Never before had pictures of endless lines of enthusiastic voters in front of polling stations defined Guinea's international image. But on 27 June — after 52 years of independence and a turbulent political history — a festive atmosphere engulfed the West African country as millions were allowed to choose their leader for the first time, from among 24 candidates. Guineans came out in large numbers and showed considerable patience while waiting, often for hours, in front of polling stations.
"For many years, free elections were a dream," Abdoulaye Baillo Diallo, an aide to one candidate, told a Wall Street Journal reporter. "Now it has become a reality." Amadou Diallo, an army doctor, told the New York Times, "Before, we knew the elections were sewed up in advance. They were rigged." On this occasion, various observers confirmed, the process was transparent, free and fair, raising hopes of a new dawn for the country.
Since its 1958 independence from France, Guinea has been ruled mostly by civilian or military autocrats. To a large extent, that was a general trend across Africa from the early 1960s to the 1990s. One-party systems and military dictatorships were the order of the day. Only a limited number of people enjoyed the privilege of making or contributing to decisions on state affairs.
In some countries where independence was hard-won, nationalist parties and leaders soon established dominant structures that wielded exclusive rights to govern. In 1964, barely a year after independence, the only opposition party in Kenya joined Jomo Kenyatta's dominant party, whose rule remained entrenched for nearly four decades. In Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah's Convention People's Party (CPP) led the independence struggle and therefore had wide support. But in 1964 that dominance was codified in law as the CPP became the only legal party and Mr. Nkrumah was proclaimed "president for life."
Elsewhere, authorities who inherited power from their former colonial rulers also soon suppressed competing organizations and voices. In Gabon, President Bongo declared a one-party state in 1968, a system that lasted until 1990. From 1966 neighbouring Cameroon experienced a similar fate.
Soon after independence, as discontent grew with regimes unable to lift up peoples' living standards, military dictatorships came to the fore. In 1963 alone three governments fell to coups, in Togo, Dahomey (later renamed Benin) and Congo-Brazzaville. By 1975 approximately half the countries on the continent were led by military or civilian-military governments.
During most of the 30-year period from 1960 to 1990, only a few countries, such as Senegal, Mauritius and Botswana, permitted competing political parties and some civil society organizations to function.
Some proponents of one-party systems argued that multiple parties were not needed, since democratic values and institutions existed within traditional African cultures. Julius Nyerere, the president of Tanzania, suggested that African family life "was everywhere based on certain practices and attitudes which together mean basic equality, freedom and unity." Leopold Sédar Senghor, in Senegal, argued that African conceptions of democracy were based on "palaver," or dialogue, in which everyone is able to speak in turn, "but once everyone has expressed his opinion, the minority follows the majority, so there is unanimity."
Others argued simply that multi-party systems were costly and inefficient, especially when African countries were faced with so many challenges. Pluralism, they maintained, would breed division and hinder the construction of national identity and mobilization for development. Public debate, criticism and voting were regarded as luxuries.
But the lack of popular checks on leaders' decisions contributed to abuses of power by individuals and institutions, onerous despotic regimes, the violation of human rights and widespread corruption. With all legal means of political reform essentially blocked, civil conflicts and uprisings erupted. Under the circumstances, the promises of social and economic improvements and even national unity could not be met.
In the early 1990s, popular protests against systems that excluded the majority of citizens from the political process reached their height. Many took to the streets to demand a right to be heard, to have free and fair elections and to have open public institutions. They called for radical changes in the basic style of governance.
"Africans are basically asking for three things," Edem Kodjo, a former secretary-general of the Organization of African Unity (which later became the African Union), said in June 1990, "transparency, accountability and participation in the political process."
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, most donor powers affirmed that they supported democratization. Good governance, human rights and opposition to corruption became important conditions in their aid policies.
Under such pressure for reform from both within and without, many regimes opened up democratic space. In the Congo Republic, Benin and Zaire (later renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo), among other countries, national conferences were organized in which incumbent authorities, civil society groups, religious leaders and opposition parties fiercely debated in public for the first time. More or less competitive elections took place, although often in a tense atmosphere. In 1992, the peak of this surge, there were 32 presidential or legislative elections across the continent.
End of monopolies
"The culture of political authoritarianism manifested in military dictatorships and one-party systems dominant in many African countries has in the last two decades gradually given way to competitive party democratic systems," the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) stated in its first African Governance Report,* published in 2005. "The government no longer monopolizes the public sphere; the people also participate in it."
In a number of countries (including Ghana, Zambia, Mali and Benin), regime change through elections is becoming the norm. Presidential term limits are respected, and so is freedom of the press. Human rights violations have become less common and political parties and civil society organizations are involved in daily debates on policy options.
But in other countries elections are not always free, fair or transparent. Majority parties have used their control of government resources to bias the electoral process in their favour, and some elected presidents have unilaterally modified constitutions to try to prolong their stay in office. Press freedoms and civil society activities are frequently under threat.
But even in some countries that have not had regime changes for some time, other aspects of governance may have improved, as in the growing capacity of court systems or the representation of women. In 2008 Rwanda became the first country in the world where women hold a majority in parliament, with 56 per cent of the seats.
Even though the scope of African citizens' representation in public institutions has widened, the degree of their real influence over these institutions is often limited. Access to justice is frequently expensive for the majority, and police and armed forces are sometimes the worst human rights abusers. "The greatest threats to good governance today come from corruption, violence and poverty, all of which undermine transparency, security, participation and fundamental freedoms," argues the ECA report.
There is general agreement on the pivotal need to strengthen governance in most African countries, not only to improve political participation, but also to advance development. "Good governance is central to improving economic performance and promoting economic progress in Africa," argued Abdoulie Janneh, the ECA executive secretary, at a major international conference marking the 50th anniversary of African independence in Yaoundé in late May.
Five decades after its most significant wave of independence, the continent's mixed record on governance and its hopes for further progress underline the need for such innovative initiatives as the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM).** The mechanism is an outgrowth of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), the continent's blueprint for economic revival. Established in 2003, it is a voluntary instrument in which participating governments agree to have various aspects of their political governance, observance of human rights and economic decision-making reviewed by their African peers. So far 28 countries have joined the APRM and 11 have undergone comprehensive reviews, which have identified specific areas requiring improvement.