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Opinion: How to stop Africa's democratic backsliding

Fifty years after the first wave of independence, most of Africa is still waiting to benefit from democracy. Rulers extending their terms in office certainly aren't helping matters any.

Other sons who appear to be waiting in the wings include Egypt’s Gamal Mubarak, Senegal’s Karim Wade and Libya’s Seif Al Islam, all of whom occupy important positions within their fathers' regimes.

Whereas in the past, elections in Africa were often blatantly stage-managed by the incumbent’s office, most countries now have constitutionally mandated electoral commissions, often including the word “independent” in their names. Unfortunately, as the Kenyan debacle underscored last year, these bodies still suffer from too much partisanship and too little professionalism. Weak and divided, they remain easy prey for unscrupulous rulers unafraid to use the stick of violence and the carrot of bribery.

Africa is of course not entirely devoid of examples of functioning democracy; South Africa, Ghana, Benin and Botswana can all be proud of their political and social progress, particularly the first three which had, until relatively recently, an appalling track record of undemocratic behavior. Unfortunately the list of such countries is short, and if one were to look at the 10 most populous nations on the continent, where two-thirds of all Africans live, only two — South Africa and Tanzania — could truly be considered democracies.

Let’s be clear that no one is expecting Africa to morph into some Platonic ideal of New England town hall democracy, replete with civility and the common good. In most places, especially in the developing world, politics is, as the great American cynic Ambrose Bierce put it: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.” Nonetheless, the recent appearance of many supposed harbingers of incipient democracy, such as vibrant media outlets and energetic civil society groups, have not been accompanied by a concomitant growth of responsible government.

Fifty years after the first wave of African colonies becoming independent and 20 years after the end of the Cold War, most Africans have yet to benefit from a democracy dividend. Recently, though, there have been brief flashes of hope. Intergovernmental groupings like the African Union, the Economic Community of West Africa States and the Southern African Development Community have taken principled stands and even applied sanctions against some of the region’s most incorrigible autocrats. Much as we in the West like to believe that the world dances to our tune, in Africa at least, our best return will come from supporting these sorts of courageous homegrown initiatives.

Christian Hennemeyer is the vice president for external relations at Bridging the Divide, a new non-profit focusing on supporting local groups in Africa and the Middle East. For the past 25 years, Hennemeyer has managed major relief and development operations in sub-Saharan Africa. He is now based in Washington, D.C.