When I told people that I was writing a book on democracy in sub-Saharan Africa they often joked that it would surely be a very short volume, up there with the history of Swiss military victories and the compendium of great English cooking. Such a response is understandable. Since the reintroduction of multiparty elections in the early 1990 s, the cause of African democracy has suffered a major setback in almost every round of elections. In the early- 1990s, the return of party politics was closely associated with the resumption of the Angolan civil war in 1993 and the Rwandan genocide of 1994. In 1996, the reputation of Zambia's Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) – initially celebrated as one of the first opposition parties in Africa to defeat an authoritarian government at the polls – was undermined by a flawed election and evidence of widespread corruption. Four years later, Côte d'Ivoire, thought to be among Africa's most stable political systems during the single-party era, descended into civil war following a disputed election.
Sadly, these democratic breakdowns were not just the result of “teething problems”: they continue to be a prominent feature of multiparty politics up to the present day. In 2007, election observers described the polls in Nigeria – the third to be held since 1999 – as some of the worst they had ever had the misfortune to witness. Just months later, accusations of electoral manipulation in Kenya – which by then was on its fourth competitive contest – led to a month of civil conflict in which more than 1,000 people lost their lives. The same year, President Robert Mugabe refused to accept defeat at the hands of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Zimbabwe amidst the mass repression of opposition supporters. More recently, democratic experiments in Mali and South Sudan have been undone by violent conflict. It is therefore easy to see why so many commentators are skeptical as to the prospects for multiparty politics on the continent.