Democracy on the March in Africa

From Economist story that declares, “The democracy bug is fitfully catching on“.

BURUNDI has just had one, as has Guinea. That came hot on the heels of the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland’s, which followed Ethiopia’s. Rwanda is bracing itself for one at the beginning of next month, and after that Tanzania, Chad and several others are due to follow. By the end of December a score of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries should have gone to the polls for an assortment of local, regional and national elections. Kenya is also holding a vital constitutional referendum on August 4th. This is a big year for African voters. The electoral calendar has never been so crowded.

Indeed, elections have become a normal occurrence on a continent once better known for the frequency and violence of its coups and civil wars. Since the late 1990s the number of coups has fallen sharply , whereas the number of elections has increased, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places.

The west African country of Guinea is an encouraging example of a possible new trend. After two decades of dictatorial rule by Lansana Conté, the army seized power after his death two years ago. So far, so predictable. But the story took a new twist. The coup leader was attacked and injured by one of his aides, enabling other members of the junta to promise a return to civilian rule after elections they vowed not to contest. The first round of a presidential poll was held peacefully on June 27th; a run-off is expected soon.

Several factors explain this surge in enthusiasm for the ballot box. Would-be voters, anxious to make their often corrupt and arrogant politicians more accountable, are exerting fiercer pressure. For example, Nigerians expressed fury at the way the ruling People’s Democratic Party conducted the charade of an election in 2007. As a result, the government has had to make concessions over the running of the election due next year. The recent appointment of Professor Attahiru Jega as head of the Independent National Electoral Commission has raised hopes that his organisation will be truly independent of political control, rather than just a cog in the ruling party’s re-election machine. Nigeria’s coming election will be scrutinised across the continent.

Pressure for improvement comes from beyond the continent, too. Gone are the days of the cold war when West and East propped up their favoured dictators for geostrategic reasons. Nowadays a lot of aid money and diplomatic support are tied to progress in governance and democracy. Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, for example, held the country’s recent election as part of a peace deal with the country’s southern rebels, brokered largely by the United States in 2005. Countries such as Ghana and Mali have every incentive to stay democratic to get billions of dollars of aid from America’s Millennium Challenge Account, started in 2002. This requires countries to prove a commitment to good governance and elections if they are to get the money. Africa’s own regional groupings, notably the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have also started punishing member states that fall prey to coups.

The commentary isn’t a puff piece. There is some criticism.

But the news is by no means all good. A cursory look at several recent polls shows that too often they are travesties. In Burundi the incumbent, Pierre Nkurunziza, won unopposed with 92% of the vote (see article). In Ethiopia those opposed to Meles Zenawi’s ruling party won just two of parliament’s 547 seats. And in Sudan’s election Mr Bashir won against an opposition that had largely boycotted the event.

In the language of international election observers, many of these elections fall “below international standards”; in plain English, they are rigged to ensure that the incumbent or his ruling party cannot be ejected by the voters. Moreover, though even the nastiest leaders now feel obliged to hold elections, they are also getting more adept at fixing them. In Sudan, for instance, the regime manipulated every stage of the electoral process long before the actual voting, from the census in 2008 to keeping the opposition off the television screens just before the vote. Mr Zenawi has become similarly expert, passing laws before the poll to muzzle dissenting voices and hamper opposition.

This is part of an older problem: the refusal of a defeated incumbent to accept defeat and bow out. Refreshingly, it does sometimes happen, as in Somaliland earlier this month and in Ghana in the past decade. But President Robert Mugabe refused to go in Zimbabwe after a clear verdict in an election in 2008 and President Mwai Kibaki refused to go after the elections in Kenya in 2007. Both leaders sparked widespread violence in their countries, thanks to their determination to cling to office; both eventually had to accept power-sharing agreements with the opposition.

Moreover, elections are often a poor guide to a country’s overall state of democracy and civil liberties. The mere number of elections can be deceptive. Our accompanying map of Africa shows how countries rank in terms of democracy, initially measured in 2008 on a broad range of criteria by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister organisation of The Economist, but updated to include more recent data from a variety of sources. The number of coming elections is cause for hope. But the advance of African democracy remains patchy. Too often the big men still find a way to stay put, whatever the voters may want.

Two observations come to mind:  First, the impact of South Africa is crucial and can’t be underestimated what it has done for the continent. It has been a beachhead for democracy on the continent. Second, America has had some role in enabling the weaker beachhead in the West.

It is true that conducting elections does not add up to democracy, when such elections are often flawed. But the heartening thing about the new trend is that the state of technology, cell phones and internet have made it possible for the countries of Africa to be part of the global village. And in the not too distant future, voters can and will be able to enforce their rights to vote. The sit tight leaders do not know it, but their days are numbered. Africa will join the league of nations where elections mean democracy.

Here is video report about the long and tough journey for Independence in Africa.

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