[Dehai-WN] Council on Foreign Relation: African Democracy: Elections Despite Divisions

[Dehai-WN] Council on Foreign Relation: African Democracy: Elections Despite Divisions

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Mon, 31 Oct 2011 22:46:08 +0100

African Democracy: Elections Despite Divisions
A Markets and Democracy Brief


 <http://www.cfr.org/experts/africa-nigeria/john-campbell/b15596> John
Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies

Asch Harwood <http://www.cfr.org/experts/world/asch-harwood/b15679> ,
Research Associate

October 2011

Markets and Democracy Briefs are published by CFR's Civil Society, Markets,
and Democracy initiative. They are designed to offer readers a concise
snapshot of current thinking on critical issues surrounding democracy and
economic development in the world today.

Hopes are running high for Liberia's second presidential elections since the
end of its brutal civil war. The first round of polling appears to be
credible. And with former warlord and current senator Prince Johnson's
endorsement, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first female head of
state, is likely to win the run-off in November in what has been so far a
largely fair and peaceful election. However, recent presidential elections
in Ivory Coast and Nigeria risk overshadowing Liberia's consolidating
democracy, and they are much larger countries. Both polls were historic:
Ivory Coast's was the first since the end of civil war, and Nigeria's
"better" election followed its 2007 "election-like event." Nevertheless,
they illustrate, alongside the polls in Kenya in 2007 and Zimbabwe in 2008,
the potential for violent elections in profoundly divided countries.
Twenty-seven African countries will hold local and national elections by the
end of 2011, and at least seventeen more are expected next year. If
elections are so often violent and polarizing, even when they are deemed
free and fair, should the United States be promoting them? The answer is
yes. Because Africans want them.

In Ivory Coast last year, incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo's rejection of
the victory of his political challenger, Alassane Ouattara, led to a
four-month standoff that brought the country to the brink of renewed civil
war. Hundreds of thousands were displaced, and thousands were killed. Last
spring in Nigeria, following news that incumbent president and southern
Christian Goodluck Jonathan had won the presidential contest, anger in
northern states originally directed at the ruling People's Democratic Party
mutated into religious and ethnic violence that left an estimated one
thousand people dead.

Yet, for Americans, elections are a good thing. They define democracy. In
school, American children learn about the gradual expansion of suffrage to
almost all citizens. Americans also think that elections are decisive, which
means that, at least in theory, if a candidate wins office by one vote, he
or she wins. But there is a deeply ingrained respect for the rights of
losers-and a recognition that they might be the winner next time. Americans
are not keen on power sharing, even if a poll is close. Instead, the losers
wait for the next election and try again.

This willingness to relinquish power and wait patiently for the next
election is rooted in shared American values and well-developed civic
identities (in spite of current divisions in Congress). Further, there is
the expectation that elections in the United States will happen-no matter
what. It is well known that during World War II, Americans did not postpone
elections, and there were elaborate arrangements to allow those serving in
the armed forces to vote. Accordingly, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to
a fourth presidential term, defeating New York governor Thomas E. Dewey. But
few probably remember that presidential elections were also held on schedule
in the United States during the Civil War, with Abraham Lincoln defeating
General George B. McClellan. The contest was real: Lincoln thought he would

Hence, it is no surprise that, in the postcolonial era, official U.S. policy
in Africa has been to do what it can to promote free, fair, and credible
elections. In Nigeria, for example, the United States has contributed
millions of dollars toward elections since the restoration of civilian
government, mostly in support of Nigerian and American nongovernmental
organizations working to make elections meet international standards. In
Ivory Coast, the Obama administration provided generous support to the
United Nations as it organized the November 2010 elections.

However, unlike the United States, many African countries are profoundly
divided, with longstanding grievances, weak institutions, and nascent, if
any, national identity. This is compounded by the preponderance of "winner
takes all" politics. When losing an election means losing access to
patronage, competitors are willing to risk anything. They will mobilize
divisions within society, whether ethnic, religious, or regional, to protect
their access to state wealth and power. An abundance of unemployed and often
uneducated youth is a particularly destabilizing force, easily manipulated
by politicians seeking to intimidate or attack rivals.

Some observers have suggested that in the African context, the emphasis on
elections is an example of Western cultural imperialism, of the West's
imposing its value system and political practices where they may not be
appropriate. Critics will argue that for elections to work there must be a
sense of national identity, the rule of law, a certain level of education,
and sufficient economic development to allow voters to make a free choice
and not feel beholden to their boss, patron, or ethnic leader. These
prerequisites are incomplete in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

The trouble with this argument is that Africans themselves wholeheartedly
embrace elections as a way to express their will. Indeed, in Ivory Coast the
electoral turnout was unprecedented: at least 80 percent of registered
voters cast their ballots. In Nigeria in 2007 and 2011, turnout was
low-because of the widespread perspective that elections would not matter
and a fear of violence. But, in the past, turnout has been high. In fact,
given the opportunity, Africans are likely to vote with enthusiasm.

So, if Africans embrace elections, who are outsiders to say that they are
inappropriate? The discussion of "Asian values" more than twenty years ago
advanced the notion that despite countries' economic progress, "cultural"
barriers to democracy and elections existed in such places as Malaysia, the
Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand. Yet look at where many of
these countries are now: there is little question they are more democratic
than during the height of the "Asian values" debate. They are not perfect
democracies, but then neither is the United States, France, or the United

Further, alternative models of governance in sub-Saharan Africa are less
attractive than admittedly defective democratic ones, particularly over the
long term. The most common alternative has been military rule, where the
military comes to power to "clean up" a "mess" made by civilians. But
military rulers often hold on to power as long as they can and become
progressively more oppressive. Hence, in Nigeria, the mild regimes of Yakubu
Gowon and Murtala Muhammed were ultimately followed by the alleged
kleptocracy of Ibrahim Babangida and the savage oppression of Sani Abacha.
And, with one short civilian interregnum, the military kept power for a
generation, all the while proclaiming that it was "restoring" democratic
rule even as many of the colonels became rich.

And, despite the gloom of Ivory Coast and Nigeria, there are numerous
examples of successful elections. Ghana is remarkably similar to Ivory Coast
in its divisions, yet it has had a series of successful elections. Liberia
was a victim of "big man" politics for years, yet the election of Ellen
Johnson Sirleaf in 2005 was seen by Liberians as credible, and the 2011
polls look promising. There is also South Africa, where every election since
the end of apartheid in 1994 has been regarded by international observers
and South Africans themselves as legitimate.

So, rather than succumbing to Afro-pessimism, what should Africa's friends
do to promote democracy and free, fair, and credible elections? Western
democracies should continue to support African civic organizations that are
working for credible elections, the rule of law, independent judiciaries,
and democracy. These organizations often operate on a shoestring, limiting
their capacity, but in some countries (Nigeria, for example) they have
strong grassroots support. Western donors should provide political and
material assistance to African judiciaries as well. For example, the
international community should not hesitate to speak out about the
intimidation of African judges or juries. On the practical and concrete
side, when international donors supply word processors to a court, they
assist in speeding up the judicial process-and the delivery of justice. This
reinforces the rule of law.

When governments are involved in election rigging, the international
community should disapprove publicly and withhold official expressions of
congratulations to the victor. In the same vein, outside democratic
governments should be leery of supporting "governments of national unity,"
which enable "big men" who have lost credible elections to stay in power
largely because they are willing to resort to violence. Governments of
national unity in Zimbabwe and Kenya have done little to promote democracy
or to resolve fundamental political issues. (They did reduce-though not
eliminate-the violence in the short term.)

These steps are not dramatic, nor are they glamorous. For Americans, it may
be uncomfortable to acknowledge that their ability to influence the growth
of democracy and the rule of law in Africa is limited. It is Africans who
will build both, in their own ways and with their own visions. Democracy was
not built in a day in the United States. Likewise, it may take some time for
Africans to develop the institutions necessary for smooth democratic
transitions. But they will do it, and the United States should continue to
assist in the small ways it can.


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Received on Mon Oct 31 2011 - 17:46:11 EDT
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