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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: May 2015

1 - Fragments of Democracy: Participation and Control in Authoritarian Africa


The dominant story of the first decade of independence was the collapse of Africa's democratic experiment. Having experienced a wave of euphoria following the overthrow of colonial rule, the continent rapidly descended into a political and economic depression characterized by the emergence of repressive and corrupt regimes. If we exclude the cases of white minority rule in southern Africa, by the end of the 1970s only Botswana, Gambia, Mauritius, and – to a lesser degree – Senegal continued to practice multipartyism. As a result, for most Africans independence did not mean freedom from authoritarian rule. In many countries, the foundations of this process were laid in the colonial period. As we saw in the Introduction, the emergence of Big Men, the problematic legacy of African nationalism, and the creation of undeveloped economies directly under state control did not represent a strong foundation on which to build a stable and successful democracy.

Against this most unpromising of backdrops, it was the catastrophic failure of the continent's new political systems to manage competition over power and resources that put the final nails in the coffin of representative government. Bloody civil wars in what is now the DRC and Nigeria persuaded many commentators that ethnic diversity, multipartyism, and political stability were not compatible in the African context. The Cold War also undermined international support for democratization, as both the United States and the Soviet Union proved willing to sacrifice democracy on the altar of their own national security. Together, these two trends made it easier for incumbent leaders to centralize power and to downgrade representative institutions. But even during the dark days of the 1970s a democratic light continued to shine, because the limited coercive capacity of state structures meant that governments were rarely in a position to rule through force alone.

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Democracy in Africa
  • Online ISBN: 9781139030892
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For a bibliography for this chapter go to