Written by By Alice Thomson, CNN London
Forty years ago, some three-quarters of African nations had seen the slide from absolute monarchy into democracy. Now more than half do. The easy history books on Africa contain an inescapable conclusion: After centuries of tribal courts, backsliding dictatorships and localized state failure, the transition to democracy had triumphed.
But this fall of the black nationalist leaders who grew up as liberation fighters could not be the product of force alone — it also reflected social change and technological advances.
“We used to say 50 years ago that anything is possible — one wonders how long it will be before we say “Anything is impossible.”
Many African countries have managed to see their economies soar in recent years, especially alongside emerging markets on the continent and emerging economies globally. In Somalia, where Al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab has refused to acknowledge the existence of the state, a democratically elected president will take office next year. Former president Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown by an armed revolution in 1991, and in Somalia the shift toward a mostly democratic state began in 2006.
Populous and geographically sparse, the Horn of Africa has been strategically important since colonial times, but western interests were thwarted by the region’s leaders. The post-colonial Zimbabwe, for example, saw eight different tenures of party rule, a dictator and war with neighboring Botswana between 1963 and 2005.
African migration means the gradual — but now almost inevitable — decline of small states that in one generation find themselves beholden to large international organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In all but a few cases, citizens of the old state were slowly disenfranchised.
Increasingly sophisticated means of communications are facilitating the rise of economic communities in Africa. Governments, once able to exercise wide-ranging control through the state-issued stamp of legitimacy, are now expected to follow rules laid down by the United Nations and international agencies.
The liberation movement itself is waning in influence, with many former leaders passing on power to their children. A new and indeed disturbing group of younger leaders is staking its claim with such a ruthless brutality that its critics now compare it to the most barbaric post-colonial regimes — whether it be military juntas in Egypt, or the KGB in post-Soviet Russia.
With the old colonial powers still engaged in the region, and no comprehensive plan for peace in war-torn South Sudan, the transition to democracy in Africa still faces the risk of fast regression. However, this new wave of autocratic rulers are themselves, in many cases, rooted in democracy as a young person.