African Elections in 2012 on the World Stage and in the Classroom

Teaching U.S. election law in the shadow of a presidential election is an election law professor’s dream. There is no better backdrop for the material or more engaging context to capture student interest in the subject.  However, as I also teach a comparative election law course that examines election law issues internationally, I had a difficult time deciding which to offer this fall in light of the seemingly record number of presidential and legislative elections this year.  On no other continent is this cloudburst of elections more evident than in Africa.  The concentration of African elections is owing  not just to Africa having more countries and democracies than any other continent; rather, the combination of the Arab spring and the happenstance of calendrical synchronicity has yielded a mother lode of elections on the continent.  Africa is evidence that, against many odds, democracy is at work. In the United States, democracy works in large part because of deeply entrenched historical values and a multiplicity of modern interests that depend on democratic institutions.  Indeed, in much of the Western world, democracy enjoys a worn expectation as a successful form of governance.  In modern Africa, however, democracy increasingly prevails because the lion’s share of its inhabitants is moving steadfastly and stubbornly against authoritarianism and the one-party state in hopes for a fairer, freer, and more equal form of government.  Simply put, democracy in Africa grows from the same soil of revolution and idealism that nourished the seeds of U.S. democracy nearly three centuries ago.  For those of us interested in the study of democracy, Africa is a place to watch in 2012.

With presidential elections scheduled or already held this year in Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Egypt, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Mali, and Madagascar and parliamentary or legislative elections in Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Equitorial Guinea, Ghana, Mali, Lesotho, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Zimbabwe, the ballot box is on fire in Africa.  More important, however, is what these elections portend for the future of democracy in this region and the potential teaching tool these elections offer for democracy enthusiasts.  Many of these elections involve thorny procedural, administrative, and political issues that highlight the positive evolution of democracy in Africa and underscore the delicate trajectory of a decades-long democracy revolution worldwide.  Three countries in particular are worth noting: Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, and Mali.

The only country in West Africa never to have had a coup, Senegal has been described by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems as a democratic reference point on the African continent.  However, in the weeks leading to Senegal’s recent presidential election, an estimated six people were killed in what amounted to a month of demonstrations.  The incumbent, Abdoulaye Wade, came to power in 2000 and helped to usher in a new constitution the following year that reduced presidential terms from seven to five years and instituted a two-term limit.  Seven years later in 2008, the legislature passed another constitutional amendment reinstituting a seven-year term.  Despite earlier promises to step down after two terms, Wade announced his intent to run for a third term in 2009 engendering fierce criticism in Senegal and internationally and threatening Senegal’s reputation for democratic stability.  A Constitutional Council, the members of which were appointed by Wade, approved his eligibility to run on the grounds that the 2001 constitutional amendment applied only to his second term, thereby allowing him to seek a second seven-year term and third term as president.

The February 26 presidential elections gave Wade a slight lead over his main opponent Macky Sall, Wade’s former protégé and long-time party member.  However, with Wade receiving roughly 35% and Sall 27% of the vote, neither obtained the required 50% minimum to avoid a run-off election under Senegal’s constitution.  Despite the pall cast over the first round of Senegal’s presidential elections, the run-off on March 25 affirmed the country’s designation as a democracy on the rise.  Wade’s support remained static while Sall earned 66% of the vote.  In an uncharacteristic relinquishment of power amid protest and controversy, Wade conceded the race within hours of the close of the election. Wade’s spokesman accurately described the election outcome as proof that Senegal remains a “great democracy.”

Another controversial presidential election in West Africa last month shows that Senegal’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law is not solitary in the region.  Originally scheduled to occur this November, Guinea-Bissau’s presidential election was fast-tracked to March 18, following the unexpected death of former President Malam Bacai Sanha in January.  The former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Júnior emerged as the front-runner with nearly 49% of the vote, ahead of Kumba Iala who obtained 22%.

Despite the “unanticipated severe disruption” of the early presidential elections as described by the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative Joseph Moutaba, as well as the execution of the former head of military intelligence just as polls closed, observers from the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have described the March 18 election as “free, fair, and transparent.”  The lack of mass violence during the first round of elections is particularly notable in light of Guinea-Bissau’s long and recent history of military coups and political assassinations.  However, with no candidate achieving 50% of the vote, the National Election Commission has scheduled a second round of voting for April 22 in the face of  allegations of fraud and threats that the second-runner-up will not participate.  Although the Commission declared the claims of widespread vote rigging “null and void,” the Guinea-Bissau’s Supreme Court will independently rule on the challenges, reinforcing the stabilizing role of the judiciary in national election disputes and centrality of democratic institutions to democracy’s legitimacy.

Finally, in an unexpected turn of events, Mali recently emerged from a war of secession and military coup d’etat, followed by the interim government’s prospiciousdeclaration that it is committed to democratic elections.  Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, the junior officer who seized control of Mali’s government on March 21, signed an accord last week agreeing to return the country to constitutional rule.  Although the accord specified neither the election schedule nor the future role of the militia in Mali’s governance, elections are hoped for within 40 days.  If Mali is successful in holding democratic elections in the near term, despite the interim government’s initial circumvention of democratic processes,  it will do a lot to put the country back on a democratic course and provide another hopeful sign for democracy in the region.

These recent struggles in Africa are part of a larger narrative of democracy that is often overlooked.  Arguably, democracy’s true temperature is best taken in places like Africa, where its spread and vibrancy continues to be advanced by an expanding civil society and an exploding population of young political activists.  This bodes well for democracy in general.  To be sure, the underlying theme of these recent political events in West Africa demonstrates both the strength and fragility of democratic development on the continent.  The prospect of war between Sudan and South Sudan following a redefinition of geopolitical space in Sudan’s democratic elections last year, the fraught expectations of Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections, and the devolution of South Africa to a one-party state are hard evidence that democracy on the continent is still tenuous.  However, the will and tenacity of the people across this vast continent, reinforced by increasing international exposure, are vital ingredients in the ongoing democratic enterprise worldwide.  African nations are painstakingly evolving from developing to emerging and, in the case of a country like Ghana, maturing democracies. Considering the complex social, political, and economic challenges facing African nations, this evolution can serve as an important pedagogical tool in the global democratic experiment.

While I ultimately decided to forego my comparative election law course this fall for one focused primarily on domestic law, I will surely incorporate the lessons of these other nations in our study of democracy as a global concept and remind my students of the inspiration and promise that democracy holds for millions of people in other parts of the world where it is taken far less for granted.

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1 Response

  1. Dave says:

    Wimp. Conformist!