What Does Post-Socialist Democracy Look Like in Africa?

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Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Fidel Castro of Cuba
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Between 1960 and 1992, socialist one-party states were among the most common forms of government in Africa. Rhetorically, this ideology offered leaders a critique of Western capitalism, justified state-driven economics, and touted national unity. Politically, it had the obvious advantage of monopolizing state power and denouncing opposition as contrary to the national interest.

To avoid an attempt at differentiating “socialism” from state-intervention in the economy, anti-Western foreign policy or rhetoric of ruling for the people, this argument will limit itself to countries who constitutionally defined themselves as socialist. Over time, many of these nations engaged in capitalist behavior like conducting trade with colonial powers or negotiating IMF Structural Adjustment Programs, while Africa’s most conservative regimes saw their fair share of nationalizations and large-scale subsidies. 

Of course, one-party socialism varied dramatically from country to country in terms of national variations (e.g., Ujamaa in Tanzania), civilian or military origins, commitment to socialist ideals, or how they balanced engagement with the Soviets and Chinese against the continuation of trade with the West. However, these differences did not insulate countries’ political systems from the USSR’s collapse. In fact, when combined with the economic crises that were sweeping the continent in the 1970s and 1980s, the loss of ideological legitimacy paved the way for dramatic changes. 

Although nations like Ethiopia, Somalia and Angola experienced a continuation of civil war or dictatorship, the transitional period from 1989 to 1992 saw much of Socialist Africa: (1) loosen restrictions on media; (2) form national election commissions; (3) legalize opposition parties; (4) grant new political rights; and (5) hold “free and fair” elections. While many Western scholars prematurely concluded these changes meant the victory of liberal democracy, the examples of Tanzania, Benin, and Zambia demonstrate how the collapse of the socialist one-party state in Africa has actually produced three distinct political trajectories. Outcomes were determined largely by the level of intra-party competition before the transition and how rule of law developed afterwards.

Tanzania: High Levels of Intra-Party Competition

One-party states do not lack political competition. Internal factions often vie for power, resources and appointments beneath the facade of unity, as in the case of the 1985 election for the Presidency of Zanzibar. While the ruling CCM party nominated Idris Abdulwakil for the office in Tanzania’s autonomous region, that process had been divisive. At the time, Tanzanian elections were simple “yes” or “no” votes for one candidate nominated by the CCM, yet Abdulwakil received a humiliatingly low 58% affirmative votes. Although breaking the threshold necessary to take office, he was absent from the ballot in the next election.

One might view the 1985 election as a demonstration of CCM’s weakness as a one-party state, but it should be remembered that the CCM has still not officially lost a national or Zanzibari election to this day. Indeed, even though the nation experienced some political liberalization in the early 1990s, the CCM has maintained its ruling coalition by mobilizing popular support, holding large legislative majorities, leveraging the institutional advantages of being in power for 60 years, and building close relationships with the country’s newly-emergent business class. Thus, the CCM successfully maintained high levels of competition within the party, rather than fracturing.

Importantly, during critical moments of transition in the early 1990s, the CCM had amended Tanzania’s existing constitution to legalize opposition parties without their participation in the process. While this did represent a step towards political liberalization, the exclusion of opposition voices meant that the multiparty playing field was designed in the CCM’s interests. In recent years, the CCM has begun to rely more on heavy-handed means of political control, but decades of political and judicial appointments, the accumulation of party funds, and the power to shape the legislative arena remain the defining themes of its post-1992 governments.

Benin: Low Levels of Intra-Party Competition with Rule of Law

While some socialist ruling parties were able to maintain control of the political sphere during the transition to multiparty democracy, others were not. In Benin, the PRPB party and its leader Mathieu Kerekou were facing an economic crisis and calls for democracy from Unacobe, an association of traders who were not fond of Kerekou’s Marxist regime. Although this opposition alone had not been enough to topple the government, a 1986 IMF deal alienated the UNSTB state labor union’s rank-and-file and many student associations. Still, Kerekou had the support of the military, who benefitted from years of property seizures. 

This dynamic led to a situation where both sides faced a choice: negotiate or take up arms. Rather than engage in an all-or-nothing struggle for power where either faction could lose everything, Benin held a National Conference in 1990 that, unlike Tanzania, included opposition voices and negotiated a settlement that secured the rights of each group. The inability of the PRPB to maintain high levels of intra-party competition saw key factions back a transition to multiparty politics. In such an environment, neither the former ruling party nor the ascendant opposition were able to dictate terms to the other, and the rule of law flourished alongside a strong judicial system and culture of peaceful transitions of power between parties.

Zambia: Low Levels of Intra-Party Competition without Rule of Law

Similar to the crucial role that the UNSTB played in Benin’s transition to multiparty democracy, the ZCTU state labor union was influential in Zambia’s. While the ZCTU, UNSTB and Unacobe were all founded by socialist governments to control groups that could potentially be troublesome, the leaders of those groups seized on moments of instability to mobilize against their parent organizations. 

In particular, after leading protests against Kenneth Kaunda’s socialist UNIP government, former ZCTU leader Fredrich Chiluba led the opposition MMD to a landslide victory in the 1991 presidential elections. This resounding victory gave him much more power than Benin’s new government possessed, and the MMD-dominated legislature amended the constitution to strip Kaunda of his Zambian citizenship and bar him from running again. Several other UNIP officials were exiled on similar grounds after Chiuba succeeded in greatly undermining opposition to the MMD, as well as the rule of law, that may have challenged his authority. In 2011, the MMD’s run of dominance was ended by the victory of populist Michael Sata and his PF party, whose successor Edgar Lungu has been accused of consolidating power even more than his predecessors.

What Do These Patterns Mean?

The outcomes in these three countries have played out similarly in other former socialist one-party states. Mozambique’s FRELIMO were able to dominate the process of transitioning to multiparty politics just as Tanzania’s CCM did. Cape Verde experienced periods of low intra-party competition followed by the development of rule of law in the years after 1992, similar to Benin. Meanwhile Madagascar’s political instability and repression of opposition by successive governments from different parties mirrors the pattern in Zambia.

Despite these very different trajectories, each of these countries are more politically liberalized and democratic than they were in the 1980s, although recent events point to possible reversals in many. For example, Benin has now gone through two election cycles marred by allegations of foul play by President Patrice Talon; Zambia under Edgar Lungu appears to be sinking deeper into authoritarianism; and Tanzania is left to question what comes after the death of John Magafuli. In the same way that the global trend towards political liberalization affected the nations of Socialist Africa in various ways following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the recent global trend of democratic recession may now lead to more fragile African democracies.

Much like the process of political liberalisation from the late 1980s onwards however, this democratic backsliding is likely to play out very differently from country to country. In turn, this demonstrates the considerable variation in political conditions and trajectories on the continent, and the way in which the present is shaped by the past.

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