Since the early 1990s, Africa has been moving — unevenly and slowly, but steadily — toward greater democratic governance. This shift began as Africans, especially the young, watched the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the many dictatorships — both pro-Soviet and pro-Western — that followed. Of course, the revolution in South Africa, with the end of apartheid and the presidency of Nelson Mandela, was the single most powerful example.
But by the latter 1990s, as I covered West Africa for the Washington Post, it was clear that the rooting of democracy would be messy, slow and fraught with setbacks. In particular, 1998 was a good year for West African dictators hanging on to power through the machinery of corruption and intimidation. Authoritarian leaders in Burkina Faso, Togo, Cameroon and Gabon all managed to declare re-election and prolong their rule.
The election in Gabon was one of the most startling to cover. The ruling party of President Omar Bongo used an office in downtown Libreville, the capital, to distribute falsified voting documents to their supporters to let them vote multiple times around the city. All during election day, they trucked supporters and the faked documents from the office courtyard to polling stations, oblivious to the fact that foreign reporters, looking down from the high-rise hotel next door, were filming and photographing them as they did so. When we spoke to ordinary party members about the operation, they acknowledged it, but party leaders blustered that no election fraud had occurred. . . .