African Leaders Share Thoughts about Democracy

By Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Updated: 06/28/2011

special plenClick here to view more photos from this event.
The Arab Spring has already been a watershed event and generated a great deal of debate about democracy in the Middle East and Africa. On June 16, participants at the 2011 Senior Leaders Seminar (SLS) attended a special plenary titled Africa: What Future for Democracy?. On the dais were H.E. Elkana Odembo, Kenyan Ambassador to the United States; Brigadier General Kani Diabaté, military surgeon for the Malian Ministry of Defense; and Ms. Segakweng Tsiane, Permanent Secretary at the Botswana Ministry of Defense, Justice and Security. Ambassador William M. Bellamy (ret.), ACSS Director, moderated the special plenary. Panelists were invited to review the state of democracy in Africa in the wake of the Arab Spring and to offer their insights about political developments on the continent.

Ambassador Odembo set the stage for the discussions. He focused on the path to democracy in Sub-Saharan countries and talked about Kenya’s recent experience in power-sharing and constitutional reform. Ambassador Odembo stressed the importance of strict separation of powers as a sine qua non condition for democracy. He urged African countries to respect the will of their citizens and promote free and fair elections as the best path to democracy. However, he underscored that elections are merely one condition out of many for a healthy democracy. Ambassador Odembo cautioned the international community to think about the long-term consequences of its foreign policy actions in Africa. As an example, Ambassador Odembo discussed the future of South Sudan. He opined that for a long time the international community focused on the referendum that led to the separation of the South and North, with too little attention given to what would happen after South Sudan becomes an independent country on July 9, 2011.

Following Ambassador Odembo’s presentation, Permanent Secretary Tsiane pointed out that Botswana has always been a beacon for democracy in Africa. “Democracy for us in not a luxury, it is a normal way of living, a normal thing for our citizens,” she said. She recalled the pledge of current President of Botswana, Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama, who promised when he assumed office in 2008 to abide by 3 Ds: Democracy, Development, and Dignity. Turning to recent events in North Africa, Permanent Secretary Tsiane said that what happened in Egypt and Tunisia must be considered a wakeup call for African leaders at the highest level. The Arab Spring emerged because those in power failed their citizens, she noted. However, uprisings should not be an option over dialogue, she concluded. The ability of citizens and their governments to dialogue and seek consensus is critically important.

The final speaker, Brigadier General Diabaté, shared her many experiences with peacekeeping and post-conflict resolution. She pointed out that in recent times, there has been a significant shift in favor of gender equality and greater interest in gender issues, including the role of women in African armies. Significant political reforms have also invigorated civil society and energized women’s organizations and movements across Africa, providing fresh opportunities for state and non-state actors alike to mobilize around issues of gender equality. While acknowledging these critical and significant changes, she acknowledged that a lot more still needs to be done to advance the course of gender equality in Africa. General Diabaté insisted on the need for the international community to empower African armies and build their capacities for post conflict resolution with an emphasis on gender and protection of minorities. She warned against the surge of religious radicalism in the Sahel and stressed the need for regional cooperation to face down this challenge.

All panelists agreed on the necessity of civilian control over the army, the link between instability and underdevelopment, and the need to take into account African perspectives when putting in place conflict resolution strategies.

The Q&A session that followed the presentations showed participants’ interests in U.S.-African relations and the fight against poverty in Africa. Questions about civil-military relations and bumps on the path to democracy were also discussed.

At the end of the session, Ambassador Bellamy thanked the panelists and the participants for their lively contributions. He pledged that ACSS will continue to foster these sorts of dialogues in the future.