Democracy and Elections in Africa: Recent Trends and the Role of the International Community
Almami Cyllah, Regional Director, Africa

March 24, 2010 - House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Africa and Global Health Subcommittee

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Almami Cyllah, IFES regional director for Africa, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health on democracy in the African continent. Mr. Cyllah gave an overview of Africa's history with elections and how democracy fits into the continent's overall advancement. He also gave a number of important recommendations for how the United States and the international community can help Africa prosper by strengthening its democratic institutions.

This opportunity comes at an important time as more than 20 African countries will be holding elections this year. Mr. Cyllah, a native of Sierra Leone, will give insight into the democratic standing of the countries facing elections in the near future and where they seem to be heading. The Regional Director, who has been working on African affairs for over twenty years, will draw on Africa's history with elections to highlight what has worked in the past and how the continent can improve its democratic efforts. Mr. Cyllah will also give recommendations on what the international community can do to help foster legitimate and valid elections in Africa so that the habit of transferring power peacefully through the ballot is cemented.During his testimony, Mr. Cyllah made clear that "we're not seeing a democratic plateau in Africa. We're seeing a plateau for support for the democratic process."

The Honorable Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary for the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs and the Honorable Princeton N. Lyman, a former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria and now adjunct senior fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, will also be testifying.

Read the Full Testimoy »


When an election in Africa draws international attention, the news is seldom good: elections in Kenya, for example, fueled violence that left 1,500 dead and 300,000 displaced, while elections in Zimbabwe suffered from massive fraud and brutal suppression. Accordingly, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, former Chairman of the African Union, suggested last year that multiparty democracy in Africa can only lead to bloodshed—even some supporters of democracy in general agree that most African countries are not ready for elections.

Recent headline-grabbing electoral failures, however, do not justify abandoning efforts at developing electoral democracy in Africa. Although elections are often marred by fraud or incompetence and do sometimes result in violence, no other means have brought about nonviolent transitions of power with the same consistency. Most Africans agree—according to a 2005 Afrobarometer survey, 60 percent of Africans believe democracy is preferable to all other forms of government. Even in the countries that have suffered most from failed or flawed elections—or even from the failure to hold elections entirely— the people have responded not by abandoning democracy but by increasing their demands for accountability and reform.

Indeed, the very purpose of elections is to achieve participatory governance without violence—through political rather than physical competition—and this has succeeded in a number of African countries. South Africa and Botswana, for example, have proven themselves among the continent’s most stable democracies, while Ghana, Mali, and Benin have emerged as democratic strongholds in West Africa. Moreover, countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia, among the poorest in the world and only recently emerged from civil war, have demonstrated the power of elections to foster and solidify peace.

In reality, then, Africa’s experience with electoral democracy has been mixed: progress has been made, but challenges remain. The various elections in the past several years—from Kenya and Zimbabwe to Ghana and Sierra Leone—have become historical landmarks for different reasons, varying drastically in their conduct and outcome. This mix of electoral experiences has generated considerable debate and passion on the subject of transparent, free, and fair electoral processes among election stakeholders, especially as democratic progress itself can come with further challenges; as more elections are held, and as these elections become increasingly competitive, one-party and military regimes face potentially destabilizing challenges that could increase the risk of fraud and violence.

It is thus difficult to identify a general trend in elections for the continent as a whole. In the broadest of terms, Sub-Saharan Africa is certainly more democratic and holds more free and fair elections today than several decades ago, but gains in some countries have been offset by losses in others, while a number have remained democratically stagnant since independence. Therefore, to understand recent trends in African elections, it is helpful to examine individual countries along with those others that have shared similar experiences and will thus face similar challenges and opportunities in the coming years. These various electoral experiences can serve as positive examples or critical warnings to other countries in Africa and can help the international community, including the United States, more effectively engage with elections across Africa by learning from past failures and successes.

Despite the importance of elections, President Barack Obama was right when he remarked in Ghana that democracy “is about more than just holding elections.” To be a genuine representative democracy, a country must go beyond holding free and fair elections. Democracy requires good governance, which prevails when government officials efficiently and transparently manage public institutions so as to address citizens’ concerns. Democracy also requires rule of law, including judicial independence and enforcement; a transparent, accountable, and open government; and freedom from corruption. Moreover, representative democracies must include the voices of all citizens, particularly through the engagement of civil society organizations and the media, and be populated by citizens who know their rights and responsibilities. In order for all these conditions to be met, democratic governments must respect basic human rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, without which democracy cannot thrive.

While these conditions are nominally independent of elections, elections represent an essential piece of the democratic process and serve as means to these ends—while elections do not guarantee democratic progress, they tend to advance the overall goals of democracy. For example, elections discourage mismanagement and corruption by holding leaders accountable for their actions, and democratically elected governments are far more likely to uphold human rights and serve the basic needs of their people. Moreover, elections, oftentimes even if flawed, help to motivate citizens to engage with their government and become more involved in the democratic process, as well as to increase citizens’ understanding of democratic principles and processes.

Elections are not only integral to all these areas of democratic governance, but are also the most visible representations of democracy in action. They are also, in most cases, the most complicated and expensive single event a country will ever undertake. The attached list of African elections in 2010 reveals how many of these complicated and expensive events are scheduled to take place in 2010 alone. Thus while support to all aspects of democratic governance is crucial, particularly fostering good governance, upholding rule of law, and supporting civil society, this testimony examines all these areas in the context of elections. International support to electoral processes is crucial if democracy is to continue developing on the continent, and each country can benefit from such support, regardless of where it stands in the democratic spectrum. What follows is an overview of democratic and electoral trends in Africa, as well as considerations and recommendations as to how the United States and other members of the international community can productively support democracy and elections in a variety of contexts.

Read the Full Testimoy »


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