Veteran Senegalese opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade had failed four times to be elected President. But earlier this year the feisty, dogged politician gathered his energy for a final run, rallying supporters with cries of "Sopi!" (the Wolof word for change). This time Wade, 74, was victorious, defeating Abdou Diouf, who had ruled the peanut-growing West African nation for two decades. Some commentators seized upon the peaceful transition as evidence of Africa's maturing democratic tradition. But while Senegal's success story is worth celebrating it remains an exception. Most African countries continue to struggle with even the most basic democratic principles.
The number of countries allowing multiparty parliamentary or presidential elections has risen from three in 1989 to 42 today, but more elections have not automatically led to greater democracy. All too often polls are called by chance — the death of a military leader, another coup — rather than by democratic pattern. In many countries ballot-box stuffing and voter intimidation remain common, while in countries such as Gabon, Kenya, and Togo, leaders known as Big Men stayed in power by merely tweaking their old-style regimes. "Democracy is still very much about power and about competing elites," says John Githongo, head of the Kenyan chapter of Berlin-based anti-corruption group Transparency International.
One reason for the slow pace of change is that Western-style democracy is still very new to Africa. Traditional systems of rule, which often included a tribal or village leader and a council of elders, rarely survived colonialism. Instead, newly inde-pendent states inherited Western-style democracy even though they lacked — and often continue to lack — essential democratic building blocks like a strong middle class and a sense of shared values. "We have the constitution and the laws of a state but we don't have the values and foundation of a nation," says Ken-yan public policy analyst Sam Mwale. "So government becomes an exercise in grabbing power to control the state, not of running the state on behalf of the people of a nation."
Where democracy has gained a foothold, voters are often frustrated by the results. Just over a year after Nigerians celebrated the end of 15 years of military rule, Africa's most populous nation is shackled by ethnic and religious violence and an economy stuck in first gear. "When we got democracy everything was meant to change," says Lagos street stall owner Benjamin Joseph, 36. "But it's just more of the same." It doesn't help that former military leader and now democratic President Olusegun Obasanjo seems to favor rule by decree. "The problem is not democracy itself but that those people who are supposed to implement it don't even know the basic rules," says Abdul Oroh, executive director of Nigeria's Civil Liberties Organisation.
Some leaders, most notably President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, maintain that their countries are still not ready for multiparty democracy and that it must develop as social and economic conditions allow. Museveni's no-party "movement" system of government, which has overseen a remarkable turnaround in Uganda's fortunes since the bloody days of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, was voted on at a referendum last week. Although Western groups such as Human Rights Watch have criticized the current system as repressive, Ugandans are likely to favor it over the multiparty alternative: the no-party system has restored peace and stability and, paradoxically, helped create one of Africa's most lively and competent parliaments. In any case, the multiparty supporters boycotted the vote.
Still, the Ugandan model relies to a large extent on its philosopher-leader and it may not survive his eventual departure. In other countries, practicalities are forcing change. The amount of development aid to Africa has plummeted over the past decade, forcing governments to seek private investment. "You have to reach a minimum standard to attract that," says Geoffrey Bergen, resident representative for the World Bank in Niger, where yet another military coup last year led, unexpectedly, to free and fair elections. "The political elite are slowly realizing that the rules of the game have changed."
Perhaps. In the following articles, Time takes a look at two African democracies — one struggling, one quite successful.