Siphosami Malunga is senior governance advisor at UNDP Africa.
17 Oct 2012
Two years ago, following a hotly contested presidential election, the world watched the Ivory Coast plunge into chaos as political parties and militia groups took to the streets.
It seemed a throwback to the 1980s, when Sub-Saharan Africa was known for its violent coups, bloody civil wars and autocrats.
Similar situations have been witnessed in countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe, but they are now the exception rather than the rule. Over the past twenty years, the continent has been home to a virtual democratic renaissance, evidenced by the organisation of more than 200 democratic elections and remarkable improvements in governance.
To that end, regional institutions, like ECOWAS, SADC and the East African Community, now keep a close watch on national politics, going as far as suspending countries which experience unconstitutional changes of government.
Elections are an essential component of democratisation in Africa. They enable people to choose among a host of competent parties and leaders, facilitate peaceful change, foster more open societies and in most cases lead to increased economic growth and long-term development.
Success stories abound. In 2010, against all odds, Guinea held its first ever democratic election. The following year, Niger transitioned to civilian rule in a ballot widely hailed as an example for the rest of Africa. In 2011and 2012 respectively, people in Zambia and Senegal peacefully headed to the polls, picking opposition leaders.
Still, while Africa is clearly becoming more democratic, elections there don’t always lead to more democracy. For ballots to serve their intended purpose, politicians and political parties must compete equally for power and accept the results, elections must be peaceful, and intimidation-free and the scores must be kept by independent bodies. But first and foremost, elections succeed when civil society is actively involved.
When these conditions are absent, elections can in fact become theatres for manipulation, division and chaos, fuelled by undemocratic political parties.
In such settings, sectional, tribal, ethnic or religious tensions – combined with “winner takes all” mindsets – can explode into deadly cocktails of violence.
Kenya knows that lesson well. In 2007, contested elections in East Africa’s economic giant descended into anarchy as politicians stirred up ethnic violence, leading to 1,200 deaths and 600,000 people internally displaced.
Making elections work requires that governments, election management bodies, political parties and civil society organisations not only join efforts to ensure credible and transparent elections, but address the root cause of political violence: exclusion.
High rates of unemployment, lack of political participation, gender inequalities and deep imbalances in the distribution of local level resources, accentuated by political patronage, lie at the heart of the continent’s failed democracies.
Youth and women are among the most marginalised populations in sub-Saharan Africa. Young people below the age of 35 account for 65% of Africa’s total population, yet their unemployment rate, at 27%, stands at twice the world average.
In the absence of meaningful political participation, these youths are prone to political manipulation and violence. Unemployment and exclusion from decision-making processes render them hopeless and desperate. The potential for the continent’s youth to contribute to sustainable economic development, democracy and peace still remains untapped.
In addition, while there are more women in decision-making positions than ever before – Rwanda has 56% of women in parliament, Senegal and South Africa have 42 – women still struggle to make themselves heard as policy makers.
African countries and the international community must continue to invest in elections to strengthen democracy. At the same time, they must strive to promote a type of development that focuses on people. Such development must allow all sections of society to take an equally active part in shaping the future of their countries.
Paving the way for critical elections in 2013, Kenya’s new constitution was designed to achieve just that. It includes a wide-ranging set of reforms to correct the errors of the past: a new Supreme Court; a comprehensive bill of rights, balanced planning and resource allocation in the different regions; and a one-third quota for women in the public sector.
Within a year of changing government, Zambia has embarked on drafting a new constitution-with active civil society participation. Coupled with projected positive economic growth in Africa’s largest copper economy, this project aims to build institutions that are more representative of the country’s 72 ethnic groups and encourage more inclusive development.
Such initiatives will inspire the African Governance Forum, held in Gaborone, Botswana, and sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme, the Economic Commission for Africa and the African Union Commission. The forum will look at how to manage diversity so that it becomes not a liability but an asset for democracy and development in Africa.
In 2013, elections will be held in 13 countries across the continent. How the ballots turn out in Kenya and elsewhere will have a profound impact on Africa’s development. Together, let us work to create an open and vibrant society that responds to the needs of African men, women and youths of all ages.