FIFTY THREE years after the formation of the Organisation of African Unity, now African Union (AU), and the start of the decolonisation process, Africa has made tremendous strides in democratisation and economic growth terms.
By Herbert Moyo
The AU was formed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on May 25 1963, to spearhead the decolonisation of Africa, raise the standards of living of Africans as well as to promote the democratisation and observance of human rights, among other objectives.
They may, of course, be some vestiges of dictatorships and outposts of tyranny still holding away in Africa, but the progress on the continent is such that only the most rabid critics can continue clinging onto the old myths and stereotypes of a continent in the throes of darkness and savagery.
Prominent scholars and academics like Hugh Trevor-Roper and Joseph Conrad, both prominent 19th century historians and authors, suggested Africa was a big dark continent and its people were savages with no history and achievements to bequeath mankind.
Such was the contempt for Africans that Cecil John Rhodes, the dreamy 19th century British imperialist crusader once woke his friend and co-imperialist Leander Starr Jameson in the dead of the night just to remind him how fortunate he was to have been born British rather than an African savage.
“Have you ever thought how lucky we are to belong to the British race, the finest flower of civilisation,” Rhodes asked Jameson before drifting back to sleep.
Rhodes was just one of many Europeans who saw Africa as nothing more than a dark continent characterised by savagery, bloodthirsty rulers who needed to be saved from themselves, hence the colonial enterprise which resulted in the continent being parcelled out among European countries in what came to be known as the “Scramble for Africa” after the 1884 Berlin Conference.
However, about 50 years since the formation of the AU, Africa has registered tremendous economic growth and made strides towards democratisation and economic development which mean that such myths and stereotypes about the continent can no longer hold.
There is so much to celebrate especially after the “lost” first three decades of independence from the 1960s when countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda had to put up with a succession of coups and counter-coups as well as military dictatorships and civil wars.
Gone are the days of military rulers like Ibrahim Babangida who earned the nickname “Maradona” on account of his deceitful tendency to shift the goalposts whenever the time came for him to hand over power. Only last year, Goodluck Jonathan became the first sitting Nigerian president to lose an election and hand over power smoothly. To his credit, he conceded defeat and peacefully handed over the reins to his conqueror Muhammadu Buhari.
According to Mills Soko, an associate professor of international political economy at University of Cape Town, “the end of the Cold War and the defeat of apartheid in South Africa, brought about far-reaching geopolitical changes across the continent and heralded what became known as the ‘golden age’ in African leadership.”
This is a period that saw the ascendancy of a new generation of modernising leaders, including Thabo Mbeki (South Africa), Benjamin Mkapa (Tanzania), Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria) and Abdoulaye Wade (Senegal).
“These leaders championed African renewal and conceived the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad). Nepad was a pledge by African leaders to end poor governance, corruption and conflicts in their countries,” Soko said.
“Despite some shortcomings, Nepad succeeded in promoting democratic norms and fostering political, economic and corporate accountability in several countries through its peer review mechanism.”
However, amid the progress, it is sobering to note that many of the new democracies have not fully matured. They are still in that stage described by the late Harvard University political scientist Samuel Huntington as not being “fully consolidated”, meaning that while they have electoral institutions in place, political democracy remains fragile. Reasons for this fragility include economic instability, continued elite dominance of politics and military interference in civilian government affairs.
Several progressive countries, including Botswana, South Africa and Tanzania — where the ruling parties have never lost elections — fit into this category.
For all their weaknesses, these countries are still much better than the likes of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Togo which have been turned into dynasties as power passed to the offspring of the old dictators. DRC’s President Laurent Kabila was succeeded by his son Joseph in 2001 while in Togo, Faure Gnassingbé succeeded his father Gnassingbé Eyadéma after the latter’s death in 2005 and in Gabon Ali took over from his father Omar Bongo — who had ruled for 41 years — after his death in 2009.
Another stain on Africa’s copybook has been presented by the likes of Zimbabwe and Angola — competetive authoritarian regimes — where elections have been held under conditions of intimidation and harassment of the opposition. The elections appear nothing more than just a ruse to legitimise the status quo and retain the incumbent rulers and their parties.
Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has clung on for 36 years, amid persistent accusations of vote-rigging, violence and intimidation of the opposition. Angola’s Eduardo dos Santos has also been at the helm for 37 years, although there are indications that he will not seek re-election next year.
Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been in power since 1979, while Uganda’s recently re-elected Yoweri Museveni has ruled since 1986. They remain a cause of concern for the democratisation of Africa.
The worst case is probably that of Swaziland which represents a unique throwback to the 19thC pre-colonial era of absolute monarchies with its incumbent King Mswati continuing to resist calls to democratise and observe human rights.
Its regional counterpart Lesotho has its own dubious distinction of being the only southern African nation to experience coups and political instability brought on by military interference in state affairs.
There is still a long way to go before Africa reaches the summit of democracy and the attendant socio-economic development. And despite the odd dictator and some leaders steadfastly clinging onto power, Africa’s is generally a beautiful story of progress which is vastly different from the stereotypes of persistent war, famine and backwardness.