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Democracy on the move in West Africa

Democracy on the move in West Africa

Africa is often talked about in sweeping generalisation and it’s easy to believe that not much is happening on the developing front – or with the democratisation processes. But that is not entirely true.

Look at West Africa. In April, the opposition candidate, Julius Maada Bio, was sworn in as the president of Sierra Leone after having won the elections with a slim margin. His opponent claimed election fraud – but that is sometimes more the rule than the exception and Maada Bio has promised to heal the division between the country’s two ethnic groups. One of the first things he did was therefore to set up a cross-party commission to address post-election violence in the country.

He has also required civil servants to work between 8.30am and 4.45pm from Monday to Friday in a bid to improve productivity. And in another early decree, he has established a monthly cleaning day to improve hygiene. All citizens are expected to take part from 7.00 to 12.00. Change might be coming to Sierra Lenoe.

The election results in Sierra Leone comes just a couple of months after ex-footballer Geroge Weah was sworn in as president in neighbouring Liberia. During the 1990’s, both countries lived through atrocious civil wars that shocked the world. In 2002, I witnessed Sierra Leoneans filled with hope and joy go to the polls for their first democratic election. A few years later, interviewed Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who had just been elected president in Liberia. The first elected woman to hold the highest office in an African country.

Fast-forward to 2017/2018. In both countries, the incumbent stepped down when the time was up. And in both countries, the opposition won the following elections.

These are far from the only democratic achievements in West Africa. Already in 2012, the opposition candidate Macy Sall managed to beat the long-time ruler of Senegal. In the mighty nation of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan stepped down without protests after having lost the most recent elections.

But, perhaps most significantly was the pressure that the heads of state put on Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh to step down after he lost the elections in 2016. Jammeh had seized power in the tiny West African country in 1994 and had been accused of human right abuses during his many years as president. He lost the elections in 2016 and at first he conceded defeat. But then he changed his mind and announced that he was contesting the vote. This was not taken lightly by the people, nor by his African counterparts. The African Union said it no longer recognised Mr Jammeh’s authority and the regional bloc ECOWAS deployed a Nigerian warship and prepared a Senegal-led force for a last-resort military intervention if Jammeh did not step down to make way for Adama Barrow the real winner of the elections. Finally, at the end of January 2017, Jammeh left the country after bowing to international pressure.

In other parts of Africa I see worrying signs. President Joseph Kabila is refusing to give up power in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And yes, I’m concerned that the coming elections in Zimbabwe will not be free and fair. But I do look at West Africa with hope. People are tired of rulers who refuse to let go. The young no longer accept presidents staying over their welcome.

Ghana has long been a shining example for democratic transitions and it’s now being followed by Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Gambia.

Görrel Espelund

Journalist, author and Africa guide. Read more about Görrel here.