One Step Forward and One Step Back for African Democracy

Both candidates claim victory in the Ivory Coast, but a court declares a clear winner in Guinea.

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Sometimes elections don't solve problems. Africa, which has been plagued by coups and dictatorships, has taken halting steps toward democracy in recent years. But two recent elections show how different outcomes can affect hopes for more open government.

Cote d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) is trying to figure out if it's better off after the latest round of votes. Both the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, and his challenger, Alassane Ouattara, are claiming to have won last week's election and have held separate swearing-in ceremonies. This has left the West African country worrying that a now dormant civil war will break out again. An independent election commission declared Ouattara, a long-standing opposition leader, the winner last Friday, a verdict supported by international observers. But the country's Constitutional Commission, close to Gbagbo, overturned the decision and announced that he had won. The commission said there had been massive fraud in the northern half of the country, which has been controlled by rebel groups. Major countries, including the U.S. and France, and international organizations like the U.N. and the European Union, have recognized Ouattara as the legitimate president, leaving Gbagbo isolated.

Cote d'Ivoire, once a prosperous and peaceful nation (and the leading exporter of cocoa) led by Felix Houphouët-Boigny, suffered a coup in 1999 and saw its economy crash during a civil war that began in 2002, dividing north and south. Gbagbo has remained in office five years past his mandate on the grounds that it was impossible to hold an election, despite a shaky truce with the rebel north. Ivoiriens worry that the war will erupt again because Ouattara has strong support in the north.

Just up the coast of West Africa, election results seem more promising. On Friday the Republic of Guinea's Supreme Court certified the election of 72-year-old Alpha Condé as president with 52.52 percent of the vote. The county, which borders Liberia, Senegal, Mali and Cote d'Ivoire, had been in a state of emergency since riots broke out two weeks ago, when results were first announced. Seven people died after the opposing candidate, Cellou Dallen Diallo, claimed fraud and his supporters took to the streets.

"The candidate of the RPG [Rally of the Guinean People], Alpha Condé [...] is elected president of the Republic," magistrate Mamadou Sylla, who presides over the court's constitutional chamber, declared. The Supreme Court rejected "unfounded" requests from Diallo to have results from two northern regions of Guinea canceled.

The election is a big step forward for Guinea, which has been cursed with autocratic rule throughout its history. For 36 years, Guinea was under the iron rule of Sékou Touré, who broke with Charles de Gaulle's France in 1958 and opened his doors to the Soviet Union, giving the Communists a foothold in Africa. Touré was succeeded by another autocratic leader, Lasanna Conté, who did little to improve the impoverished country. He was ousted in a military coup. In 2008, Moussa Dadis Camara seized power and allowed his troops to go on a rampage of rape and murder that shocked the country. After he was shot by one of his own men and flown out of the country for treatment, African leaders reached an agreement for civilian rule. The election was the culmination of that effort. We can hope that the results will hold and allow Guinea to come out of its long nightmare.

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