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Africa’s Democratic Outliers


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Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs 

Comparative Politics and International Relations presents

Africa’s Democratic Outliers: Success Amid Challenges in Benin and South Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa arguably poses some of the most challenging conditions for democratic emergence and survival.  According to our existing theories, this is due to a number of structural conditions: low levels of economic development and industrialization; regions of natural resource extraction; increasing levels of inequality between political-economic elites and the masses; low levels of state capacity related to colonial and neo-colonial predation, and post-independence challenges to broadcast power; multi-linguistic, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious populations.  Yet three decades of democratic endurance in significant, key cases suggest that the continent has much to teach us about how democracies maintain despite extremely challenging conditions.  This chapter explores two most-different cases – South Africa and Benin – with highly diverse challenges and yet strikingly similar pathways to establish and maintain democracy against all odds. In both countries, extreme political, economic, and ideological crises made incumbent elites perceive the need to concede their prior mandate for dominant control.  These concessions resulted in a bargain with rising opposition elites for security and future political inclusion.  In these cases, opposition elites realized significant benefits to stability and order that could be had with including the old regime in the new ruling coalition.   Despite the challenges of a racially or ethnically cleaved society in South Africa and Benin, the democratic bargain was maintained through self-interested and embattled incumbents staring down the precipice and opting for institutional compromise given the infeasibility of maintaining the status quo and opposition elites’ preferences for maintaining economic and social order that they could inherit when allowing the incumbent some enduring role.

Rachel Beatty Riedl 

John S. Knight Professor of International Studies

Cornell University 

Rachel Beatty Riedl is the Director of the Einaudi Center for International Studies and the John S. Knight Professor of International Studies, and a Professor in the Government Department at Cornell University.  Her research interests include institutional development in new democracies, local governance and decentralization policy, authoritarian regime legacies, and religion and politics, with a regional focus in Sub-Saharan Africa. Riedl is the author of two award-winning books and has published in the Journal of Politics, Comparative Political Studies, Studies in Comparative International Development, African Affairs, and American Behavioral Scientist, among others.

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