HomeBusiness DigestEvolution of civil society, opposition parties in Africa

Evolution of civil society, opposition parties in Africa

Some countries had de jure single-party systems in which opposition parties were banned by law, while other nations had de facto one-party arrangements in which one party dominated and the opposition could not gain power due to those circumstances and attendant practices.

Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa were one-party states after Independence. The one-party systems and usually concomitant “Dear Leader” mentality were prevalent in countries such as Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and the DRC (when it was still Zaire).

After the abolition of reserved white seats in 1985 and signing of the 1987 Unity Accord between Zanu and Zapu, Zimbabwe became a de facto one-party state, although attempts to make it a de jure single-party system were fiercely opposed and defeated.  

However, things are changing fast. Most African countries, perhaps with the notable exception of Eritrea, have become multiparty systems, some at least in theory. 

Before all the changes currently taking shape, dictators — including  military strongmen — had emerged across the continent. These-post Independent regimes created a culture of monolithic, monopolistic and dictatorial political systems built around powerful political parties and usually enigmatic despots.

Political diversity and plurality were at best frowned upon and at worst ruthlessly crushed. The growth of opposition parties and civil society was thus stunted in most parts of Independent Africa. This was exacerbated by the perpetuation of the colonial legacy of repressive frameworks and legislation which criminalised civil and political liberties, including freedoms of expression, association and assembly.

Opponents of dictators were ruthlessly crushed, while the democratic and public space for debate and dissent were severely restricted. It is in this historical context that opposition political parties and civil society organisations emerged and evolved in post-Independent Africa.

Context and typography of states

Civil society organisations and opposition parties most often occupy similar spaces in the public domain although they exist for different reasons. Political parties exist to gain, secure, retain and maintain power. Civil society groups aim to influence those in positions of power so that voices of marginalised communities are amplified and the interests of various societal sectors such as minorities, women, youths and informal traders, among other interest groups, are clearly promoted and protected.

Failed states

Countries such as Somalia are largely failed states epitomised by a collapsed central governance system, inability of the government to maintain law and order, provide social services and to protect the state from internal and external threats. They have a congenital incapacity to deliver basic services.

Post-conflict states

Critically countries such as Kenya are typical examples of nation states that have experienced intense conflict and violence in the context of electoral contests and are currently transitioning to full democracy through transitional justice, constitutional review and fresh processes and reforms. Arguably Lesotho and Zimbabwe fall under a similar bracket of transitioning nation states whose political destiny may be abortive or successful. The context and conditions in which civil society exists has thus been poisoned with post-conflict contestations for political power. In Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Kenya, inclusive governments exist due to disputed elections. The governments in these countries are a result of disputed elections preceded by organised political violence and massive voting irregularities and manipulation of the electoral processes by incumbents.

Emerging democracies

A number of countries have evolved into fairly robust democracies epitomised by democratic constitutions and institutions, regular free and fair elections, change of government and peaceful transfer of power. This was the case in  Zambia, Ghana and Senegal where elections have resulted in regime change, a term that has been criminalised in Zimbabwe but which is common and in fact best practise in the pursuit of democracy.


Civil society and opposition parties are very strong in these countries and this could be attributed to the abundant space which is available due to factors such as a positive, democratic culture and environments as well as enabling legislation. It is critical to be cognisant of why opposition parties are strong in some countries and why they are weak in others in the same way that it is critical to understand and appreciate why civil society is strong in some countries and weak in others. Yet in other counties civil society is strong but opposition parties are weak.

Democracy in one-party states

Several countries have opened space to political pluralism, citizen engagement, adherence to human rights and democratic institutions but these countries have been ruled by the same parties since Independence. Opposition parties could be said to be weak in these counties whilst civil society is fairly strong.Incumbent ruling parties have adapted to democratic conditions and contexts to maintain power. This is the case in South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique and Tanzania.


These countries have been ruled by one party since Independence and this could be attributable to factors such as internal democracy within these political institutions and leadership renewal. South Africa has had three presidents since freedom in the 1994, namely Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe (interim) and Jacob Zuma. Botswana has had Seretse Khama, Quett Masire, Festus Mogae and Ian Khama. Mozambique has also been fairly consistent in its leadership renewal together with Tanzania where the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi is facing a stiff challenge from the opposition Chadema party.

Political/military dictatorships

In these countries dictators have held on to power for more than two decades. In this bracket is Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe, Uganda under Yoweri Museveni and Angola under José Eduardo Dos Santos. In these countries the space for opposition parties has been severely limited and this is compounded by internal structural weaknesses intrinsic to the design and architecture of opposition parties as well as prohibitive external factors created by the dictatorial regimes.


Civil society has however thrived in these difficult conditions and has actually offered alternatives leadership in most of these countries. In Zimbabwe six elections, including one referendum, have been held  since 2000. Elections are held regularly but this proves that polls are not in themselves a reflection of democracy when the fundamentals of  a participatory democracy characterised by imperatives such as media plurality, respect for fundamental rights and freedom of expression, association and assembly are not promoted.


The growth, development and evolution of civil society and opposition parties must thus be understood, appreciated and analysed within the context of changing political contexts, shrinking space for free political activity and structural transformation in the political architecture of emerging African democracies such as South Africa, Ghana and Senegal. Important lessons can be gleaned from the peculiar experiences of different African countries and strategic linkages established across borders between civil society as well as emerging democratic movements across the continent.


This article is part of a presentation made by Dumisani Nkomo at a civil society and political trends meeting in Arusha, Tanzania. Nkomo can be contacted on dumisani.nkomo@gmail com.

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