The toppling of long established autocratic governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya has led many to speculate whether similar changes can be expected further south – in Sub Saharan Africa. A team of respected Africanists suggests that further political transitions may indeed be in the offing in a recently released report, Africa and the Arab Spring: A New Era of Democratic Expectations, published by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.
These transitions will not likely be a direct result of the uprisings in the Arab World, however. Rather, fundamental drivers of change over the last decade such as the rapid expansion of information technologies, ever more sophisticated civil society networks, increasingly independent parliaments, and a more educated and youthful populace appear poised to spur additional democratic advances in Africa in the near term. These dynamics have already been visible in democratic breakthroughs in Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, Niger, and Nigeria among other African countries in 2011.
The effect of the Arab Spring on Africa is not inconsequential though. The transitions in North Africa have had a galvanizing effect on the rest of the continent – prompting many Africans south of the Sahara to demand more transparency, accountability, and legitimacy from their governments. As a result, the continent's political calculus appears to have changed fundamentally.
Still, political advances in Africa are not assured. Various factors resistant to political change must be overcome. Many African states continue to be organized around authoritarian governing principles, which are typically sustained by control of substantial hydrocarbon revenues and politicized security sectors. Norms of personalistic or "big man" governance remain strong across the continent. Many African countries, moreover, are still building a common national identity. This is exacerbated by still fresh civil conflicts in a number of African societies and the polarization and intercommunal differences they have reinforced. Adding to the instability is the flow of arms and mercenaries coming into the Sahel following the fall of the Qaddafi regime in Libya.
In short Africa's governance landscape is highly dynamic.
The report outlines an array of actionable steps that international and national actors can pursue to support the positive democratic momentum. Key parties that will shape the outcome include Africa's civil society networks, security sectors, independent media, and regional and international partners. Africa's remaining autocrats and semi-authoritarians also have a role to play – and should draw a lesson from recent transitions in the region: namely, leaders who stay too long are likely to depart on terms considerably less favorable to themselves.
Download the full report here.