Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Another 150 years for African democracy?

In June 1990, French President François Mitterand made his now famous discours de La Baule. At a Franco-African summit in the French town of La Baule, Mitterand declared that in order to benefit from French aid, African countries must make efforts towards democratization.

Though the rigor in which the principle was applied is open to question, le discours de La Baule is seen as one of the key events in post-independence Africa.

Since La Baule, African countries at least go through the facade of democracy. While many elections are still rigged, the formality of actually having elections sometimes has surprising results. In the 2000 Senegalese presidential election, private radio stations announced precinct-by-precinct tallies before the state had the chance to commit any fraud. Other francophone countries like Mali and Bénin have seen peaceful transfers of power and a relatively vibrant political system emerge.

This is hardly ideal, considering all the countries which haven't really changed in that time. However, historically speaking, the facade of democracy quite often precedes the real thing. So while the facade certainly isn't good enough, no one should advocate a return to naked, unbridled dictatorship à la Equatorial Guinea.

The Ouagadougou paper L'Observateur Paalga has an interesting analysis (in French) of La Baule's legacy. It comes to a very different conclusion: 'quinze ans, et presque rien.' Fifteen years and almost nothing.

The publication is based in Burkina Faso, one of the countries where the political system is still very repressed. L'Observateur Paalga notes that in many African countries, little has changed. Many of the same dinosaurs are still around: Bongo, Sassou, Biya, Conté, Oula Taya, Ben Ali and Burkina's own Blaise Compaoré.

The paper warns: Maybe we must console ourselves... that Europe took two centuries to arrive at democracy and that, as a result, maybe we should give Africans the same amount of time.

Perhaps, but I'm not sure how much consolation that will be to ordinary folks on the continent. It's clear that authoritarianism has had disastrous consequences for Africa, both pre- and post-colonial. Can Africans really afford to wait another century and a half to try something else?

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