Niamey, Niger. -- On the dusty bank of the Niger River a few miles outside Niamey, a college student was standing in the cool evening air memorizing psychology notes for a final exam. He asked a foreign visitor: "Why has everything stopped moving? We are waiting for democracy for months. But nothing is moving any more. We are worried."
His voice is echoed by millions across the belt of 12 former French African colonies from Senegal to Madagascar which have scheduled their elections this year. For nearly all, it will be the first election in which a strongman's party is not the only choice. At the same time, these countries are witnessing the traumatic, confusing emergence of a free press and political parties, the drawing up of new constitutions and a fierce debate over the forms and meaning of that magic word of the 1990s -- "democracy."
Even Guinea's repressive, Marxist and anti-white regime is to allow election of a new parliament Dec. 27 and a new president in spring. But progress is often halting or reversed. The Central African Republic was to have held elections Oct. 25 but President Andre Kolingba suspended the vote while in process.
The current drive for democracy began in 1989, when the Eastern European nations overthrew communism. Dictators in Africa suddenly saw the foundation of their strongman rule since the 1970s crumble. The East Germans, Czechoslovaks and Soviets who had propped up the anti-Western regimes of the Cold War era were called home and fired, leaving a sudden gap.
France had traditionally underwritten stability by backing most of the dictators of Francophone Africa with little concern for their progress toward human or civil rights so long as things remained peaceful and business ties continued. At the end of 1990, however, French President Francois Mitterand issued a ringing declaration to the former French colonies in a speech that stated there would be "no development without democracy."
Mr. Mitterand's speech was a call to arms for the students and advocates of democracy across the continent. The way these countries reacted to the new thirst for democracy was quite different from Africa's former British colonies such as Ghana, Kenya, Zambia and Tanzania, where authoritarian leaders set up their own democracy process, adopting existing election mechanisms without any break in continuity, coup or transition government.
The basic framework was as follows: The thirst for democracy inspired a few hundred or a few thousand students and intellectuals to dem onstrate in the capital; the dictator sent his troops to restore order; a dozen or more demonstrators were shot; the army and police wondered out loud if this was really the modern way to do things; the dictator agreed to name a national congress to move toward democracy and let off steam; the congress declared itself in charge of the country and installed a non-political transition government to run the country; teams were named to write a new constitution and election laws; elections were set to usher in democracy.
It sounded great on paper. But in country after country, the process ran out of pavement quickly, tumbling into the sandy thicket of tribal divisions, illiteracy, poverty, media control and the lack of political traditions. Meanwhile the dictators, like wounded lions in a fable, hunkered down in their palaces -- in Madagascar it was built by the North Koreans -- and waited for the movement to founder.
Yet while U.S., British and other Western governments, banks, foundations, businessmen and consultants pour into Eastern Europe and Russia to defend "democracy" with aid, advice, computers and contracts, Francophone Africa's 70 million people remain largely ignored, especially since the end of the Cold War has eliminated any strategic importance to the West.
In the Madagascar Bookstore in Antananarivo, for example, the collected works of Enver Hoxha are still on sale. But the late Albanian dictator's Communist regime has already been overthrown and his teachings repudiated in his home country.
Too poor to republish their party propaganda texts, the leftist dictators of Francophone Africa still distribute color photos of themselves with the hunted, jailed or executed hard-liners of the vanished Communist empire.
It is true that the French retained a special mission and responsibility after independence, sending advisers to the police and military, paying their salaries and even sending troops to restore the status quo. France also props up the Central African Franc (CFA) which is a common currency to several of its former colonies. Yet some say it is only America -- untainted by its ties to the corrupt elites of the past -- that can nourish the new democracy in the region.
"Their dictators told them for 20 years they needed strong rule for development," said a U.S. State Department official. "But with the fall of the Soviet Union, they saw it did not bring development. The intellectual underpinnings of an authoritarian, statist government were discredited. They saw people in the streets of Europe. They asked 'When will it be our turn?' "
In some countries, the collapse of the old regimes had been hastened by bankruptcy -- the failure to pay even the army salaries -- which continued to plague the transition governments. This was partly a legacy of the heady days of the petro dollars in the 1970s when Arab oil profits were recycled through Western banks as loans to the Third World. Greased by bribery and the naivete of African financial ministers, huge debts were accumulated that either were skimmed off by corrupt officials, used to build up the repressive security forces or were squandered on non-productive projects such as assembly halls and government buildings.
At the same time, world prices fell for uranium, bananas, coffee, cocoa, minerals and other African exports.
Another push over the financial edge came from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund which threatened to cut off credit unless austerity programs were installed. These highly unpopular measures -- called structural adjustments -- raised the cost of food and fuel while thousands of government workers risked to lose their jobs. The IMF and World Bank have not eased up on these demands for austerity in order to nourish democracy.
Indeed, while the elites and the common people jockeyed for a piece of the new order, and newspapers and broadcast journalists struggled to establish the right and the ability to do honest political reporting, the process of running the country and of installing democracy became bogged down in many places.
Technocrats, unskilled at running a country and not politically savvy enough to know when to compromise, bickered over everything from foreign policy to control over the government radio station. Dozens of political parties were formed, voicing complex, French-learned theories of government that had little meaning for the life of the average farmer in the Sahel or fisherman in the Atlantic or Indian oceans.
The proposed constitutions in Niger and Madagascar had nearly 150 articles, far too complex for the overwhelmingly illiterate population to assess in the referendums that were the first order of business on the path for democracy. In fact the government sponsored campaigns to get out the vote in support of these constitutions smelled a lot like the old elections in which, according to local journalists, only "yes" ballots were available on the tables while "no" ballots were ground into the muddy floor of the polling stations.
Meanwhile, forces loyal to the former strongman reorganized themselves into renamed political parties, fueled by hidden wealth from decades of corrupt control and, in the case of Madagascar, some $300 million from Libya's Muammar el Kadafi and Iraq's Saddam Hussein that strongman President Didier Ratsiraka simply claimed was a personal gift to him.
Mr. Ratsiraka also dared, as do many other would-be leaders in the democratic era sweeping Francophone Africa, to play the ethnic card. He called for "Federalism" in which coastal blacks will have quasi-autonomy. In view of the terrible violence that resulted from such ethnic separatism in Sri Lanka, Punjab, Kashmir, Sudan and Yugoslavia, this could turn into a disastrous game that will end all movement toward democracy.
In Niger, the democracy debate has in fact led to economic paralysis -- taxes are no longer collected, customs duties are not levied, civil servants are frequently unpaid, the hospitals lack medicine and the nation is bankrupt.
"Before, you couldn't criticize the government, but you got paid," said one driver. "Now, you can criticize the government, but you are not paid."
In Madagascar, while the transition government vacillates, the precious and unique forests are chopped down for fuel and to open up farm land, the road system deteriorates, tourism stagnates, crime is rising in the capital and a famine hit the south.
Yet in several countries, elections have taken place and democracy appears to be taking root. What appears to be happening is a race to install a powerful elected government before a frustrated army revolts and sets the process back to zero.
In many of the countries, time is working against democracy: the memory of the 1989 fall of communism fades; the transitions stretch out and are unable to resolve deeply rooted economic problems; ambiguity makes people willing to accept anything. In effect, said one analyst, "The politicians argue the people to death."
One must link this inability to achieve a working compromise -- which is the heart of the democratic process -- to the French legacy. "The French colonies were always more authoritarian," said Ned McMahon of the National Democratic Institute in Washington. "The former British colonies such as Zambia, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria had some pluralism in the post colonial era. But in the Francophones, there was none. The guy in the presidential palace was it."
According to the State Department official, the English ruled their colonies indirectly. Local chiefs remained in power with little interference. But British standards of fair play and common law juridical tradition were imposed. The French, however, maintained their colonies were France -- the local people had less responsibility and the traditional structures lost importance.
"The blacks were less involved in decision making in France's possessions than in the British territories," he said.
Other French legacies that hamper democratization are:
* The French electoral system of separate ballots for president and for parliament. They're too costly for most African countries and create more chances to derail the process.
* The French system of running elections through the interior ministry, a dangerously political part of the government, rather than an independent election commission as in the former British colonies.
* The Francophone press in Africa has a tendency to copy the most undemocratic aspect of the French press, directing its political reporting to a narrow elite of intellectuals rather than to the general public. It also mixes opinion, reporting and rhetoric, which confuses and inflames passions rather than informs and clarifies.
A French diplomat in a Sahelian country, chatting informally over a cold beer in a very hot, starry night, told an American reporter: "We French are on the way out. You Americans are doing the right thing. I see your young Peace Corps people, and they don't even speak French. They speak Hausa and the other tribal languages. That's the way to bring this country up."
At Niamey's airport, about to depart the region, I was chatting on the tarmac with a policeman controlling access to the airplane parked on the runway. "What about democracy?" I asked him. "Can it work?"
"It has to work," he said. "Maybe well. Maybe not. But the time for us, the military to run things in Africa is over. Of that, I am sure. No one, including us, wants us back in power."