Recently the Malawian Parliament, by only three votes, defeated an attempt by President Bakili Muluzi to change the country’s constitution. The change would have allowed Muluzi to run for a third term in office. Many Africans far beyond Malawi’s borders were jubilant. Letters poured into the Africa Service of the BBC, ironically one of the liveliest pan-African forums around, congratulating Malawians for successfully resisting the return of the Life-President Syndrome that has so terribly scarred Africa.
Many opposition politicians had agreed to vote for the amendment sought by Muluzi’s party. With their votes it had seemed that the President would have no difficulty in getting rid of the constitutional restriction on his running for a third term. However, a broad coalition of forces, including former cabinet ministers, churches and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), mounted a determined campaign against the amendment and managed to win enough parliamentary support to defeat it. Though the battle is by no means over, as Muluzi’s supporters say they will try again, the victory won at least so far by Malawian pro-democracy forces is indeed significant. It is yet another indication that the democratic coalitions which in the 1990s ended decades of autocratic rule in many African countries will do everything they can to protect their hard-won gains. These democratic forces recognize that the struggle does not end when the autocrat is forced to give up power; it only enters a new phase.
From fighting bare-knuckled dictatorship (and in many cases making incredible sacrifices), the struggle has shifted to guarding the new processes of democracy from the rampaging ambitions of political leaders. In Zambia, a coalition similar to Malawi’s was successful in preventing President Chiluba from changing the constitution to allow him to run for a third term in office. Across Africa there are many other examples of groups in recently re-democratized countries which are not just trying to protect democratic institutions but striving to make them more participatory and responsive. Even as the world was praising Sierra Leone’s relatively free and fair elections that followed years of savage civil war, for example, NGOs in the country were ringing alarm bells. What the outside world saw as a move towards democracy, Sierra Leonian democratic activists saw as a potential return to the past, where two insensitive and corrupt political parties held sway. They feared a return to mass discontent, widespread bitterness and civil conflict.
The democratic coalitions which in the 1990s ended decades of autocratic rule in many African countries will do everything they can to protect their hard-won gains
Nigeria’s NLC and South Africa’s COSATU are further examples: rank-and-file trade-union groups resisting in their countries the application of one-size-fits-all economic policies fashioned in Washington.
Enforcing constitutional term limits, seeking to broaden democratic participation and challenging market fundamentalism are all important in themselves. But it is perhaps even more important that these various struggles are revitalizing democratic debate in societies which have been under repressive rule for a very long time. They are ensuring that our new democracies do not lapse into complacency, do not become nice curtains to be displayed to the world while power élites continue to transact business as usual among themselves.
Of course there are still too many countries in Africa where the journey away from autocracy has not even begun. The NI, in its August edition (NI 348), reported that out of 53 nations in Africa only 21 are electoral democracies. The rest range from Somalia, which for many years has remained a ‘failed state’ paralyzed by inter-clan conflict, to Egypt which has a national parliament of sorts but where a system of secretive military courts hands out summary (in)justice to opponents of the Government. Recent peace agreements in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan hold out some hope that the wars in those countries may be brought to an end soon. However, if the fate of past agreements is anything to go by, any such hope must be cautious indeed. And until these and other bitter civil wars can be brought to an end, the struggle for democracy in many parts of Africa will remain on hold.
With a combination of savage brutality and extreme wiliness, our longest surviving autocrat, Togo’s President Eyadema, has frustrated years of struggle to hold free and fair elections in his country. In 1998, independent civil-rights groups reported that the bodies of several of his political opponents had washed up along Togo’s beautiful beaches and in neighbouring Benin - killed by Eyadema’s security forces for protesting against fraudulent elections he’d organized. Not long after that France’s President Chirac paid a visit to Eyadema and large posters of the two ageing politicos beaming at each other dotted the streets of Lomé, Togo’s capital. Even a brutalized people could not help but seethe in anger.
So it is certain that several grim battles lie ahead in the struggle for democracy in Africa. Heavy sacrifices will continue to be required of people who have already given so much while a cynical or largely inattentive world offers at best formulaic noises. Nevertheless, the message from Malawi is a positive one: when the autocrat is finally defeated, a façade of electoral democracy to satisfy the formal requirements of aid donors will not be acceptable, neither will regression to ‘constitutional autocracy.’ Africa’s democrats want the real thing - and will fight very hard for it.