Article

Democracy and Authoritarianism in Sub-Saharan Africa

Douglas A. Yates

in Political Science

ISBN: 9780199756223
Published online February 2013 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0062
Democracy and Authoritarianism in Sub-Saharan Africa

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The end of colonial rule in Africa brought into existence new independent states which lacked both effective government institutions and modern national identities. Postcolonial African leaders therefore immediately faced the dual challenges of state building and nation building. Most started out by adopting democratic constitutions copied from their European colonizers, but then quickly descended into various forms of authoritarianism. Many reasons account for this, including the legacy of authoritarianism inherent to colonial rule, the ideological battles of the Cold War, the organizational advantages of the military, ethno-political competition, and even traditional patterns of political culture. Authoritarian rule thus became the central tendency of African politics during the Cold War, until the “Third Wave of Democratization” in the 1990s ushered in a new age of constitutionalism, rule of law, multiparty elections, and alternance of power. Today the norm is democracy, albeit flawed, with most African governments coming to power through competitive elections, and most rulers following civilian rather than military careers. But the struggle for democracy has not been entirely successful, with major reversals appearing frequently in every region. First there are certain rulers who have successfully established family dynasties, or ethnic clan-based systems of neo-patrimonial rule. Next there are new military rulers who have come to power through coups d’état, or as warlords in failed or collapsed states. Finally, there are parties and presidents who have learned how to survive the advent of multiparty elections. Denying basic freedoms of association, speech, and the press are instruments of such “illiberal” democracies. Others are manipulating registration lists, denying voters’ rights, and fraudulent counts. Political scientists working on the continent today do recognize that many authoritarian rulers have simply learned how to master the new environment of democracy. Foreign electoral observer missions and international sanctions have each become a constant. New thinking about democracy is focusing attention on the development of “civil society,” and in its more radical variant, support for social movements. The possibility that western democracy may not be suitable for Africa has also resulted in scholarship on alternative forms of government based on indigenous cultural experience. Perhaps the synthesis of democracy and authoritarian rule in Africa will come through the contemporary focus on “governance,” or what government does, rather than on “government,” or what it is.

Article.  13122 words. 

Subjects: Politics ; Comparative Politics ; Political Institutions ; Political Methodology ; Political Theory

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