Yesterday marked another milestone for Senegal with both the Senegalese people and institutions passing what was undoubtedly a great “stress test” of democracy. After weeks of debate and tensions domestically, and with the rest of the continent waiting anxiously for the outcome of the Senegalese elections, there could not have had a better finish. President Wade called his opponent Macky Sall to congratulate him for winning the elections—the ultimate sign of a mature democracy.
Following elections in Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Liberia, Niger, and Zambia, Africa is clearly solidifying the democratic process on the continent one country at a time. There will undoubtedly be setbacks like this week’s the coup d’état in neighboring Mali, but the overall trend in Africa is positive. The credibility of democratic processes in these countries has led to a democracy dividend with peaceful elections being rewarded by the international community and the private sector through increased investments in durable infrastructure that directly contribute to faster growth.
Across all these countries, four elements are emerging as key ingredients for success. The first is a free and transparent environment for dialogue and debate in the run up to the elections. This is exemplified by the presence of a free, active and independent press, but more importantly, as in the case of Ghana, an informed press that helps to frame the dialogue. In Ghana the media organizes debates and hosts presidential candidates in open forums, which directly contribute to public scrutiny of candidates. Transparent budget processes, the availability of spending data and better understanding of the budgeting process has also helped improve the quality of media debates and led to an informed evaluation of candidates.
A second element is an active civil society—particularly through the engagement of youth and women. In Senegal organized youth groups undoubtedly helped rally many people around pressing issues needing attention in the elections, particularly issues of youth unemployment and education. This not only helped simplify the population’s demands, but also made the issues real and urgent through the slogan Y-en-Marre, which means fed up. In Nigeria, a similar youth movement called “What About Us” was actively mobilized through social networking media to dialogue with presidential candidates on youth issues of employment, access to finance and capacity building. In Liberia, women brought a new face to the national policy debate and helped bring gender issues to the forefront of public dialogue. In Senegal the involvement of female leaders under the banner, “Femmes Afrique Solidarites,” helped pacify the population when the situation was tense and helped keep the focus on the elections. The female vote and voice is increasingly relevant and many candidates are taking note. In Senegal, Cameroon and Ghana women are not only participating in the dialogue, but are also putting their names on the ballot. Debates on gender access and empowerment are common to these elections.
The third factor to successful democratic elections is adequate electoral institutions, transparency and clarity in electoral processes. In Nigeria, Ghana, Niger and Senegal, the presence of clearly predetermined rules and dates set by an independent body have proved to be critical. The inability of incumbents to alter the electoral calendar and defined rules for the opposition has helped to keep pressure on incumbents to respect the process and has also forced the challengers to be prepared and focused. In these cases, it is easy to get the ballots on time, register voters, and train election staff. In many of these countries, the constitutional courts, the electoral commissions and the observers have exhibited above average signs of independence. More is needed, but great progress has been made.
Finally, there is an emerging pool of credible and qualified political candidates. After over 20 years of reliable institution building, and the development of professionals both from within the civil service, civil society, the private sector and international organizations, Africa now has a cadre of well qualified leaders. The national leaders of Liberia, Ivory Coast, Guinea and now Senegal are great examples of this phenomenon. More importantly countries are moving away from incumbent leaders preparing or hand-picking a successor, to a model where elections produce real political change. Equally important is the presence of an emerging class of leaders who are willing and able to peacefully hand-over power. Ultimately effective leadership also means knowing when to peacefully respect the will of the people and the constitution and bow out as President Wade has done.
As countries move to solidify citizen participation in the governing process these four criteria will need to be continuously perfected and modified to respond to the aspirations of the population. Countries are already sharing best practices through South-South exchanges. Ghana is learning from Nigeria’s experience with biometric voter registration machines as it prepares for its own election. However, as these processes are refined, in the meantime, voters across the continent have distinct new reasons for optimism.