Changing times for African democracy

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The current political development in Côte d’Ivoire, and the manner in which it will be resolved, will serve as either a clear indication of how tenuous the democratic process still is on the African continent, or a joyous testament to how far the continent has traveled in its promotion of peace and advancement.

I’m sure that because many people, especially in the Western world, may still not have faith that democracy can actually work on the African continent, it didn’t come as a surprise to some that the results of the Ivorian Electoral Commission were not recognized by Laurent Gbagbo’s incumbent government and not followed by the requisite concession and transfer of power.

However, the exact opposite was true for a great many of Africa’s leaders and heads of state. We had every faith that the elections in Côte d’Ivoire would be yet another success story in this new narrative of democracy that our nations are writing. We were all surprised at the turn of events after the results were broadcast.

Politics in Africa, for centuries it seems, have been a violent game of domination in which the residents of any given region are nothing more than pawns, warm bodies to be subjugated or slaughtered or, in earlier centuries, sold and enslaved. As, one after the other, African nations won their independence from colonization, a sense of hope and a feeling of confidence took hold of the continent. Finally the people of Africa would be free to determine their own destiny. They would be free to partake of all the pride and progress that being sovereign seemed to promise.

Yet before cartographers had even finished documenting the names of the newly independent nations, all the leaders who had been celebrated and held up as heroes — like Kwame Nkrumah, Sylvanus Olympio, Patrice Lumumba — were either overthrown or assassinated. The era that followed should have, and so easily could have, been one of steady development and economic stability. Instead, for decades, the continent turned into a garish kaleidoscope of dictators, coups d’etat, prisons overflowing with opposition leaders, and people fleeing under cover of darkness to live in foreign lands as refugees and political exiles.

But times are changing in Africa; putsches and autocracies are fast becoming a thing of the past. Our citizens are tired of despots and corrupt leaders dimming the prospects of a bright future for them and their children. Africans are becoming more politically vocal and savvy, refusing silence and staking their lives on their right to suffrage.

Voter turnout in the Ethiopian general elections this past May was over 90 percent; likewise, voter turnout in the Burundi presidential elections this past June was over 70 percent; and it was nearly 80 percent in Guinea, which, also in June, held its first free and fair elections since 1958.

These figures are significantly higher than those of more developed countries such as the United States, whose highest voter turnout ever was 81 percent — in 1876. (Even with all the confusion, long lines and mass international coverage, voter turnout for the 2008 U.S. presidential elections was only approximately 62 percent.) Understanding that their right to vote has not always been respected, Africans often turn out in record numbers, praying that this time, this election, their vote will ultimately be counted, and their voice will be heard.

In response to the tense standoff in Côte d’Ivoire, heads of state have issued pleas, condemnations and warnings. Organizations such as the African Union, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and ECOWAS have been decisive; democracy must prevail. And they have been firm, threatening sanctions and alienation.

There was a time in Africa when this would not have been the case. Côte d’Ivoire might very well have plunged into civil war before the world took notice, or action. I was wondering today, while reading about and listening to news reports about the increasing pressure that is being mounted on Mr. Gbagbo to step down, what has prompted this change in the way the international community now regards and responds to Africa.

Could it be that the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur made clear the message that we all pay a price for inaction? Or that the civil wars and battles for blood diamonds that gave birth to armies of child soldiers, whose opprobrious conduct left fields full of corpses and villages full of amputees, taught us that the world must speak quickly and loudly, and it must say, “No more. This cannot happen anymore”?

Or maybe it’s something much simpler than any of that. Maybe Africa itself has shown, by making such incidents the exceptions rather than the rule, that it is maturing politically, leaning eagerly toward the sort of liberation its citizens have craved for so long.

Peaceful transitions of power are no longer an aberration; they no longer stand out as much in the public imagination, because these days, more often than not, they are what is taking place on the African continent. Lately, peace has prevailed even in the most potentially explosive situations, such as Ghana’s 2008 presidential elections, in which I ran as the vice presidential pick on the opposition party’s ticket. Our victory, which came as the result of a runoff election, was, by official results, the slimmest margin ever recorded in the history of modern African elections — less than half a percentage point.

For days after the results were announced, our nation was gripped with fear. Despite a consensus among all the independent election monitors that there were no improprieties, accusations of voter fraud were nonetheless made. People even went so far as to predict that Ghana would follow in the footsteps of Kenya, which erupted into postelection violence in 2007, the residual effects of which are still being felt in that country today. We held our breaths and waited, hoping that our lives and the land we all so loved would not be needlessly torn apart.

Though the other presidential candidate never conceded, Ghana’s incumbent president made it clear that he would encourage and support the democratic process by respecting the will of the people and handing over power to whomever the electoral commission certified as the official winner. Because of that, Ghana was able to boast yet another peaceful transition of power in 16 continuous years of democratic governance. Over the past couple of weeks, we have been witness to the same respect for democracy and the rule of law in Guinea, with the ex-prime minister conceding defeat and calling for peace, particularly among his supporters.

The U.N. peacekeepers that were guarding the democratically elected president, Alassane Ouattara, have been ordered out of Côte d’Ivoire by Mr. Gbagbo. Danger seems to be looming, and the world’s attention is now fixed on the fate of that nation. We all remain hopeful, because Africa cannot afford another political setback.

Mr. Gbagbo has the unique opportunity to help cement one of two antithetical perceptions of Africa: as a continent of despots in the service of power instead of the service of their people, or as a continent making great gains toward democracy and sustainable development. Whatever decision Mr. Gbagbo makes will leave a lasting impression, not only on his country but also on the entire continent. Let us pray that he chooses wisely.

John Dramani Mahama, the vice president of the Republic of Ghana, is writing a nonfiction book about Africa.

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