The last decades of the twentieth century witnessed a worldwide wave of democratisation. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, twenty-one states had, by 1990, embarked on a process to liberalise their political arena, leading to the ousting of eleven authoritarian leaders. The democratisation process in many of these countries was the result of a combination of internal contention and international pressures. In a number of instances, the process ran parallel to the emergence of a civil society, or at least vocal challengers eager to have the national arena opened up to new democratic practices. The democratization trend also followed external pressures, particularly from international donors' intent on tying processes of economic reform in numerous Southern countries with the need to adopt norms of greater transparency, accountability and democracy by political leaders in debtor states.

At the time, many looked to this wide spanning democratisation trend with great optimism. Looking at the numbers of these decades, this wave of democratization seems to have translated into liberalisation and more political and civil freedom. Between the 1970s and the first years of the new millennium, the number of authoritarian regimes in Sub-Saharan Africa dropped by half, from 60,5% of Sub-Saharan African states to 29,8%, while free states more than doubled, from 7,9% to 23,4%. The greatest changes occurred in the 1990s with a dramatic drop from 32 autocratic regimes (in 1989/90) to 14 by 2004, and with the number of free rising from 3 in 1989/90 to 11 by 2005.

Despite this trend, not all cases of democratisation were successful. If twenty-one states embarked on the path to liberalisation and democratisation, it resulted in the ousting of half of their authoritarian leaders, and, following these events, only 8 new countries emerged as ‘free.' The optimism of the early days of the ‘third wave' requires moderation. Almost two decades later, fourteen African states are rated not free, while twenty-two were deemed partly free. In many cases, few gains have been made. Incumbent leaders managed to survive the democratisation process because of their access to power and resources, or simply by manipulating the process itself.

Others used democratisation rhetoric to satisfy the international community (and international creditors) without actually adhering to the principles of democracy. And even when leaders were ousted, in some cases, those who replaced them simply reverted to autocratic tactics. In many other cases, however, the final outcome is unknown. While the number of strongly authoritarian regimes dropped and the number of free states rose over the course of this period, the number of partly free states also rose.

This rise in the number of partly free countries is tied to the drop in ‘not free' states. Extremely repressive regimes, outside of a dramatic coup, should not be expected to embrace complete liberalisation and democratisation on a whim. Such processes often tend to be incremental. Their liberalisation, without necessarily paralleling a consistent democratisation process and the relaxing of authoritarian rule, is represented by this passage to a partly free rating.

While an encouraging trend, it should also be a source of concern. While transitions open the door to further positive changes and democratisation, they can be dangerous times during which political hierarchies and the balance of power are shaken. Research indicates that there exists a relationship between the relative openness of a system and contention, including violent opposition.