Saturday, December 25, 2010

African Democracy: One Step Back, One Step Forward

Two tales of democracy from Africa today, one hopeful, the other not so much...

Cote d'Ivoire (also known as the Ivory Coast) for nearly a month now has had not one but two presidents. International observers, including the United Nations, declared opposition leader Alassane Ouattara the winner of the November 28 elections, which they further certified as free and fair. But that's not good enough for the current Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo who, like a pope in the Middle Ages, just went ahead and had himself sworn back into office at the same time that Ouattara's inauguration was taking place. Gbagbo refuses to recognize the results of the November 28 vote, which he has called “a coup” (admittedly an odd way to describe a democratic election).

The UN, United States and Ecowas – the economic bloc that includes most of the countries in West Africa – are all calling on Gbagbo to stop the nonsense and gracefully step aside – well, as gracefully as one can after pretending to be president for a month... The problem is that Gbagbo still has many in the state security apparatus and military backing him, which has paralyzed Cote d'Ivoire for the past month. And indications are that the situation could be turning ugly. Ouattara's side said they have reports of 200 dead and 1,000 injured among their supporters at the hands of security forces supporting Gbagbo, they also claim other supporters have been abducted and raped. Amnesty International said they are receiving “increasing” numbers of reports of political violence. It's worth noting that Cote d'Ivoire narrowly avoided a full-blown civil war in 2002 and had previously been one of West Africa's most stable and most prosperous countries. But all of that now seems in danger because of one very stubborn man.

But the news out of Africa certainly isn't all bad as another West African nation inaugurates their first democratically-elected president in their entire 50-year history. On Tuesday Alpha Conde was sworn in as the Republic of Guinea's first-ever elected president in a ceremony attended by heads of state from across the continent. Since gaining independence from France, Guinea has been run by a succession of military strongmen; change in government only came at the end of a gun. Things didn't look promising after the most recent junta took power in 2008, despite promises by the junta that they would hold open elections “in the future”. The situation further deteriorated after the junta's leader Captain Moussa Dadis Camara was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt and forces loyal to him massacred 150 opposition supporters and reportedly beat and raped hundreds more. But Guinea's interim leader, Sekouba Konate, followed through on the pledge to hold elections, which were won by Mr. Conde, himself a long-time opposition leader and advocate for democracy who had once been sentenced to death by an earlier military regime. The 72-year old Conde ran on a platform of change and development for the impoverished Guinea, which has rich deposits of bauxite, the ore used to make aluminum.

Though the swearing in of Conde is just a first step, if a country that has spent a half-century ruled by military juntas can have open democratic elections, then that's a hopeful sign for good governance across the continent.
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