IPS.

The three-day conference, titled ‘Sustaining Africa’s Democratic Momentum’, attracted more than 400 delegates from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the United States and Europe. It wound up Mar. 7.

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