Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Rip Van Winkle awakening in 2009 will find sub-Saharan Africa's political landscape profoundly changed. Many more Africans now enjoy basic political rights, and a clear yet partial move toward accountable governance offers a better platform for tackling the region's steep challenges of economic development and poverty reduction.

    When the Cold War ended, most of Africa was ruled by a mixed bag of single-party, military, and other personalized “big man” regimes. According to the Washington-based Freedom House, in 1989 the region (south of the Sahara and excluding island microstates) was home to only three “electoral democracies”—Botswana, Gambia, and Mauritius—with a combined population of less than 3.5 million. By this count, less than one in every hundred Africans lived in countries that met minimum standards of free and fair electoral competition. The most recent ratings, for 2007, paint a very different picture. The number of sub-Saharan democracies has swelled to 20, accounting for more than a quarter of the region's population.

    Two decades ago, Africa's economic and military powerhouse—South Africa—was ruled by a white minority government that regularly destabilized its neighbors, while its most populous country—Nigeria—was suffering under a series of corrupt military dictatorships. More recently, these same two countries have been at the forefront of initiatives to promote regional peace and development. They helped launch a new African Union (AU), whose founding principles reflect growing commitment to “good governance” among political leaders. For example, when a military coup followed the death of Guinea's long-time president late last year, the country's AU membership was immediately suspended.

    Despite these promising trends, major tragedies of the past 20 years have highlighted obstacles to democracy and development in the region. Perhaps most destabilizing was a sharp spike in violent conflict during the mid-1990s, with the Central African Great Lakes region especially hard hit. Following the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, a civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) spilled over the borders into neighboring countries. According to the International Rescue Committee, the conflict has directly and indirectly claimed more than five million lives since 1998. This by some reckonings makes it the most deadly international conflict since World War II.

    Meanwhile, the death toll due to HIV/AIDS in Africa rivals that of the region's wars. The pandemic was still in its infancy in the late 1980s. Though estimates are subject to considerable uncertainty, in recent years it appears that the disease has been killing at a rate of approximately one and a half million annually in Africa. To put this figure in perspective, it means that more Africans are dying of HIV/AIDS every day than died in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

    Any useful assessment of Africa's challenges must account for the dynamism and diversity of the region. For example, considerable international assistance has helped the Democratic Republic of Congo emerge from civil war. Meanwhile, public policy responses to HIV/AIDS have improved considerably, particularly in South Africa, which has the largest HIV-positive population in the world. And while crises like Zimbabwe's free-fall—combining state repression with inflation rates running into the trillions—grab international headlines, directly next door Botswana has quietly maintained one of the world's most impressive records of sustained economic growth.

    Pressures for Political and Economic Reform

    Though the wave of democratization in Africa did not gain momentum until after the Cold War ended, in the 1980s critics inside and out began asking tough questions about the performance of the region's authoritarian governments. Dragged down by global economic shocks and domestic policy failures, from the 1970s the region was falling sharply behind developing economies elsewhere. By the late 1980s, nearly every African country had formally adopted a market-oriented reform agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. For cash-strapped governments, these agreements unlocked much-needed financial assistance, but with major strings attached. Recipients were required to reduce budget deficits substantially, devalue their currencies, and more generally scale back state intervention in their economies.

    Whatever the economic merits of these controversial reforms, they struck directly at the political foundations of African governments. Expenditures that the IMF and World Bank wanted cut were central to patronage networks that helped keep incumbents in power, while existing patterns of state intervention helped shield politically pivotal groups from the full brunt of the economic crisis. Squeezed between the policy demands of international financial institutions and the domestic imperatives of political survival, governments typically responded with varying degrees of “partial reform”—delivering enough policy change to keep external donors at bay, while dragging their feet on the most politically sensitive items.

    Through the end of the 1980s, most governments maintained this balancing act, though doing so exposed them to mounting criticism from both sides. Highly urbanized countries with strong trade-union movements faced particularly stiff domestic political opposition to policies that scaled back public-sector employment and raised the cost of living. From its side, the World Bank released a landmark 1989 report arguing that a “crisis of governance” was at the heart of Africa's economic problems, calling for institutional changes to enable fuller and more effective implementation of market reforms.

    The collapse of the Soviet Union quickly expanded the agenda of governance reform in Africa. Superpower rivalry had previously discouraged Western powers from linking bilateral, government-to-government aid to democratization. Now a division of labor emerged in which the IMF and World Bank continued to make their funds conditional on “apolitical” policy and institutional changes, while bilateral donors like the United States added what came to be known informally as “political conditionality.” African governments seeking to maintain flows of external financial assistance confronted increasingly strong pressures toward establishing open and competitive political regimes. This environment emboldened domestic opposition groups who, like their Eastern European counterparts, mobilized behind the banner of “civil society” in demanding democratic reform.

    Events outside the region were a crucial catalyst for Africa's wave of democratization. But the speed of the wave reflected existing tensions within the region, which were related to the ways authoritarian governments handled the economic difficulties of the 1980s.

    Doubts about Democracy

    No shortage of skepticism greeted Africa's new democracies. Many analysts questioned whether they would last—and, if so, whether they would make any significant contribution to economic recovery and poverty reduction.

    One set of doubts stemmed from the absence of structural “requisites” observed in established democracies. A key premise here was that democratization has historically been part of a broader social transformation—encompassing processes like industrialization, mass education, the ascendancy of a large middle class, and at least a clear sense of national identity. Many African countries remain at low levels of socioeconomic development and are highly ethnically fragmented, raising concerns about the structural bases for stable democracy.

    A related set of doubts sprang from the perception that Africa's political transition was externally driven, while questioning post-Cold War faith in the inherent compatibility of markets and democracy. Tensions within Africa during the late 1980s revealed a messier reality. Domestic opposition typically emanated from groups who claimed that market reforms had gone too far, while the World Bank's own views about a “crisis of governance” implied that they had not gone far enough. In this view, democratization seemed likely to have the effect of empowering the opponents of market-oriented policies, while successful market reform would require benevolent “developmental states” insulated from the cut and thrust of democratic politics.

    In general, skeptics have interpreted Africa's wave of democracy as almost a “historical accident”—the product of wily rulers' responses to an external reform agenda and lacking structural foundations in African societies. Just as African leaders managed to sidestep economic conditionality in the 1980s, they were now dodging the substance of political conditionality. By staging periodic elections they created a facade of democratic legitimacy and kept donor funds flowing. But even where the facade was maintained, any genuine developmental benefits of democracy seemed unlikely to materialize.

    Prospects for Democracy and Development

    Two decades of hindsight offer an empirical basis for greater optimism about the durability and performance of democracy in Africa. The wave of democratization in the region is partial and potentially reversible, and skeptics have identified important vulnerabilities. Yet Africa's democracies have lasted longer and performed better than initially expected.

    International factors have played an important role in supporting African democracy. Since the end of the Cold War, the global climate has become decidedly more uncomfortable for nondemocratic governments, which are increasingly deprived of legitimacy and resources, and trends within Africa have reinforced this. South Africa's own political transition has given the region a dominant power whose ideals and strategic interests both are served by promoting democracy and human rights. The launch of the AU and its adoption of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD)—an initiative that identifies “good governance” as an essential “condition for sustainable development”—embody the thrust of South Africa's regional policy. While the Zimbabwean crisis starkly illustrates how difficult it is to dislodge a skillful and intransigent dictator, democratic norms are much more influential in Africa than they were two decades ago.

    Meanwhile, emerging evidence seems to confirm that, in African countries where democracy has been established, states have tended to perform better as agents of economic development. These effects seem to hinge on the benefits of imposing institutional checks on leaders' discretionary authority, backed by the ability to remove governments that fail to improve the well-being of their people. By contrast, the region's most catastrophic developmental failures—including Zimbabwe's current plunge—have only spun out of control when constitutional checks and balances have been absent or dismantled. Democratically elected governments have no monopoly on economic insight, but under democratic regimes “bad economics” eventually becomes “bad politics,” giving government's strong incentives to change course.

    In light of Africa's diversity, any sweeping generalization about prospects for democracy and development would be misleading. In conclusion, I briefly discuss four bellwether countries that are particularly worth tracking in the coming months and years.

    First, the Democratic Republic of Congo is a crucial case of postconflict peace building. Like Sierra Leone and Liberia before it, it has benefited from considerable assistance from the United Nations and regional organizations. Credible but technically flawed presidential elections in 2006 reinforced a fragile political settlement of civil war. The country is plagued by complex political divisions and extremely weak infrastructure and does not currently meet accepted standards of electoral democracy (despite its name). Even very modest progress would boost regional development, but a collapse of the relative peace now prevailing could again destabilize Central Africa.

    Second, Nigeria is a country that slipped out of the club of electoral democracies following 2007 presidential elections plagued by massive fraud and violence. The victory of the current president, Umaru Yar’Adua, survived lengthy legal appeals, and Yar’Adua has promised electoral reforms. A common weakness of Africa's democracies is that few have yet combined intense party competition with effective electoral administration. In Nigeria, a hotly contested election put the administrative machinery under strain it could not withstand. As one of the region's leading powers, Nigeria's next round of national elections will be closely scrutinized.

    Third, South Africa faces a somewhat different challenge to its young democracy. Though the country's record of electoral administration has been exemplary, its first three general elections have seen the ruling African National Congress (ANC) win large and increasing majorities—its 2004 vote share approaching 70 percent. However, the party's decision to “recall” President Thabo Mbeki before the end of his term has prompted an internal split. The breakaway Congress of the People (COPE), though very unlikely to overtake the ANC in a general election in mid-2009, poses the greatest challenge so far to the ruling party's dominance. More important than the final vote count is how the added dose of political contestation affects the conduct of the campaign and election.

    Finally, the most positive recent development among Africa's democracies was Ghana's December 2008 presidential election. The opposition party's candidate, John Atta-Mills, won a run-off over Nana Akufo-Addo by a razor-thin margin of thirty thousand votes, out of over nine million cast. When Akufo-Addo conceded and Atta-Mills was inaugurated, it marked the second time power had changed hands constitutionally since the country's 1992 democratic transition. Ghana thus became the largest African country ever to pass the “two-turnover test” of democratic consolidation. The achievement was widely reported and praised throughout the region, clearly demonstrating the possibilities of democratic practice in Africa.

    Rod Alence is Visiting Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Michigan for the 2008-2009 academic year. He is also Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. His research focuses on the political economy of African development, and his research has appeared in publications such as the Journal of Democracy, the Journal of Modern African Studies, and the Journal of African History.