Africa still has the opportunity to do right

22nd July 2009 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

As Africa continues to reflect on president Obama's speech in Ghana during his inaugural visit to the continent as president of the United States, one message should find a permanent place in everyone's heart in Africa, that "when your neighbour's hut catches fire, do not just stand by and watch, yours may be the next one." President Obama's words were a sharp reminder not just to the entire continent but also most specifically to the continent's most conflict-ravaged region of the Great Lakes, the Horn of Africa (HoA) and now the newly-afflicted archipelagos.
Several occurrences in African countries in the recent past warrant quick rethinking by the continent's leadership. For instance the trepidation with which the recent elections in the Republic of Congo (RoC) have been conducted underscores the need for a serious reflection on the trend in which democracy is being stifled on the continent. The case of the RoC reveals that widespread voter apathy has led to an estimated 90 percent voter abstention in the recently-concluded elections, while soldiers voted repeatedly for Sassou-Nguesso, a man who has been in and out of power since his first military coup in 1979.

Similarly, the cynical manner in which Andry Rajoelina assumed power early this year in Madagascar by overthrowing President Ravalomanana brings to the fore the putrid reminder of the Cold-War period when coups were a panacea to political power in many African countries. One may then wonder whether Africa is sinking into dereliction or advancing in democracy.

Bob Denard the French mercenary was largely responsible for the numerous coups that afflicted the Comoros in the early years of the country's independence, but who should be blamed today for Mayotte's decision to be a foreign department of France, in these modern days of freedom and independence? Who should we blame for the ills that have befallen Madagascar today, or for what occurred in Kenya in the aftermath of the 2007 general elections?

Although the West cannot be totally exonerated from having a hand in Africa's tribulations, it remains a fact that until the time when Africa will start holding itself accountable shall this disillusionment across the continent start to clear. And that is why perhaps President Obama was not too far from the truth when he stated that "...Africa's future is up to Africans."

The biggest challenge to the African political elite, and most importantly to the African Union (AU), is not so much the past as the future of the continent. An analysis of general elections (presidential and parliamentary) in 2010 reveals that about twelve countries are expected to hold elections within the same year. Of the twelve, nine are in the Great Lakes Region, HoA and the archipelagos.

Elections are expected in Sudan (February 2010), Ethiopia (May 2010), Burundi (July 2010), Comoros (May 2010 - seemingly postponed to 2011), Mauritius (July 2010), Rwanda (August 2010), Madagascar (October 2010 - likely to be postponed), Tanzania (December 2010) and the Central African Republic (2010).

A reflection on the political past of some of these countries brings to the fore horrendous memories of civil war and coups d'etat. For more that 10 years Burundi experienced a serious civil war as a result of long standing ethnic divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. For Rwanda, the 1994 genocide is a stark reminder of the "Never Again." It is for this reason that the 2010 elections will be a litmus test for this vow. In the case of Ethiopia, the forthcoming elections will serve as an acid test for Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose 2005 election results led to violence. The prime minister will be bound to improve his image to suit the title of "new breed" of reformist African leaders that Tony Blair, the former British Minister branded him.

Sudan's case is a bit more complicated for two reasons. Firstly because the country will be holding the first elections after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 and therefore this will determine whether the winner of the presidency will be from the South or the North. The elections will take place in the background of the pending International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant of arrest for President Omar Al Bashir, thereby presenting another challenge.

Secondly, the 2010 elections will precede the highly anticipated 2011 referendum on the independence of the South. The proximity in the timeframe of these two events has the potential of resulting into a political deadlock if they are not well handled. This not withstanding the fact that Southern Sudan continues to face enormous challenge of armed violence in which both civilians and former combatants are yet to be disarmed.

In CAR, president Francois Bozizé is faced with the challenging of the need "to do it right" this time if he is to redeem his past, which is riddled with military coups. It is to be remembered that in 2003, Bozizé overthrew Patassé and two years later organised an election in which the AU tried in vain to convince Bozizé not to contest. It will therefore be quite a step forward and a historical occurrence if president Bozizé will peacefully hand over power in the event that he loses the election. For the leadership of Tanzania and Mauritius, may the steadfastness that the two countries continue to exhibit manifest itself further in 2010 and beyond and serve as a reminder to neighbouring countries such as Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that will conduct their elections in 2011 that despite the region being conflict-ridden, transformation is still a possibility, and that even in the face of an election loss, the stability of a country supersedes personal interest.

From the foregoing, it is evident that 2010 is a year of great potential for the Great Lakes Region, the Horn of Africa and the archipelagos. The outcome of how these countries conduct their elections will determine whether their electorate shun the ballot box (as in the case of the recently-concluded election in the RoC) or feel part of the democratic process. In the event that this important opportunity is lost, the region will continue being a market for the merchants of war who are now eagerly waiting for contested election outcomes so as to flood the region with their deadly arsenals that range from machine guns to short and long range missiles that have caused alarming catastrophes on the continent. Knowing all this so well, why shouldn't Africans shape the future of their own continent?

Whether it is fate or just mere coincidence in the plethora of upcoming elections in the Great Lakes, Horn of Africa and the archipelagos regions in 2010, the most obvious thing is that the political elite in these countries, and in deed in the entire Africa, still have the opportunity to shape the future of their countries and position themselves in line with the example that a few countries such as Ghana and South Africa have set on the continent.

Written by: Nelson Alusala, Senior Researcher, Arms Management Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria)