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Book Review


Alicia C. Decker and Andrea L. Arrington, Africanizing Democracies, 1980-Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. v + 100. Bibliography and Index. $16.95 (paper).


     Historians are typically hesitant in discussing the recent past. We often considered it too "new" to be "history," and thus we struggle to incorporate it in our classes. Students in history courses, however, often desire to connect the realities and challenges of present day to the past. Africanizing Democracies provides a useful bridge between the present and the past with its examination of democratic efforts across the African continent over the past three-plus decades. Part of Oxford University Press's African World Histories series, Africanizing Democracies provides a general examination of African politics by exploring "the ways in which Africans have constructed and reshaped democracy in order to fit their own political ideals and agendas" (x). The text also challenges the stereotypical notion that "there is a standard framework or template for 'democracy'" (ix). From this approach, the reader learns how these notions of democracy have functioned (or haven't) across the continent. As the book is more of a textbook than a scholarly monograph, Africanizing Democracies lacks a cohesive argument and instead presents the material in a way that leads the reader to understand that democratization in Africa is a complicated, ongoing, and even incomplete process.

     Using a wide notion of politics, Decker and Arrington include "the voices of Africans from all walks of life" to avoid centering their analysis on "the 'big men' [i.e. state leaders, politicians, government officials] who tend to be referenced in most discussions about formal politics" (xi). In doing so, the text explores different facets pertaining to the notion of democracy from various perspectives. Instead of taking a regional-specific or top-down approach, Africanizing Democracies employ a thematic approach to demonstrate the complexities with the topic of democracy across the African continent. Each chapter deals with a particular theme or "aspect of democratization in Africa." (xi) These themes are politics (chapter one), economics (chapter two), health and healing (chapter three), women, gender and sexuality (chapter four), and security (chapter five).

     Every chapter then interrogates its particular topic more in-depth with case studies from throughout the continent. Chapter One uses four examples of the environmental activism and Green Belt Movement in Kenya, the transition from apartheid in South Africa, the increasing involvement of women in politics, and the role of the Arab Spring in North Africa in its examination of politics over the past thirty-plus years. Similarly, Chapter Five's analysis of security explores topics like corruption, food security, sexual violence, and peacekeeping. All of these flesh out how issues of security across Africa may be different than notions of it throughout North America or Europe where terrorism, immigration or overseas conflict typically dominate discussion. By using these case studies in each chapter, Africanizing Democracies deftly provides the reader with a generalized understanding of key issues but also presents enough specific examples to inform.

     One of Africanizing Democracies' main successes is its handling of women's and gender issues throughout the entire text. Whereas many textbooks and academic studies simply tack on a lone chapter about women or gender, Decker and Arrington weave gender and sexuality throughout the text. Though the fourth chapter specifically focuses on "Women, Gender and Sexuality," the authors make a concerted effort to insure that the other chapters have at least one section devoted specifically to how policies or governmental actions pertain to African women. This tactic proves highly effective in forcing the reader to conceptualize African women as vital participants within the pursuit of working democracies. Readers will not come away from this text with sensing women's participation in government, access to health care, or place in the economy as secondary or tangential.

     Though Africanizing Democracies does a noble job of fleshing out the complex history of democratization throughout Africa, the text may be a little too concerned with the role of international organizations (such as the United Nations and World Bank) and foreign governments (particularly the United States and China) in Africa. The book's conclusion, for instance, spends as much time about American President Barack Obama's then-pending visit as it does with the illness of Nelson Mandela. Although the book points out how foreign interests, such as the World Bank's structural adjustment programs, have undermined democratization, Africanizing Democracies seems to downplay how these organizations and non-African governments have often worked in their own interests and thus not in the interests of the African people. Consequently, readers unfamiliar with African history may falsely assume that these non-African entities have been consistent allies with African democratic efforts.

     Overall, Africanizing Democracies presents a lot of information in a tiny package. The book itself is only 100-pages in length (including notes, bibliography and index). The text is also easy to understand and rather straightforward, as in it avoids social science jargon or theoretical concepts that students find off-putting. This brevity and practicality makes Africanizing Democracies useful in the classroom, particularly as an assigned text supplemented with other classroom materials or assignments.

     Due to its continent-wide coverage and well-organized thematic approach, Africanizing Democracies would easily fit in courses at the high school and university undergraduate levels. At the high school-level, the text may be of use in World History courses or as part of a global component to a Current Affairs course. At the university-level, Africanizing Democracies would make for a strong addition to introductory courses on African History Since 1800 or African Politics in addition to World History surveys. The issues raised by Decker and Arrington will equip readers with the tools they need to question how foreign aid is distributed, the responsibilities of the international community in stemming global crises, and the obstacles impeding African democratization. With these points made, students may get the most out of this book after units concerning the impact of Europe colonial rule of the 19th and 20th centuries as well as the challenges faced African states during the post-independence era of the 1960s and 1970s. Without this important context, young readers may wonder why Africans and their governments accept the limits to democracy facing the continent.

Tyler Fleming is an assistant professor in the Departments of History & Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville. He can be reached at


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