Sweeping African Democracies

The sweeping African independence movements of the 1950’s instilled hope in the people of various African countries. Citizens were hopeful that the age of corrupt and unfair leadership was over, and the new government would work for the good of the people. But almost immediately came a corrupt rush to power, and democracy was nothing more than a hope for many African countries.

These corrupt governments gave rise to the “big man”. This style of leadership was headed by a dictator, and according to Steven Radelet, by the mid-1980s, “almost every sub-Saharan African country was ruled by a dictator.” Leaders such as Samuel Doe of Liberia and Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria served as oppressive leaders in their respective countries. Their “big man” governments had “few minimum standards for…free and fair elections, representative government and checks on executive power.” Radelet says the “strong political hand was matched by a strong economic hand” and the governments exercised control over interest rates, prices and imports and exports.

General Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria

General Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria

Near the end of the 1990’s, a new leadership style known as the “cheetahs” arrived in Africa. This new generation of leaders want to redefine African government and are hoping to strengthen bonds between African countries and other global societies. Ghanian scholar George Ayittey called these new leaders a “new generation of young Africans who look at African issues and problems from a totally unique perspective.” These leaders hope to reform their governments from the corruption that has plagued them for decades and enact new political and economic policies.

NGOs can play a large role in helping these reforms. NGOs are helping in a wide array of areas from free trade, debt relief and global warming. A more informed and educated government can reduce corruption and spread knowledge to make good, informed decisions. According to the International Conference on the State of Affairs of Africa, organizations such as Oxfam and ActionAid are part of a development committee formed by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. The groups are working to help Nigeria manage its debt and keep its financials in check. The conference also said NGOs are better described as “a vast institutional and disciplinary nexus of official agencies, practitioners, consultants, and other miscellaneous experts producing and consuming knowledge about the developing world” of which Africa is a part.” These NGOs work to reduce poverty and increase economic growth, aiding in the new “cheetah” mission.

African women leaders gather for Women Changing Africa Global Symposium in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Women can also play a role in new government development. Radelet says women are “poised to change the gender biases of the past” by rising the ranks of government positions. He says the “cheetah” generation is allowing women to enter positions typically held by men and challenge older gender rules. As women become more educated and professional, they can increase their presence in the workforce and increase the size of the workforce overall. Women stand to play a powerful role in the development of African governments.


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