Democracy's Growth in Africa: Slow, Violent, and Worth Celebrating

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Though there have been recent setbacks, African democracy is developing well, and the U.S. should keep pushing

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Liberian presidential candidate Winston Tubman votes in Monrovia / Reuters

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.


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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 lose.

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 Kingdom.

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.


This Markets and Democracy Brief originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.
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Presented by

John Campbell and Asch Harwood

John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, is senior fellow for Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he also blogs. Asch Harwood is an Africa analyst.

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