Democratization in Africa; Governing Africa’s Changing Societies

These two collections assess the prospects for positive change in sub-Saharan Africa. Crawford and Lynch survey the region’s political progress and generally find it wanting. Although they concede that two decades of democratization have resulted in some improvement in political and civil rights, they argue that only a few countries in the region can really be considered fully democratic; most are little more than authoritarian regimes that occasionally hold rigged elections. The region has enjoyed strong economic growth in recent years, but the growth remains uneven and fragile and has resulted in increasing inequality and more polarized politics. The book also details the endemic state corruption, feckless political parties, growing ethnic conflict, and lack of basic security that hamstring sub-Saharan Africa, concluding that the region needs much more political reform. They criticize Western donors as mostly uninterested in deepening democracy and African elites as content with the status quo and therefore suggest that positive change is unlikely.

Lust and Ndegwa’s book is considerably more optimistic. Its contributors note the region’s high growth rates, rapid urbanization, and emerging middle classes, asking how such changes should influence the way outside policymakers think of the region. Their answer to that question is too vague to be entirely satisfactory, but, in its strongest sections, their book serves as an insightful survey of Africa’s fast-paced sociological mutations. Particularly interesting are the chapters that examine religion and gender in West Africa and the bitter fights over land and property rights that have erupted all over the continent, a result of rising population density, the growth of national markets, and the increasing political competition that democratic governance has brought about. Although familiar, the book’s theme—that change in Africa brings with it both new challenges and new opportunities—is nevertheless a welcome respite from the pessimism that suffuses so much academic writing about the continent.

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