Fri, Feb 22, 2019 - Page 9 News List

A tipping point for democracy in Africa

By Ernest Bai Koroma, John Dramani Mahama, Saulos Chilima and Ol

The decision to postpone Nigeria’s presidential election, made just hours before polls were due to open, has raised fears about the integrity of the eventual vote. Those fears must not be realized – and not just for Nigeria’s sake.

Just as a strong and stable democracy in Africa’s most populous country can serve as a powerful example for the region, a political crisis there would have grave consequences that extend well beyond its borders.

West Africa, home to about 362 million people, is on the path toward democratic consolidation.

According to Freedom House, “Southern and West Africa have significantly improved their democratic governance.”

This trend has enhanced stability in the region.

This year and next, three West African countries — Nigeria, Senegal and the Ivory Coast — are scheduled to hold general elections, giving them the opportunity either to reinforce or undermine this trend.

With elections in Africa having been known to trigger national crises, there is an obvious need for effective electoral management to ensure that the vote is a stabilizing force, not a destabilizing trigger.

Nigeria, Senegal and the Ivory Coast are all led by presidents who came to power as opposition candidates, defying the odds of incumbency. All benefited from regional and international solidarity, as well as citizens’ commitment to — and civil society’s promotion of — democracy.

The upcoming elections challenge them to protect the voting systems and respect the values that enabled their rise.

This means, first and foremost, ensuring a level playing field for all candidates and political parties, with incumbents refraining from abusing their power to limit space for opposition candidates.

Every politician must follow the rules and respect the outcome.

Election-management bodies will be key to ensuring the credibility and fairness of the process.

However, across the region, external support continues to be required to ensure compliance with democratic rules and acceptance of electoral results.

In Liberia, Sierra Leone and Kenya, the combined assets of local and international interlocutors have played key roles in managing controversies resulting from contested elections.

In Nigeria, Senegal and the Ivory Coast, similar collective efforts will be needed to overcome the challenges ahead.

While civil society and citizens push for free, fair and credible elections, the international community — especially African leaders — must apply both diplomatic and moral pressure to ensure that their demands are met.

Such international support is particularly important in Nigeria, Senegal and the Ivory Coast, because all three countries are already facing internal crises that threaten to disrupt their democracies.

In Nigeria, grave internal security challenges are arising from a resurgence of the militant Muslim group Boko Haram, an upsurge in kidnappings throughout the country, and escalating violence in the Middle Belt, as farmers and herders fight over limited resources.

A fractious electoral process would only inflame existing cleavages.

In Senegal, concerns are mounting among the opposition and civil society over Internet freedom, online activism, and net neutrality — fundamental issues that will demand careful management.

In this context, political tensions over the disqualification of presidential candidates — including the incumbent’s two main challengers — raise major risks.

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