Democracy in Africa is kin to a newly hatched egg that needs to be protected and kept warm in order to ensure its full development. The slightest disturbance and that egg could fall, break and literally shatter into a thousand pieces. The mother hen might not be too happy about losing her baby, but what is even more distressing is the fact that a golden opportunity, an element of hope, would have disappeared into absolute nothingness in the twinkle of an eye. Such is the fragility of democracy and the electoral process in most African countries.
From tampering with ballots to leaders reluctant to relinquish power at the end of their term, the electoral process in Africa is not one without its issues. But even in the midst of all the anxiety surrounding elections in many African nations, some countries have made significant progress in ensuring free and fair elections. The successful transition of power to the first female African Head-of-State, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, is a unique example of how free and fair elections can actually prevail despite all its attendant problems. Sure, the financial base for holding periodic elections in many African countries might involve borrowing money from the IMF or some other financial institution, but if the average African is able to utilize his or her right of suffrage, then I believe it is money well-spent. As to whether that loan is repaid, well let’s just say it’s one of the many determinants of whether the government elected into power will secure another term come the next election.
Election Day can be regarded as a harvest period for the local (and sometimes international) media. From politicians throwing ridiculous accusations at one another, to Presidential aspirants buying all sorts of commodities to distribute to potential voters at their rallies, it is certainly an interesting period in any African country. Unfortunately though, election period is also a time dreaded by many people. In the recent Congo Presidential election, Nzanga Mobuto, an ally of President Kabilla, was abducted on his way to a campaign rally. As a result of the abduction, clashes broke out between Mobutu’s bodyguards and troops loyal to challenger Jean-Pierre Bemba. In addition, four people were killed during the violence. One would wonder whether the temptation that power presents is justification enough for the loss of life during elections.
I remember quite vividly the high tensions surrounding the Ghanaian Presidential Election in 2004. Although I wasn’t of voting age, I did go to the polling station next to my house to hear the results of the election. Even in a relatively peaceful country like Ghana, the election process is sometimes thwarted by the activities of some people who can only be classified as troublemakers. Can you imagine the situation in countries like the Congo where the effects of war are an everyday reality? What is really sad however is the failure of many African leaders to deliver on their electoral promises and their reluctance to relinquish power when their term in office is up. Surely, Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela and other African leaders who spearheaded the independence of African nations would not approve of the dire situations surrounding elections in Africa.
It might seem like the reluctance of African leaders is exaggerated, but that is the unfortunate reality. One Sudanese billionaire has no doubt realized that many African leaders stay in power in order to enjoy the associated privileges and not due to a sincere interest in developing their nations. His solution? The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. Under this initiative, African leaders who have demonstrated actual success in developing their countries will receive a $5million prize spread over the period of ten years after they leave office. Yes, money does talk, but it is sad to think that the occurrence of free and fair elections in African countries is dependant on a cash prize.
As many Senegalese anxiously anticipate the upcoming Senegalese Presidential election in February 2007 one can only hope that the pattern of elections in Africa would have changed somewhat by then. For many Africans, the electoral process is not merely an exercise of their right of suffrage, but also a chance to change their lives and that of future generations, for better or worse, till democracy doth prevail.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.