By the end of the 1980s, not a single African head of state in three decades had allowed himself to be voted out of office. Of some 150 heads of state who had trodden the African stage, only six had voluntarily relinquished power. They included Senegal’s Léopold Senghor, after twenty years in office; Cameroon’s Ahmadu Ahidjo, after twenty-two years in office; and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, after twenty-three years in office….
Out of a list of fifty African countries in 1989, almost all were one-party states or military dictatorships. Opposition parties were illegal in thirty-two states. Elections, when held, served mainly to confirm the incumbent president and his party in power. In twenty-nine countries, over the course of 150 elections held between 1960 and 1989, opposition parties were never allowed to win a single seat. Only three countries – Senegal, the tiny state of Gambia and Botswana – sustained multi-party politics, holding elections on a regular basis that were considered reasonably free and fair. Botswana, in particular, stood out as an example of a liberal democracy, tolerant of opposition activity, where the rule of law was held in respect and where economic development proceeded apace.
Yet a new wind of change was stirring across Africa. It was driven in part by widespread discontent with the corruption, incompetence and stifling oppression of Big Man rule, in part by resentment over rising unemployment, falling living standards and austerity measures that African governments were forced to implement in return for international assistance. Students were at the forefront of a wave of protests that erupted in one country after another, but other urban groups – businessmen, professionals, churchmen, labour unions and civil servants – soon joined in, demanding not just redress of economic grievances but political reform.
Events abroad, in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, affected the clamour for change. From the mid-1980s, as a result of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking’, the Soviet Union began to retreat from Africa, no longer willing or able to sustain client states that had relied upon Soviet largesse for survival. With the demise of Marxism-Leninism in Europe came its demise in Africa. When Ethiopia’s Mengistu went to Moscow in 1988 to ask for more military hardware, Gorbachev turned him down, telling him he needed to reach a negotiated settlement to the wars in Eritrea and Tigray. Having lost Soviet sponsorship and confronted by rebel advances, Mengistu renounced Marxism-Leninism and embraced the idea of a multi-party system in the hope of avoiding defeat at the hands of the rebels. The outbreak of mass street demonstrations in Eastern Europe starting in the spring of 1989 and culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the departure of European dictators like Ceausescu in Romania and Honecker in East Germany provided potent examples of what ‘people’s power’ could achieve. One-party regimes now looked outmoded, in Africa as much as in Europe. Even Julius Nyerere, the most articulate spokesman for one-party systems in Africa, felt obliged to modify his support. ‘To view a one-party system in almost religious terms is wrong; he said in February 1990 after visiting Leipzig in East Germany. ‘We Tanzanians have one party as a historical necessity. But this is not a kind of divine decree. It is not proper to treat a person who floats the idea of a multi-party system as someone who has committed treason.’
The end of the Cold War, moreover, changed the West’s attitudes towards Africa. Western governments no longer had strategic interests in propping up repressive regimes merely because they were friendly to the West. Along with the World Bank, they concluded that one-party regimes lacking popular participation constituted a serious hindrance to economic development and placed new emphasis on the need for democratic reform.
In June 1990 Britain declared that the distribution of its aid programme would henceforth favour countries ‘tending towards pluralism, public accountability, respect for the rule of law, human rights and market principles’. At a Franco-African summit at La Baule in June 1990, attended by thirty-three African delegations, twenty-two of which were led by heads of state, President Mitterrand stated that French aid would be dependent on efforts towards liberalisation. He warned: ‘French eagerness to offer development aid is bound to cool off in the case of authoritarian regimes which fail to heed the need for democratisation while regimes prepared to embark on the courageous path of democracy will continue to have our enthusiastic support.’
Previously, Franco-African summits had been known as lavish, back-slapping family gatherings, full of empty talk.
It seems clear in retrospect that Soviet models of governance and Soviet models of “development” were just as effective in strangling civil society and hollowing out the private sector in postcolonial Africa as they were in the ostensibly postimperial Soviet Union, leaving failed states awash in Kalashnikovs and ruled by gangsters to deal with the new expectations, dilapidated infrastructure, and diminished foreign subsidies of the 1990s, during which Africa experienced more than its share of Bosnias and Chechnyas (though with less artillery and more machetes than in their northern counterparts).