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Is Democratic Governance Africa's Best Option?

Originally written by Jemila Abdulai for the March 2012 edition of the SAIS Observer

African Elections: Version 2012

The lineup of African elections this year is impressive to say the least. Over 10 countries are slated to go to the polls to select their local and national representatives. Among them are Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Zimbabwe; each of which will either re-elect or select an entirely new head-of-state.

With the occasional nod of acknowledgement from regional and global observers, local elections garner some degree of attention. When it comes to high stakes and pulsating veins however, Africa’s presidential elections are rivaled only by the African Cup of Nations. Needless to say, presidential elections in Africa tend to be an all or nothing affair.

Election Day comes with both anticipation and dread. Anticipation at the prospect of new opportunities and a renewed commitment towards national development, and dread at what could happen should “someone’s” political aspirations be dashed. This is precisely why many presidential aspirants go all out for the occasion, donning their best public service coats and venturing as far as the hitherto unexplored hinterlands of their respective countries. Once there, the time-long courtship dance commences, with presidential aspirants whispering sweet promises of better jobs, food and what-have-you into the ears of their fatigued, yet hopeful constituents. This, my friends, is what the international community refers to as electoral campaigning.

Over the years Africa has experienced much election-related violence and deaths; the deadliest in recent times being the violent aftermath of Kenya’s 2008 presidential elections when an estimated 1,000 people perished. While some nations’ attempts at elections continue to raise eyebrows and provide fodder for skeptics of “real” democracy in Africa, the continent has come a long way in its democratic trajectory.

Although the continent is still throng with autocratic leaders like Robert Mugabe, the use of elections as a tool for conflict resolution in countries like Liberia is encouraging. That aside, Africa’s democracies are pretty young by international standards. Take Ghana for instance. Having recently turned 55 years, democracy is still being consolidated in what was the first sub-Saharan Africa country to gain independence from colonial rule. The 2008 presidential election between the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC) was the closest in the country’s history to date, leading not only to a run-off, but a run-off to the run-off as well in the unassuming Tain district.

On January 3, 2009 the NPP presidential candidate Nana Akuffo Addo conceded defeat, leading to the peaceful transfer of power from the then President John Agyekum Kufour to Ghana’s incumbent President John Atta Mills. Four years prior to that, a similar change of hands had occurred between former President Jerry John Rawlings and President Kufour. While many Ghanaians joke about what will happen should the nation ever run out of able-bodied Johns, there are no mincing words about the role played by Ghana’s oil discovery during that highly-charged electoral season.

Oil is not the only game changer for this year’s elections. During a recent BBC Africa Debate in Accra, some participants expressed doubt about the possibility of an Africa Spring, however it would seem that elements of the Arab Spring have already succeeded in slipping into sub Saharan Africa’s political landscape. On February 26, 2012, many Senegalese started the day with a single purpose on their minds: to oust President Wade and fulfill the mandate of the Y’En A Marre (We’re Fed Up) movement; started in January 2011 at the height of power cuts across Senegal. Led by Dakar-based rap musicians, youth, and opposition groups, a series of successful protests were staged, blocking Wade’s attempts to change the constitution and run for a third term. After the country’s Supreme Court judges, appointed by Wade, gave the go-ahead for a third term bid, it seemed hell had broken lose on earth.   

The lead-up to Senegal’s presidential election saw violent protests, over 10 deaths, and a highly traumatic experience for what is one of few African nations with no history of a coup d’etat. Aside the burning tires at Place d’Obelisque, Twitter was ablaze with election updates via the #sunu2012 hashtag. In one instance, a video quickly made its rounds online, mere minutes after Wade experienced a rude reception at his voting post. This highly organized use of social media networks helped tip Senegal’s Diaspora vote away from Wade, so much such that the 85-year old incumbent later proposed an exclusion of the Diaspora vote in what is now an Abdoulaye Wade – Macky Sall run-off set for March 25.

Is democratic governance Africa’s best option? That question remains unanswered. What is clear though is that after years of often bloody electoral trial-and-error, the people’s voice is finally beginning to ring loud and clear.

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