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Archive for November 13th, 2012

More Africans want democracy. On 17 November Sierra Leoneans will go to the polls to cast their votes in presidential, parliamentary and local elections. Over a decade ago, after years of war and unrest, Sierra Leoneans embraced democracy as the means of restoring peace and returning the once flourishing West African country to its pride of place. This year’s election will be the third democratic election to take place since then – a remarkable feat by all measure.

And so goes the story all across Africa. Today, unlike just a decade ago, many African countries have embraced democratic, constitutional, multi-party rule.  Botswana, Ghana, and Tanzania, have spent decades building institutions and a tradition of peaceful democratic transitions. Two African countries, Ghana and Malawi this year witnessed smooth transition of power following the death of their presidents under democratic principles, a situation that might have hitherto resulted in serious crises.

African nations have made outstanding progress in democracy. Increasingly, elections are taking place regularly across the continent, independent institutions and opposition groups are being formed and civil society is more active. Over 200 elections have taken place over the past two decades in Africa: an indication that the continent is democratizing. Recent elections held in 2011 and 2012 and the successful and largely peaceful transfer of power in Nigeria (2011) Zambia (2011), Senegal (2012) and Lesotho (2012) are a clear demonstration that peaceful and credible elections leading to a smooth transfer of power are possible in Africa. In Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan, was inaugurated last year after an election that many assessed as having much improved over previous elections in 2007. And in Kenya where violence erupted after the last general election, democracy got a boost with the successful conduct of a referendum on its new constitution.

No doubt, the long struggle for democracy in Africa is beginning to show results, as the continent is overcoming a legacy of authoritarianism and indifference to democratic culture. After years of living under dictatorships, African people have demanded new leadership. This message has significance for leaders in Africa and elsewhere who hold on to power at all costs, who suppress dissent, who enrich themselves and their supporters at the expense of their own people.

The forces that led to democratization scholars believe are both internal and external. Internally, it was occasioned by the development failures of many African states in the 1980s, and in particular the mixed and meager accomplishments under structural adjustment programs (SAP). This demand for improved governance led to the rise of prodemocracy movements in African states, which resulted in concerted popular agitation for change. On the external front, there were serious concerns from international agencies and donor nations on the autocratic regimes in many African states. The pressure from the international scene for universal human freedom and life with dignity, coupled with promises of improved bilateral relations for non-dictatorial states, stimulated the internal drive for democratization in Africa.

However, there is no arguing the fact that African people are the vanguards of this shift and are imbibing globally accepted practices and adopting it to meet their local cultural needs including defending the peace of the system when threatened. Last year in Liberia for example, a losing candidate claimed that the elections had been rigged and he was cheated, calling for a Mass action, but he drew little support with his protest. Thus, because of the people’s own will, he was unsuccessful in staging an uprising that might have caused a relapse. This age of democracy in Africa is thus both a sharp departure from the power struggles of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and a glimpse of how the near future may turn out if setbacks do not exist.

Last year, Africa inspired the whole world with the bold effort towards change and freedom in what has now been described as  “The Arab Spring.” The actions of Mohamed Bouazizi, (a young produce vender in a provincial Tunisian town, could no longer take repeated

Arab spring protest

harassment and shakedowns by the local police. Taking matters into his own hands, he doused himself with paint thinner in front of the local municipal building and set himself on fire, dying a few weeks later) sparked off a revolution which ended the 30 year dictatorship of  Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, triggering similar agitation through-out the region. Demonstrators in Egypts Tahrir Square helped bring down long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak who is currently on trial for ills committed while in power. NATO supported military action in Libya ended Gadaffi’s four decades reign.  Tunisia and Egypt have since held elections, many of their people voting for the very first time in their lives. This people-power led liberation of regions previously believe to be resistant to change is Africa’s message to the world that we too can do it and we all ought to be proud of this.

Both democracy and development lie at the very heart of human development. People everywhere aspire to improve their wellbeing and to be free to choose the lives they value. Expanding people’s ability to exercise those choices is the very definition of human development. The 8th Africa Governance Forum (AFG-VIII) on Democracy, Elections and the management of diversity in Africa which recently held in Botswana noted in its Outcome statement that Democratic governance is one of the principal reasons why countries such as Mauritius and Botswana have done so well since the last four decades. The 2011 Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance which assesses the state of governance on the continent covering 53 African countries in respect of (a) Safety and Rule of Law, (b) Participation and Human Rights, (c) Sustainable Economic Opportunity and (d) Human Development ranks Mauritius at the top of the best performing countries, while Botswana occupies the third place. In between Mauritius and Botswana is Cape Verde on the second spot of the ranking. Further evidence of the remarkable success of Mauritius, Cape Verde and Botswana in pursuing both democracy and development simultaneously is vividly illustrated in their country reports of the Third Edition of the African Governance Report (AGRIII) as well as the various reports of the UNDP Human Development Reports most notably the2002 report.

That Africa is gradually changing from the continent led by despots to that in which the citizens are free and exercise their right to elect their leaders through periodic elections is an awesome reason to believe in Africa and one which Coca-Cola louds and celebrates. However, it is pertinent to note that elections are not an end in themselves. They are a means to an end. That end must be to improve the lives and wellbeing of the people. It is important all stakeholders including government, civil society, political parties and election management bodies on the continent, continue to work to promote democracy, peace and political stability.

 

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