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The Promises and Perils of Democracy in Africa

By Eva Clayton
Posted on Tuesday, 28 July 2015 14:48

The aspirations captured in the theme of Agenda 2063 and the commitment to financial independence embraced during the 25th African Union Summit held this June is a commendable and daunting task. It also represents a unique opportunity that African leaders must embrace to secure a peaceful and prosperous tomorrow.

The African Union’s Agenda 2063 is a noble goal; but it relies on individual leaders and governments in Africa to implement the agenda faithfully

The effective realization of this future will rest on the shoulders of the current – and future – generations of African leaders, whose task it will be to ensure the manifestation of peace and prosperity for all of Africa.

This renewed sense of pride and fortitude on improving the power in Africa is one that will require a commitment to establishing a governance structure that is both transparent and responsive to the continent’s people.

Nigeria’s recent Presidential election offers a hopeful vision of how this can be achieved – a cautious hope, given that it is early days in the Buhari era, but nonetheless an object lesson in democratic leadership.

Democracy and the rule of law may be taken as fundamentals in the US – but sadly all too many African leaders have fallen prey to the temptation to undermine one or both in the pursuit of power or personal gain.

Former Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan’s mature and responsible exit from the Presidential stage was a model example for democratic losers in African elections.

Perhaps the most compelling forthcoming African election is that of Guinea, in West Africa. The country is desperately poor – in terms of per capita income, Guinea is ranked at 220 among the world’s nations, one of the lowest anywhere. Even before the Ebola epidemic created havoc in the country last year, decades of civil war impeded progress and investment.

Guinean President Alpha Conde came to power in 2010 through the country’s first-ever democratic (though disputed) election. Like Mr. Jonathan, he now faces a tough re-election fight, in the midst of a national crisis.

Violence this spring has left a number of opposition campaigners dead. Divisions along ethnic and tribal lines remain and Human Rights Watch has concluded that government security forces in Guinea have “demonstrated a lack of political neutrality”.

Guinea – like Nigeria – is a country of high strategic interest. The country has vast untapped mineral wealth, and its complex ethnic make-up, and potential for radicalism amongst certain communities, make it a security concern as well.

The EU Commission has travelled to Guinea to assess the pre-election situation; others are known to be monitoring closely. Alpha Condé has his many critics (as did Mr. Jonathan) – property is regularly expropriated from foreign investors, especially in the mining sector, press freedom is under threat, and the aforementioned shooting of protestors led to calls from Amnesty, among others, for calm.

Whether Condé can deliver on a democratic process, and outcome, remains to be seen. He could learn a lot from his former compatriot to the south-east.

Guinea is by no means the only forthcoming election of global interest. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), incumbent President Joseph Kabila faces a tricky dilemma on whether to respect the constitution and step down (he is term-limited), or to cling on to power.

Kabila is walking a tightrope currently – talking up his commitment to democracy and freedom, while simultaneously pursuing criminal complaints against his political opponents, such as Katange Governor – and potential Presidential candidate – Moïse Katumbi.

The international community is engaged in DRC, as it has been in Guinea. Human Rights Watch reported that Congolese government has been practicing “unlawful and excessive forces”—firing into crowds of opposing political activists, killing over 40 people. The similarities could be depressing: though, once again, enlightened acts from an incumbent leader would lead to new hope for the democratic future of the country

We have witnessed a successful Nigerian democratic election this year – U.S. leadership helped to bring about that happy, and relatively peaceful conclusion. So much so that Vice President Joe Biden personally called former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to commend him on ensuring a peaceful transition.

The same success is possible for Guinea, the DRC, Burundi, and beyond, if their leaders choose to grasp it.

The Obama Administration along with other American leadership, especially my former colleagues of the Congressional Black Caucus, have a duty to the birthplace of humanity. This is a moral duty; but also one where U.S. vital strategic interests are at stake. To turn away now, would be both unhelpful for the African peoples, and unwise for American interests.

The African Union’s Agenda 2063 is a noble goal; but it relies on individual leaders and governments in Africa to implement the agenda faithfully. Goodluck Jonathan was not a perfect man, and he was a far-from perfect President. But he has now shown the way.

It is up to the leaders of Guinea, the DRC, and their neighbors, to show that this was not a one-off for Africa. We, in the West, must play our part, too.

Eva M. Clayton served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1992-2002 representing the state of North Carolina. In 2003, she was appointed as assistant director-general to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome, Italy, where she focused primarily on hunger in the developing world during her three-year tenure.

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