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)


There was a time in Africa when this would not have been the case. Côte d’Ivoire might very well have plunged into civil war before the world took notice, or action. I was wondering today, while reading about and listening to news reports about the increasing pressure that is being mounted on Mr. Gbagbo to step down, what has prompted this change in the way the international community now regards and responds to Africa.

Could it be that the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur made clear the message that we all pay a price for inaction? Or that the civil wars and battles for blood diamonds that gave birth to armies of child soldiers, whose opprobrious conduct left fields full of corpses and villages full of amputees, taught us that the world must speak quickly and loudly, and it must say, “No more. This cannot happen anymore”?

Or maybe it’s something much simpler than any of that. Maybe Africa itself has shown, by making such incidents the exceptions rather than the rule, that it is maturing politically, leaning eagerly toward the sort of liberation its citizens have craved for so long.  

Peaceful transitions of power are no longer an aberration; they no longer stand out as much in the public imagination, because these days, more often than not, they are what is taking place on the African continent. Lately, peace has prevailed even in the most potentially explosive situations, such as Ghana’s 2008 presidential elections, in which I ran as the vice presidential pick on the opposition party’s ticket. Our victory, which came as the result of a runoff election, was, by official results, the slimmest margin ever recorded in the history of modern African elections — less than half a percentage point.

For days after the results were announced, our nation was gripped with fear. Despite a consensus among all the independent election monitors that there were no improprieties, accusations of voter fraud were nonetheless made. People even went so far as to predict that Ghana would follow in the footsteps of Kenya, which erupted into postelection violence in 2007, the residual effects of which are still being felt in that country today. We held our breaths and waited, hoping that our lives and the land we all so loved would not be needlessly torn apart.

Though the other presidential candidate never conceded, Ghana’s incumbent president made it clear that he would encourage and support the democratic process by respecting the will of the people and handing over power to whomever the electoral commission certified as the official winner. Because of that, Ghana was able to boast yet another peaceful transition of power in 16 continuous years of democratic governance. Over the past couple of weeks, we have been witness to the same respect for democracy and the rule of law in Guinea, with the ex-prime minister conceding defeat and calling for peace, particularly among his supporters.

The U.N. peacekeepers that were guarding the democratically elected president, Alassane Ouattara, have been ordered out of Côte d’Ivoire by Mr. Gbagbo. Danger seems to be looming, and the world’s attention is now fixed on the fate of that nation. We all remain hopeful, because Africa cannot afford another political setback.

Mr. Gbagbo has the unique opportunity to help cement one of two antithetical perceptions of Africa: as a continent of despots in the service of power instead of the service of their people, or as a continent making great gains toward democracy and sustainable development. Whatever decision Mr. Gbagbo makes will leave a lasting impression, not only on his country but also on the entire continent. Let us pray that he chooses wisely.

John Dramani Mahama, the vice president of the Republic of Ghana, is writing a nonfiction book about Africa.

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