Coups blight Africa reform

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THE COUP and the military dictator are returning to Africa, eroding the hope that democracy, supported by Western aid, might take root on the continent after the Cold War.

This week, a successful but bloody coup in Burundi overthrew the democratically elected government and there were coup attempts in Sierra Leone and Chad. The coup in Burundi was a particular blow. The democratic transition in June had been peaceful and Melchior Ndadaye, the new President, had called for national reconciliation and an end to the tribal rivalry that had caused thousands of deaths in recent years. Having won power, he did not, as has happened so many times in Africa, suppress the losing opposition party.

After the coup, Western donors immediately withdrew aid and isolated Burundi, but there is little evidence that such measures are effective in bringing down military regimes in Africa. Tens of thousands of refugees have already fled over Burundi's borders; the cost to the international community of providing assistance to the refugees will encourage Western donors to accept the realities of the situation rather than push for a return to democracy. With the overthrow of the Burundi government, there are perhaps three new democracies in Africa, out of more than 30 countries.

In 1991 military regimes all over Africa were toppled by a mixture of internal insurrection and outside pressure, or by the withdrawal of outside support. Africans turned out to vote in such numbers that it seemed as if democracy might sweep the continent. But many of Africa's elections and democratic processes have now been thwarted. In too many cases there has been little or no response from Western donors. The message to Africa's dictators is this: if you are brazen enough and if the industrialised world has too much invested in your country to pull out, you can get away with it.

In Togo and Cameroon this year, farcical elections were allowed to legitimise tyrannical regimes, while in Nigeria the West stood by as an election it had recognised as free and fair was overturned by the military.

Meanwhile, the more reflective and intellectual rulers, such as Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, have reservations about the suitability of western-style democracy for Africa. The democratic success stories, Benin, Zambia and Ghana, are too small and are not being rewarded with sufficient aid to send the message to others that the democratic route reaps rewards and can boost a country's economy.