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Op-Ed

Democracy at Bay: The Arab Spring and Sub-Saharan Africa

Richard Joseph

A great pendulum shift has occurred in the geopolitics of the Middle East and North Africa, from repressive autocracies to political liberalization to violent conflict and civil war. Enormous financial resources and military weaponry are being poured into these theatres. It is not too soon to ask, as the United States prepares to strike against the Syrian government, whether the fragile democratic gains in Sub-Saharan Africa since 1990 can withstand the winds of change. Will governing systems in this region tilt further towards authoritarianism? What can be done to shore up resistance to further democratic retreat as security operations escalate?

Political liberalization in Sub-Saharan Africa has significantly altered public life in many countries. One of the catalysts of this transformation, it should be remembered, were urban riots in Algeria in October 1988 that induced the ruling Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) to permit multiparty elections. The surprising success of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) in local and parliamentary elections of 1989 and 1991 prompted the military to remove government leaders, suspend the FIS, and declare a state of emergency – all provoking a civil war that consumed over 100,000 lives.

While North Africa and the rest of the Arab world have not had a sustainable breakthrough to democratic governance, the opposite has been the case in much of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Crawford Young’s outstanding new book, The Postcolonial State in Africa, reminds us that an Algerian Awakening of 1988-1992 sprang from the same sources as the Arab Spring two decades later: street protests by a despairing population against “a sclerotic, clan-ridden, and self-serving military-led autocracy.” Even the role played by political Islam in channeling popular anger has been prominent in both cases. While North Africa and the rest of the Arab world have not had a sustainable breakthrough to democratic governance, the opposite has been the case in much of Sub-Saharan Africa. The experiences, to be certain, are not all positive. Recalcitrant governments have brutally blocked democratic progress as in Zimbabwe, or entrenched pseudo-democracy or illiberal democracy as in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uganda, and other countries.

The capacity of political and civil society to defend the democratic gains of the 1990s has varied. An important barometer of resilience or weakness has been the fate of term limits in the new constitutions. They have survived efforts by heads of governments to repeal them, as in Malawi, Nigeria, and Zambia. In Benin, a struggle is currently underway by the Red Wednesday campaign to block President Boni Yayi’s plan to remove such a limit. Sadly, for every African country that has beaten back these challenges, three have succumbed.

Read the full piece on AfricaPlus »

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