Session 9: Michael Bratton and Nicolas van de Walle, Democratic Experiments in Africa, 1997, Chapter 3 (pp. 97-127)



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Session 9: Michael Bratton and Nicolas van de Walle, Democratic Experiments in Africa, 1997, Chapter 3 (pp. 97-127)

Contrasting South Africa and Nigeria, the authors argue that the success of democratization in Africa is mixed. Simplifying the situation, the authors note that South Africa had a peaceful transition to democratic elections in 1994, while the military aborted elections in Nigeria in 1993 and put a dictator in power. This illustrates the “diversity of transition outcomes in Africa” (97).


African regimes have followed divergent political paths to democracy, as well as precluded, blocked and flawed transitions. There are three phases of transition:

  1. popular protests against a crisis

  2. political liberalization

  3. installation of a new regime



Phase One: Crisis of Political Legitimacy and Protests


Many African regimes faced a crisis of political legitimacy in the 1980’s because people were disappointed that their leaders did not improve living conditions post-independence. This discontent festered because people did not have outlets to peacefully express their grievances under authoritarian regimes. In true van de Walle style, the authors lay the blame squarely on African states, arguing that “their policies and political practices had led more than half the nations of sub-Saharan Africa to bankruptcy, and most of the remaining states required regular transfusions of Western public capital” (99). As structural adjustment programs cut into the resources available to the state, it became increasingly difficult for political elites to dole out the favors necessary to “maintain control of clientelist networks” (100). People began to blame the state for their hardship and these regimes faced serious crises of legitimacy.
Popular protests began in the 1980’s, but they were usually not shooting for regime change, but rather focused on more immediate economic concerns of urban groups. Urban groups - students and unions - led early opposition groups and rural people were initially uninvolved.
The initial government response was to mollify opposition with piecemeal economic concessions (e.g. improving public sector salaries for govt workers). In the few instances where early protests were political, governments responded with armed repression (e.g. Burkina Faso, Zaire, Kenya). Although economic concessions were more effective than repression in the short-run, governments did not have the financial resources to maintain this strategy.
In the 1990’s, popular protests became increasingly politicized as people blamed corruption and government mismanagement for their economic woes. Most protests were initially anti-incumbent, rather than explicitly pro-democracy (e.g. people were more interested in just getting rid of the current ruler than really reforming the system). This gradually changed as political elites took over running the opposition groups. The fall of the Berlin Wall spurred movements against a one-party state. “Thus, within months of the onset of political transitions, the character of mass protests in Africa had changed. Sporadic outbursts over economic grievances gave way to social movements with political agendas.” (106)
However, there were still key weaknesses in Africa’s mass protest movements:

  1. pro-democracy movements were uncoordinated because of lack of funds and state suppression

  2. the protest movement was composed of diverse and often conflicting interests (e.g. business/labor)

  3. many protestors saw democracy as a means to an end (improvements in well-being), rather than as an end in itself

Protestors were often more concerned with getting rid of the incumbent than changing political regimes.

Phase Two: Political Reforms


Initially, many African leaders clung to a one-party state, arguing that Africa was “not ready for multiparty democracy” (108).
The authors distinguish between liberalization – the political process of reforming authoritarian rule – and democratization – the construction of the institutions of divided power. Many African states pursued liberalization, but this did not necessarily amount to democratization. In fact, liberalization was often seen as a tool to placate protestors and forestall real democratization.
Liberalizations included curbing human rights violations and loosening restrictions on freedom of expression, but freedom of political association were still limited. Some leaders undertook reforms of ruling political parties. These liberalizations were “halting and episodic” (110), and often fragile. Many were reversed. Timid concessions often spurred increasing popular protests. All in all, basic freedoms were more widespread in Africa in 1992 than in 1980’s so some progress was made.
To try to renew their political legitimacy, many leaders authorized national conferences (get togethers of civil society elites) that undertook constitutional reforms. These reforms included:

  1. re-legalization of political parties

  2. constitutional separation of powers (strengthen legislative branch vis a vis the executive)

  3. setting dates for multiparty presidential and parliamentary elections

Initial elections often centered more on personalities than policies. Political rules were still being negotiated and incumbents were often able to manipulate the system in their favor. However, Africa’s elections were generally peaceful. The opposition was able to achieve some success because they penetrated the state apparatus (e.g. teachers and other public employees supported the opposition). Although the opposition movement was still weak and fragmented, they were able to achieve some important reforms, including independent election monitoring.



Phase Three: Divergent Transition Paths


There were three major forks in the path of political change:

  1. Did protests occur? It was widespread but not universal. The absence of political protests did not, however, preclude political liberalization.

  2. Was there political liberalization? Almost all African regimes achieved some degree of opening up their economy by the early 1990’s

  3. Did the country complete a democratic election? 16 of the 42 African countries considered achieved a democratic election by 1994. Thus, the results were mixed


5 paths of regime transition in Africa:

  1. Political protests -> liberalization -> democratization: 11 countries

  2. Liberalization without democratization: this was most common where political protests led to some liberalization, but this didn’t lead to free and fair elections

  3. Democratization without protest: 5 countries liberalized after pressure from political elites

  4. Political protests -> liberalization by elites -> failure to democratize: 7 countries

  5. No protests -> no liberalization -> no democratization: 2 countries (Liberia & Sudan)


Precluded transition (2 countries): neither protest nor liberalization; characterized by civil war

Blocked transition (12 countries): political reforms initiated, but never fully realized

Flawed transition (12 countries): elections took place, but they were manipulated by political incumbents to ensure their success

Democratic regimes (4 countries): valid electoral transitions completed in 45% of African countries by 1994, but mostly achieved by small states so only 25% of Africans living under democratic regimes. These regimes were often very fragile, though.
The most common form of non-democratic regime was liberalized authoritarianism – “a liberalized form of autocracy in which new political freedoms…coexisted uneasily alongside practices of governance inherited from the past” (122). These were unstable regimes.


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