Monday, 23 November 2015

Democracy in Africa – successes, failures and the struggle for political reform (one of a series: New Approaches to Africa)
Nic Cheeseman
Cambridge University Press
Pbck. £17.99

In the wake of the anti-colonial liberation movements that mushroomed in Africa from the 1960s onwards, it has been saddening and sobering to witness how almost all of the newly independent countries quickly devolved into authoritarian or military regimes. This book is an attempt to look at how and why that has happened.
            While Cheeseman gives a useful and informative overview of the changes that have taken place since independence for many African nations, he is reticent when it comes to offering a deeper analysis of why the attempts to establish effective democracy have largely failed.
            The former colonial nations, notably Britain, Belgium, Portugal and France simply drew arbitrary borders to coincide with their own commercial interests but with no justification in terms of ethnic, tribal or cultural logic. This in itself laid the foundation for future incompatibility and strife. The post-colonial rush by Western nations to exploit the recently discovered wealth in raw materials has also compounded the stifling of democracy and encouraged widespread corruption.
            Where Cheeseman is particularly superficial is in his treatment of the impact of Western and Soviet policies on Africa. He appears to suggest an equivalence in their policies; that both simply played out their ideological battles on the African continent. This is a travesty of the truth. One doesn’t have to be a defender of, or apologist for, the Soviet Union to recognise that it, together with the German Democratic Republic and other Eastern bloc countries, gave unstinting support, right from the outset, to anti-colonial and liberation movements. At that time there was little prospect of reward in terms of access to raw materials or other commercial advantage. Support was given largely for ideological reasons. On the other hand, the West – largely the USA – supported the most reactionary elements in Africa and made concerted efforts to destroy any burgeoning liberation movements which were seen as precursors of a communist take-over of Africa. Not to recognise this fundamental difference and its impact on post colonial development is to ignore a central factor that determined the processes that unfolded. It should also be noted that Western interference has continued long after the demise of the East European socialist world. The author also ignores the more recent but highly significant impact of China on Africa.
In his conclusion he examines African democratic choices as if these countries existed in a global vacuum and are largely uninfluenced by determining economic factors.
            With these important caveats, Cheeseman’s book is nevertheless a useful and important contribution to our understanding of  post colonial African developments.

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