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

3 - The Second Liberation: Economic Decline, the End of the Cold War, and the Struggle for Democracy


From the late 1980s onward, the African political landscape was trans- formed as one-party states, personal dictatorships, and military rule gave way to multiparty politics. If independence was the continent's first liberation, many saw the 1990s as democracy's second coming. Between 1989 and 1994, thirty five sub-Saharan African countries reintroduced multiparty elections, bringing political openings to around 500 million people. By 2010, only Eritrea and Swaziland had failed to hold multiparty polls of some kind. The timing of this second liberation makes it tempting to interpret political change in Africa as a by-product of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War; an aftershock of the seismic changes in the international landscape which, for a short while, alleviated the security concerns of Western governments, making them more willing to promote democracy abroad. However, democracy was never simply granted by international actors: it had to be won through the blood and sweat of domestic opposition groups and the sacrifices of ordinary people.

The extent of democratization in a given country was thus shaped by both international pressure and the domestic context. But these two factors did not operate independently of each other, because the success of international efforts depended on the presence of a strong domestic pro-reform constituency, and vice versa. It was more legitimate, and hence easier, for foreign governments to intervene when they could point to an active and large pro-democracy movement. Conversely, civil society campaigns, strikes, and the like were more effective when foreign actors used their influence to protect protestors from repression. Genuine democratization was therefore most likely to occur when a united and effective domestic opposition met with a supportive international community.

The Roots of the Third Wave

The collapse of authoritarian rule in Africa began years before protestors took to the streets in Benin, with the financial meltdown of the 1980s.

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Democracy in Africa
  • Online ISBN: 9781139030892
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Berg, Elliot. Accelerated Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Agenda For Action. Washington, DC: World Bank, 1981.
Bratton, Michael, and Van de Walle, Nicolas. Democratic Experiments in Africa: Regime Transitions in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Huntington, Samuel P.The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.
Van de Walle, Nicolas. African Economies and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, 1979–1999. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
For a bibliography for this chapter go to