The upcoming African elections will assess the continent’s prospects.
We have reached a seminal moment in the development of the African continent. The close of the year 2011 will see no less than thirty African countries hold electoral contests featuring presidential, gubernatorial, and legislative candidates and national referendums. Each one of these political matches is representative of the hopes of a people and the direction of a country. The list of nations scheduled to hold elections this year amalgamates a wide selection of polities, each at varying stages of political development and composing all of the regions of Africa. Africans have been conducting this experiment called democracy for some sixty years now, and as the British, Belgians, French, and Americans – among many others – can attest, the implementation of democracy is an inherently complicated proposition.The reverberations of the African colonial experience featuring the subordination of continental interests in favor of foreign strategic interests has historically alienated prospects for the building of viable African democracies or the generation of sustained economic development on the continent. Importantly, the ill-advised decisions of past African leaders, regardless of intentions, have also been observed to be a key impediment to the development of a formidable African polity.
The quality of leaders matters, and for this reason, a credible and transparent electoral process is necessary to establish the competency of anyone aspiring to positions of leadership. We all have much at stake in the outcome of the 2011 African elections. The September 11 terrorist attacks, July 2005 London bombings, and the cancer of fundamentalist ideologies have educated the Western world as to its susceptibility to the dangerous cocktail of extreme poverty, political repression, and population disillusionment, irrespective of how far removed these environments are from its borders. Additionally, the 2008 economic recession has reminded us of the interdependent nature of global markets. Properly functioning states in Africa will mitigate the national security threats that we face and can play a catalytic role with respect to global economic activity by providing industrialized nations with new and desperately needed sources of consumer demand. It is in the mutual interest of all nations to have capable African leaders that are elected through a systematic and credible electoral process and supported by strong national institutions.
This year’s elections in Africa represent a critical metric for evaluating the continent’s long-term probability for achieving sustained social and economic development. Fair and credible electoral processes will provide a genuine forum for voters to demand fidelity to the notions of accountable and responsive governance, rule of law, ethics, and the enhancement of domestic human and institutional capacities. These are all key components to the creation of stable and economically vibrant socioeconomic environments. A fractious and corrupt electoral process in which political contestants and their cronies undeservedly appropriate political control will only further disabuse an already cynical audience of their last breath of optimism concerning the African continent’s long-term competitive viability. Simply put, the state of the geopolitical order is such that strong and capable African leaders with functioning institutions are non-negotiable qualifications for the continent’s ability to compete globally and finally derive for its people the benefits of globalization. This inextricable relationship between the quality of African political leadership and the lives of millions of African citizens should compel the world to pay attention because the ramifications will almost certainly have an impact on their societies.
We truly are approaching the dawn of a new era of African leadership that is striving to implement democratic systems of governance across the continent. A cursory investigation of the leadership of countries scheduled to hold elections in 2011 reveals an astonishing array of aging administrations that have been exercising power for many decades now. Some of these regimes, through a misguided sense of entitlement, have eschewed policies beneficial to the entire polity choosing instead to implement disastrous programs principally aimed at supporting corruptive systems of patrimony through the misallocation of states resources.
The 2007 Kenyan elections, 2008 Zimbabwean elections, and 2010 Ivory Coast elections illustrate the dangers of insufficient preparation for electoral contests and their aftermaths. In each of these contests, an incumbent president faced serious challenges from opposition candidates. The failure to implement democratic reforms in advance of the elections, particularly within such complex political environments, was a harbinger of the devastation that was to occur. Opposition candidates Rail Odinga of Kenya and Allassaine Outtara of the Ivory Coast appeared to have secured enough votes to claim electoral victory over the incumbent presidents. However, their claims to victory were denied through the employment of electoral fraud and manipulation of the judicial mechanisms mandated to certify the election results. In Zimbabwe, opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai achieved victory in the first round of presidential elections. However, he was forced to withdraw owing to a brutal crackdown on his political supporters in the run up to second round elections. The post election environments in all three countries quickly devolved into widespread ethnic and religious violence incited by xenophobic rhetoric resulting in the cumulative loss of thousands of lives. Importantly, the failure to adequately prepare for the elections and opposition challengers’ lack of faith in the state institutions charged with adjudicating electoral disputes resulted in widespread violence and the destruction of national economies. Eventually, with the exception of the Ivory Coast, where Western military intervention ousted President Laurent Gbagbo, governments of national unity were established, ones in which the incumbent presidents retained their offices and the challengers assumed the roles of Prime Minister. The examples in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and the Ivory Coast highlight the necessity for continual refinement of democratic processes and institutions in the preparation, execution, and aftermath of political contests.
Alas, we as Africans are at an important crossroads in governing philosophies and trust that we can work in concert with the international community to break the continent’s historical courtship with autocratic rule. It is beyond controversy to assume that Africans must be at the forefront of all efforts to implement representative systems of governance in their individual countries. However, Western countries can play an important role by providing support to the institutions that are necessary to sustain the democratic momentum. The 2011 elections in Africa will provide empirical data points by which to gauge the ascension of democracy as the predominant governing orthodoxy for the continent. There exists a new breed of African political actors committed to the realization of this philosophical transition and venturing to steer the continent on a path guided by the principle tenets of democracy and responsive governance. Notably, establishment forces in some countries working actively to make permanent a failed status quo threaten the emergence of this new age of African leadership. It is important to be mindful that historical indifference to the development of African democratic leadership has proven catastrophic, and, if not counteracted, will in some states likely result in another era of corruption and socioeconomic stagnation. The cultivation of continent-wide democratic momentum offers a credible alternative to the perennially derelict governance that has for so long failed our nations. Notably, a democratic style of governance represents a sharp break from the destructive era of the Big Man. Whereas some past leaders were known to have adopted the Kalashnikov and Machete as weapons of choice for attaining power, the evolution of a democratic model requires a candidate to offer persuasive arguments as to his or her suitability for the role of the people’s servant. This conceptual orientation in the preparation and aftermath of elections needs to be propagated throughout a number of states in Africa in order for the continent to get on a sustainable democratic trajectory.
There is much that we can all do to fortify the prospects of democracy on the African continent. Over the course of the last several months, the global community has served as witnesses to the North African and Middle Eastern peoples’ re-engagement in the affairs of government. The powerful events of the “Arab Spring” demonstrate the very basic human desire of a people demanding to have their hopes and aspirations reflected in the policies adopted by their governments. The courageous actions of previously disenfranchised citizens have led to the dramatic removal of seemingly indomitable regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. This reaffirmation of the popular will was aided by the international community’s belated engagement on behalf of the masses who were seeking to bear the fruits of democratic governance. The international community’s eventual use of soft and hard power signaled their support for the protest movements and prevented the additional loss of countless lives. Soft power was used to make clear to the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, with emphasis on the armed forces, that Western governments would no longer turn a blind eye to the appalling persecution of protesters. In Libya, NATO’s deployment of military assets in support of the Libyan opposition movement swayed the tide in favor of the Libyan opposition, leading to the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Western governments had historically excused the political, social, and economic failures of the repressive regimes calculating that military and commercial integration was consistent with their respective strategic interests. Ultimately, Western governments have now been placed in a reactive position requiring the massive infusion of donor funds to support the implementation of democratic systems in these countries.
The important lessons from these events cannot be ignored, particularly as it relates to the conditions that exist in some African countries. First, the interdependent nature of the contemporary global order and the emergence of novel social media technologies have resulted in a largely transparent world in which oppressive regimes, with few exceptions, are no longer able to conceal their authoritarian and kleptocratic dispensations. Second, disaffected populations are growing intolerant of the excesses of corrupt regimes, which has led to increasingly volatile situations that could result in direct confrontation between people and their governments. Strong and functioning institutions, adherence to the rule of law, empowerment of citizens by making them direct stakeholders in the affairs of state, and strong leadership are necessary to pacify this dangerous set of circumstances. The United Nations Human Development Report, the World Bank’s Development Report, the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights, and indigenous civil society groups have documented the troubling conditions that exist in some African countries. Deficiencies abound with respect to population access to healthcare, education, employment opportunities, respect for human rights, the rule of law, and political freedom. The 2011 African elections represents an opportunity for citizens to elect leaders deemed fit to spearhead the path toward political and social stability and economic development. It is in the interest of Western governments, given the prominent role that they play in critically important multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund, to adopt a proactive stance in the preparation and aftermath of African electoral processes. Such an aggressive multilateral approach effectively serves the interests of Western governments and the relevant African countries. Western governments will have the opportunity to enhance their bilateral relationships with various governments, a notion that is becoming increasingly important given the deference currently afforded to international organizations where decisions are often made through member voting mechanisms. Additionally, in certain African countries, Western governments will have the opportunity to advance their democratization policy and promote the advantages of market based economic models. Such an arrangement, in which the international community works in close collaboration with African governments, political parties, and civil society organizations, offers the best chance for the inculcation of a democratic ethos throughout the African continent. This understanding is consistent with global interest.