Your Take: There’s Still Hope for Democracy in Africa

Ghana's vice president weighs in on the current election turmoil in neighboring Côte d'Ivoire and the prospect for peaceful power transitions on the African continent.

Vice President John Dramani Mahama (Republic of Ghana)
Vice President John Dramani Mahama (Republic of Ghana)

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.