13 down and 12 more to go! That’s the number of presidential elections that have taken place and are still coming up on the African continent (including the islands) in 2011. Although the “Arab Spring” has ineluctably branded the year as a year of revolution in Northern Africa (and the Middle East), it is the less-publicized events in sub-Saharan Africa that will fundamentally reshape the notion of democracy on the continent, for better or for worse.
The recent upheavals in countries like Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, and even Burkina Faso, have made many reconsider the effectiveness of democracy in facilitating development in Africa. Some still believe that it will someday work. After all, it has worked in other countries, and there is clear evidence that democratic nations tend to have accountable governments which is key to ensuring growth. Others have dabbled with the idea that democracy is just not fit for Africa. They support their opinions by citing the long list of rigged elections and post-election violence that seem to have further weakened the prospects of ever achieving a functioning form of democracy.
Personally, I am more in line with the former group. Obviously we can’t categorize every single African country because each political situation is different but there are positive signs of change in the political dynamics of certain key nations. There is a growing popular demand for accountability and social justice throughout the continent by a population that, empowered in part by the events in Tunisia and Egypt, is becoming even more defiant. If you had asked me five years ago what my biggest fear was concerning politics in Africa, my answer would have been that it was the feeling that people had become so inured with their inadequate and often oppressive governments that they had lost the zeal to engage in politics. So to hear about mass protests and increases in voter turnout in certain nations, I am encouraged and reassured that the goal of democracy is still an achievable one.
Let’s take Nigeria for example. If I was to describe, in a nutshell, Nigerian politics prior to the April elections, I would probably refer to it as an ethno-religious game of musical chairs between North and the South but with members of the Southeastern region excluded from key positions. The fact that there hasn’t been a president from the Southeast of the country since its independence makes the election of President Goodluck Jonathan a very significant turn of events. Also, in a country with a tradition of military regimes and rigged elections, knowing that the elections were deemed the most transparent in decades by national and international observers marks a new beginning in the electoral politics. These are good signs for democracy in Nigeria for two reasons. The first is that it mounts pressure on the current administration to address the underdevelopment and marginalization of the Southeast, especially in the oil producing areas that have been neglected by the federal government for over 50 years. But more importantly, it provides the opportunity for the new administration to forge a government that is truly representative of the ethnic plurality within the nation.
It is with cautious optimism that I write this though. Having a president from a minority group does not in itself signify change, it only opens the door for the opportunity to effect that change. And although the past elections might have been credible, the results depict an even more polarized nation with a vast majority of the North voting for their regional candidate Mr. Buhari and the South voting overwhelmingly for Mr. Jonathan. This leaves the president-elect with the daunting task of reconciling the South with an especially angry North. He must now answer to previously marginalized groups in the South without alienating the voices of those in the North (and the rest of the country as well). Achieving this will require him to team up with Northern leaders (perhaps even collaborating with Buhari, if possible) to attempt to appease public dissent with his presidency in the North. And with the ongoing riots and an opportunistic Boko Haram (a Muslim sect hostile to democracy and anything non-Islamic) taking advantage of the chaos to reap havoc, President Jonathan has a very difficult presidency ahead of him.
But that’s democracy, isn’t it? Nobody said it would be easy but it’s definitely not impossible. No country today with a functioning democracy achieved it without conflict so the recent upheavals throughout the continent shouldn’t be used as an excuse to lose hope in democracy. And with an increasingly globalized world, it is becoming much more difficult to cover up repression. Leaders now have to be accountable to not just their citizens but to the watchful eyes of the international community. Civil society is burgeoning throughout the continent and the youth are becoming a lot more vocal. Widespread democracy in Africa is probably still decades away, but strategic incremental steps towards it are being made.
Chukwudi Onike is an alumnus of the Colin Powell Fellowship program. He graduated with a BA in International Studies in 2010 with a focus on conflict resolution.