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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 1 .


Voting for Democracy: Watershed Elections in Contemporary Anglophone Africa
John Daniel, Roger Southall, and Morris Szeftel

Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999
284pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 40.00; ISBN 1-8552-1996-4.



Voting For Democracy explores the recent movement toward democratization in Anglophone Africa through examination of recent "watershed" elections in seven states. Using elections for the Constituent assembly in Namibia in 1989 and the historic all-race election in South Africa in 1994 as bookends, the volume looks at both failures and successes in democratic elections in the region during this five-year period.

Elections are a result, not a cause, of democracy, and this volume doesn't attempt to argue otherwise. Nigeria's truncated democracy, and its aborted presidential election in 1993, illustrate this. Indeed, one of the best chapters, Rok Ajulu's examination of the 1992 multi-party election in Kenya, examines the results of what could well be considered in isolation as a true democratic election heralding a new sprit of pluralism. However, after winning the election Moi reimposes the old order and continues to govern as an authoritarian. Indeed, the argument can be made that winning a multi-party election creates the very legitimacy that allows Moi to further consolidate his authority. As Moi demonstrates, democracy will not last if political elites will work to undermine it.

Even elections which are relatively free and fair are meet with justifiable suspicion. The 1993 election in Lesotho and the 1994 contest in Malawi were widely viewed by African observers as true watershed events - the first free elections in both states in over 30 years. Yet the results, as the various authors report, tell a different story. Civic societies which lack concepts such as a loyal opposition and a free press, and the desire for unity among contending and mutually distrustful groups in a society, may well undermine the results of any election, regardless of how free and fair the actual electoral process was.

One important lesson for democracy in Africa may be ascertained from the example in Roger Southall's chapter concerning Lesotho. The authoritarian regimes which had governed Lesotho had been able to do so because of the support of the white-minority government in South Africa. When this support vanished, so largely did the ability of the authoritarian state to maintain itself. This might be an important lesson in the recent elections in Anglophone Africa covered here. Either explicitly or implicitly authoritarians support authoritarians. While the elections in the region may be seriously flawed, or the aftermath questionable, the fact that they are occurring in close temporal proximity may be important. While it is too simplistic to say that democracies create democracies, like authoritarianism democracies do offer at least implicit support for the pluralist alternative. Perhaps the very number of states involved can create a "critical mass" of at least avowedly pluralist states which could facilitate a true systemic shift in the region. While the initial results of any movement in the direction of democracy may be imperfect, or even seriously flawed, it may shift states in the region from the historical path of authoritarianism to one of greater pluralism.

One criticism that may be levelled at this otherwise ambitious work is the very use of the adjective "watershed" in the title to characterize the elections studied. As the authors themselves note, at best the elections covered are but a first step toward true democratic reform. As current events in states covered here demonstrate, even constitutional changes which allow for multi-party elections may not significantly contribute to long-term democratic reform against entrenched oligarchs with a vested interest in authoritarianism. It is perhaps still too early to determine if the elections covered here are true watershed events, constituting "founding elections" in a sense that they redefine political norms in these states, or if elites will continue to undermine pluralist democratic ideals in favor of narrow self-interest. Chudi Okoye, in his chapter on Nigeria sums up the problem of democratic transition - a broad-based elite pact on issues of power sharing, the distribution of natural resources, and, indeed, the modality of the transition itself, is a necessary pre-condition for any sustainable democratization. (p. 181) This is true not just for Nigeria, but all states attempting the difficult transition from authoritarianism to pluralism.

This volume is an excellent source in the far too often overlooked topic of democratization in Africa. While much has been written in recent years concerning democratization in Latin America, the process in Africa has been largely ignored Utilizing both general theoretical and specific case-studies, it offers both introductory and more experienced African scholars insight into this difficult process. The elections covered here are not only valuable in their own right, but will serve as an important starting point for further comparative research in African elections and democratic transitions.


David Carwell
Department of Political Science




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