The arrest of Laurent Gbagbo in the bunker of the presidential palace in Abidjan on April 11th marks a turning point in the struggle to place Alassane Ouattara, the declared winner of the December 2010 election, in his rightful place as President of the Ivory Coast.
Despite the unanimous view of all international monitors and observers that Ouattara had won the election by a substantial majority of the popular vote, Gbagbo and his supporters had obdurately refused to accept these results and had rejected proposals by various African presidents and delegations aimed at enabling him to step down gracefully.
This is not the first time that elections in Africa have been contested with significant adverse consequences for their populations and the region.
Nineteen years ago in Angola, the United Nations sought to end a two-decade-long civil war through an election between the governing MPLA led by José Dos Santos and the rebel UNITA movement led by Jonas Savimbi. When UNITA did not win the election, Savimbi declared it flawed and unfair and went back to the bush to resume the war and his acquisition of diamonds. The civil war continued for another decade until Savimbi was killed in 2002.
In the intervening two decades, there have been a number of other contested elections in Africa, most notably in Zimbabwe in 2006 and in Kenya in 2008. When Robert Mugabe and Mwai Kibaki, respectively, refused to accept the results, African mediators from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stepped in and brokered power-sharing arrangements enabling these leaders to stay in office.
At the time, those high-profile negotiations were hailed as victories for the international community because they averted further bloodshed and enabled a modicum of governance going forward.
In 2011, African leaders again face what are almost certain to be further contested elections in Zimbabwe and Nigeria. The New York Times reported on April 8th that Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, is keen to accelerate the timing of the next presidential election, which would give Mugabe, at age 87, a fifth term, before he becomes too frail to lead the nation.
Long dynastic rules in Gabon, Togo, Senegal, Cameroon, and, until recently, in Egypt and Libya, have also contributed to the failure of democracy on the continent. The continued rule of the same individual or family for decades, often with a bogus election to validate their continuation in office, has further discredited the principles of democracy.
This reality has been obscured or ignored by most western observers who for many years preferred to focus on the remarkable peaceful transformation in South Africa, where in 1994 Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress defeated the Nationalist Party and its apartheid policy at the polls with relatively little violence.
UN-brokered elections in Namibia and Mozambique in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War also created the impression that liberal democracy was the wave of the future for Africa. Since then, democracy has gained some ground in places like Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, but made little progress elsewhere.
Dictators in Ethiopia and Eritrea continue to maintain power through oppression while the African Union and the regional economic communities (RECs) look the other way. The African Union is based in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, while the government maintains its repressive hold on the country.
What can be done to change this situation? Are honest, free, and fair elections whose results are honored by the competing parties feasible?
This is a major issue for the future of the African continent. The ad-hoc responses to individual electoral crises are clearly insufficient. The international focus on the actual conduct of elections through the deployment of observers and monitors is also insufficient. The African Union in its Constitutive Act of 2000 is formally committed to the promotion of democracy, but it has done little in practice to turn this into reality.
Herewith are several suggestions:
–Start national dialogues on the principles of democracy and the rule of law. These dialogues should be broadcast on television and radio, and discussed in schools.
–The African Union and the regional economic communities should obtain public commitments in advance from competitors in presidential elections that they will abide by the results of the elections. This should also be the basis for international funding of elections.
–Consideration should be given through referendums to revising national constitutions to stipulate limits of two five-year terms for presidential office.
–Training of national armies and police forces should include understanding of the rule of law and the principles of democracy, not just security procedures and protection of the heads of state.
Finally, African civil society and the private sector must become actively engaged in assuring the legitimate conduct of national elections. Leaders must be held accountable for their actions not only in the run-up to elections but in their aftermath as well. Kenneth Kaunda, Alpha Oumar Konaré and successive Tanzanian presidents, among others, have stepped down peacefully at the end of their terms. It can be done.
In the last analysis, only Africans can assure credible elections. But the international community can be far more demanding and rigorous in the lead-up to elections rather than resorting to force in their aftermath or sending delegations in to broker power-sharing arrangements.
The writer is a former U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone and currently serves as Senior Advisor at the International Peace Institute in New York.
Election-Related Disputes and Political Violence