Between independence from colonial rule in the early 1960s and the end of the Cold War in 1991, not a single African ruler was peacefully ousted at the ballot box, except in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.
Since Mathieu Kerekou of Benin and Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda bowed out graciously in 1991, however, at least 30 African leaders or ruling parties have let their countries' voters kick them out. Multi-party systems in Africa now far outnumber single-party ones.
Yet Africa still harbours too many dinosaurs. Half the world's 30 or so longest-serving rulers are African. Some, such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, now nearing 34 years in charge, started with genuine popular consent. So did Yoweri Museveni, who has run Uganda since 1986, but like Mugabe, now is loath to let go.
Several other old-timers have been in charge even longer. Teodoro Nguema of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea pushed out his even ghastlier uncle in 1979. Angola's Jose Eduardo Dos Santos became president on a supposedly Marxist ticket in the same year. Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity, has presided over Sudan since 1989.
None of these grim figures would still be in charge if his people had more freedom.
The continent's biggest democracies, South Africa and Nigeria, lately have not been a compelling advertisement for representative government. South Africa, ruled by the African National Congress since 1994, is in danger of becoming a de-facto one-party state. Nigeria's politics are so corrupt that it gives the D-word a bad name. In both countries, large majorities of people still live in penury despite the rise of billionaires at the top.
In the short term at least, autocracy does not seem to hamper economic growth. Some anti-democrats -- Ethiopia's late ruler, the authoritarian Meles Zenawi, is a favourite example -- have seen their economies grow faster than those of more democratic neighbours. The increasingly ruthless Paul Kagame has made Rwandans much better off. Thanks to oil, Angola and Equatorial Guinea are among the fastest-growing countries in the world.
However, Mugabe has pauperized a once-rich country.
Western countries and NGOs give succor to protesters and offer lessons in institution-building, which is good, but they are losing their leverage. As China provides more grants, loans and trade deals with no tiresome strings attached, aid from the West that is conditional on more democracy and respect for human rights is less alluring to African rulers.