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Africa back to the old ways?

March 18, 2009

The overthrow of Madagascar’s leader may have had nothing to do with events elsewhere in Africa, but after four violent changes of power within eight months the question is bound to arise as to whether the continent is returning to old ways.

Three years without coups between 2005 and last year had appeared to some, including foreign investors, to have indicated a fundamental change from the first turbulent decades after independence. This spate of violent overthrows could now be another reason for investors to tread more warily again, particularly as Africa feels the impact of the global financial crisis.

“Although I don’t think these instances of instability in Africa are related to each other or part of a pattern, I think there’s no doubt external constituents and businesspeople around the world will assume there is a pattern,” said Tom Cargill, Africa Programme Coordinator at London thinktank Chatham House.

The fact that coup makers have succeeded without being forced to step down or even face major censure could also embolden those who might be tempted to take power in bigger countries, where falling growth is encouraging disaffection.

“Look at … other African countries, so-called pivotal states: Nigeria is in a terrible state, so is Egypt, so is Kenya, all these so-called big countries,” said Hussein Solomon, a political science professor at the University of Pretoria.

Although there can be a tendency to group very diverse African states together, the picture is far from uniform – Ghana’s presidential election two months ago was one of Africa’s closest, but avoided major violence, reassuring investors despite an acute fiscal crisis.

But social pressures are growing across Africa as a result of the world economic crisis.

The dramatic U-turn by rich countries as they bail out or buy up failing industries is also prompting a reassessment of the model sold to Africa by Western donors since the Cold War — a combination of market capitalism and multiparty democracy.

Cargill said factors were both the financial crisis and the rise of one-party state China, an increasingly important source of investment and trade for Africa.

“I think in future the whole idea of the democratic capitalist system will be tested and questioned, and there will be some who take advantage of its being questioned for their own private ends to launch their own bids for power,” he said.

That debate is already taking place at the African Union, whose rules ban unconstitutional seizures of power but whose chairman for the next year, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, opposes what he says are foreign democratic structures imposed on Africa.

The AU has told Madagascar that any seizure of power by unconstitutional means would be considered a coup d’etat, punishable by AU sanctions or suspension.

But that sits uneasily with Gaddafi’s rebuke last week of Mauritania’s first democratically elected leader, largely confined to his village after being deposed in a coup last year.

“He must accept the fact,” said Gaddafi, who seized power in 1969 “He is not the first head of state to be overthrown.”

Is Africa returning to the old ways or did it never really leave them behind? Will a reassessment of the financial model pushed by Western donors also mean a new look at the multiparty democracy?

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