Editor's note: This year 17 African nations mark 50 years of independence from their former colonial rulers. Eight of those countries celebrate their anniversary in August, they include Benin, Ivory Coast and Gabon. CNN.com is marking this major milestone with special coverage in August analysing the continent's past, present and future.
(CNN) -- When African countries gained independence from 1960 onwards, they faced the challenge of building their structures from scratch.
Their former European masters had mostly not encouraged the idea of accountability and any pre-colonial institutions had been destroyed, according to most historians.
In addition, many countries' boundaries had been arbitrarily drawn by colonial powers, leaving independent nations with no common identity, John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria told CNN.
In many cases, the activists who took power were dictators who ruled their countries without democracy or regard to the freedom of their people.
Half a century later, almost all African countries have some form of democracy, though in many cases there is little realistic opportunity for opposition parties to gain power because of bias towards those in power in electioneering.
Thomas Cargill, assistant head of the Africa program at the London-based international think-tank, Chatham House, said: "They have the form - but not the substance - of Western-style democracy. They go through the motions of elections but those in power do everything they can to make sure the opposition are not in a position to win."
Campbell said that an African cultural convention for reaching consensus meant the Western view of democracy did not always fit.
"If you have a disagreement in the West, you vote on it. In Africa you talk, talk and talk some more until you reach a consensus. That's why there are so many one-party or dominant party states in Africa. Sometimes that ruling party is able to provide a forum for real discussion."
The Foundation for Democracy in Africa, a Washington-based organization, argues that education is the key to getting ordinary people engaged in African politics.
Tony Okonmah, its executive director, told CNN: "Democracy has often been misinterpreted in Africa as something that only has to do with politics and the ruling elite.
"We are tying to redefine it to show democracy is about people participating, everybody contributing their know-how to make sure the environment is what they want it to be.
"This has to be achieved through education. Illiteracy has contributed to the problem, so we're against anybody helping to enslave children instead of sending them to school. If everybody is educated they will see the need for good governance."
There are, of course, democratic success stories where power has transferred peacefully to an opposition party. Cargill points to Ghana and Sierra Leone who have had opposition election wins in recent years.
South Africa is also considered a beacon of democracy, since shaking off the shadow of apartheid. Campbell said: "I don't think 25 years ago many of us would have predicted the outcome in South Africa would be as good as it is. Its success is particularly remarkable because it is such as large country and so divided racially and economically."
However South Africa also has its shortcomings; no party but the ANC has had power since 1994 and President Jacob Zuma has faced persistent allegations of corruption.
Campbell added that there had been a worrying return to military coups elsewhere on the continent. Niger, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Madagascar have all had army generals seize power in the last two years.
"Even though they have taken place in relatively small African countries, it's worrisome because coups can be infectious," said Campbell.
Cargill argued that Africa reached its peak in Western-style democracy between the late 1990s and mid 2000s, but had slipped into greater authoritarianism in the last three or four years, as leaders forged partnerships with new powers such as China and India and became less reliant on Western approval.
He said a wave of "new African leaders" including Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia became the "darlings" of Western democracy in the 1990s.
They promised a fundamental change in African politics towards Western-style democracy and found favor with President Clinton's administration in the U.S.
"President Museveni came to power in 1986 saying African leaders stayed in power too long and wrote into Uganda's constitution that presidents should only serve two terms," said Cargill.
"However, in 2005 he changed the constitution to allow him to serve a third term and will probably stay for a fourth term in 2011."
The late 1990s peak was also brought about in part by an insistence from Western donor countries on their own interpretation of democracy, according to Cargill.
He said: "This influence has waned as African governments choose their international partnerships with new powers such as China and India, making them less dependent on the West.
"This is not all bad news, as although formal democracy is shrinking in many African countries, there's more focus on accountability of government officials. The media and ordinary people are gaining more power to question and remove corrupt officials."