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Review of Democratic Reform in Africa: Its Impact on Governance and Poverty Alleviation


By Michael Medley

Democratic Reform in Africa: Its Impact on Governance & Poverty Alleviation. ed. Muna Ndulo. James Currey, Oxford, and Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 2006. Pp. 304. ISBN 978-0-85255-946-8 (pb), £18.95. ISBN 978-0-85255-945-1 (hb), £50.00.

Democratic Reform in Africa presents a diverse collection of essays focusing on issues of governance, democratic development and economic reform. The contributors come from notably varied academic and organisational backgrounds. The contributions generally adopt an overview and summary approach, but there are case studies relating to Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe as well as a critical examination of the NEPAD ‘peer review’ initiative. Echoes of the ‘optimist’ viewpoint still relatively common a decade ago appear here in more muted form, and in their overall thrust the reflections offered on Africa’s current democratic prospects are sobering.

The opening chapters by Muna Ndulo, Johann Kriegler, and Ann and Robert Seidman mark out themes which recur elsewhere in the contributions. One is the primacy of the rule of law, democratic development and human rights – too long neglected in favour of prioritizing economic development in Africa, and (as another contributor notes) even now still accorded a lesser importance by most donors than the pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals. The other is the importance of reform processes being driven by African priorities if they are to acquire either legitimacy or sustainability. The complexities (and often dysfunctional aspects) of the relationship between external pressures and local initiative in the African case are addressed on the economic side by Tsatsu Tsikata’s discussion of Ghana’s structural adjustment experience and, in its political dimensions, by Reginald Austin’s account of the difficulties Zimbabwe has experienced in evolving a constitutional order that meets both internal acceptability and external credibility. The attempts to institutionalize what were originally Western conceptions of human rights in African constitutional practice are in turn explored in a trio of chapters – by John Hatchard on the experience of human rights commissions in Commonwealth Africa, by Penelope Andrews on the role of the South African Constitutional Court, and in Douglas Anglin’s analysis of the interplay of external and intra-Africa pressures over NEPAD’s introduction of ‘peer review’ of the democratic and human rights performance of African regimes.

While Anglin observes that the initiators of ‘peer review’ committed a strategic error in not enlisting the early involvement of African civil society networks, the question remains as to whether this means of anchoring the reform process within African society is actually available. Certainly the Ghanaian and South African legal service NGOs that Daniel Manning examines indicate that agencies are evolving to help individuals and local communities to defend their rights. But the impact of African advocacy NGOs more generally is modest due to limited staff and financial resources and their uncertain legitimacy; as Peter Takirambudde and Kate Fletcher note, only nine African states allow such organisations to operate with little attempt to regulate their activities. Thomas Lansner’s discussion of the media singles out of the role of radio in AIDS awareness campaigns and in ‘peace-building’ in conflict situations, but he suggests that the private print media still lacks the professionalized cadres and a secure economic base to play an effective ‘watchdog’ role vis-à-vis most African governments.

Joel Barkan’s review of Africa’s current democratic evolution points nonetheless to areas meriting cautious optimism: if the democratic reform momentum of the early 1990s stopped well short of sweeping away the old order, a resurgent authoritarianism has not re-emerged, and the number of reasonably stable multiparty systems should gradually increase, especially as younger and more reform-minded politicians establish a presence. Brian Levy identifies a range of indicators that the economic reforms undertaken by African governments under IFI supervision are bearing fruit, though he cautions that reforms made against a backdrop of crisis, and under donor pressure, might prove unsustainable. Moreover, Africa’s economies still lack the diversification needed to underpin democratic consolidation. Ndulo stresses the gains that devolution offers as a counterweight to the overcentralisation of African states, but notes that governments have shown limited interest despite their prominence on the governance agenda. Colleen Lowe-Morna charts the political progress of African women under conditions of increased electoral competitiveness; while the proportion of female legislators is similar to Europe (disregarding the Nordic states), and while women politicians have won some significant victories in removing discriminatory legislation, they tend to remain ‘ghettoized’ at cabinet level; women haven’t yet learned how to translate electoral participation into real policy impact.

Despite the absence of topics that might usefully have extended this volume’s core concerns – the evolving patterns of African presidentialism, for example, or the changing role of legislatures under the impact of multipartyism – this is a valuable collection given the ground that it does cover and the range of its thematic interests. While one or two of the chapters this reviewer found difficult to relate to, the contributions overall are carefully argued and illuminating; some, and particularly that by Anglin, proved outstanding.

Reviewed by: Ralph A. Young, University of Manchester

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 69 (2007), pp. 78-80]

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