As the world watched President Obama take the oath of office for his second term January 20 and 21, 2013 – the 57th presidential inauguration in U.S. history — numerous nations in Africa also marked peaceful transitions of power over the past year, including Lesotho, Malawi, Senegal, and Somalia, as well as historic elections in Egypt and Libya. Several more African nations, including Kenya, are preparing for landmark elections in 2013.
President Obama’s inauguration remarks focused mainly on U.S. domestic issues. But he emphasized the continued role of the United States in supporting democracy around the globe, including in Africa.
“We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom,” President Obama said after taking the Oath of Office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol before an estimated crowd of close to 1 million onlookers. “And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice—not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.”
However, the United States is not alone in the world in marking peaceful transitions of power, and a growing number of African nations also have undertaken historic and successful elections.
Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars January 16, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson highlighted electoral progress in Somalia.
He noted that just four years ago, al Shabaab controlled much of south and central Somalia. “Now,” Carson continued, “for the first time in more than two decades, Somalia has a representative government with a new President, a new Parliament, a new Prime Minister, and a new Constitution, and the Somali people have reason to hope for a better future.”
In Malawi, members of the international community have lauded transition of power by President Joyce Banda. In April 2012, the sudden heart attack and death of former President Wa Mutharika led to a temporary constitutional crisis until, in accordance with the constitution of Malawi, President Joyce Banda, who was serving as vice president, was sworn in as the nation’s first female president. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a July statement marking Malawi’s national day, said that “over recent months, Malawi has demonstrated an impressive commitment to the rule of law and democracy.”
Several other African countries continued to demonstrate their commitment to consolidating democracy. A general election in Lesotho in May was widely lauded as successful and peaceful. “These successful elections demonstrate a commitment to multiparty democracy,” Secretary of State Clinton said in a statement after the election, “and represent a historic moment for the people of Lesotho as the country forms its first coalition government.”
Protests by opposition parties notwithstanding, 2012 presidential elections in Sierra Leone and Ghana were also generally regarded as free and fair by international observers.
Although there were some logistical challenges and reports of minor irregularities, observers from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) deemed Sierra Leone’s elections to have been efficiently and effectively administered. “Despite the challenges, voters exhibited maximum patience and perseverance in their determination to exercise their civic rights and responsibilities,” ECOWAS said after the November 2012 poll.
In Senegal, many did not anticipate that former President Abdoulaye Wade would graciously concede defeat in the country’s March 2012 presidential election. Pro-democracy activists and opposition party members in Senegal became anxious when President Wade announced his intention to run for a third term despite the existence of a constitutional provision introduced during his tenure that limits presidents to two terms in office. President Wade contended, and a Senegalese court ultimately agreed, that his first term should not count toward the limit because the provision had been introduced afterward.
Given this anxiety about his perceived intention to cling onto power, many observers were relieved when he called his competitor, current Senegalese President Macky Sall, to congratulate him on his victory. “The big winner tonight is the Senegalese people,” then-President-Elect Sall told supporters after the announcement of the results. “We have shown to the world our democracy is mature. I will be the president of all the Senegalese.”
Many hope that historic elections in Libya and Egypt that provided citizens with the opportunity to select their leaders for the first time in decades could be the first step towards building more efficient and accountable governments in each country.
Freedom House, a U.S.-based watchdog group, noted the progress made by Egypt, for example, elevating the country’s rating from “Not Free” to “Partly Free” in Freedom in the World 2013, the group’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties around the world. “The 2012 electoral victories of Islamist groups like the previously banned Muslim Brotherhood, and the formation of several new parties from across the political spectrum, represented a clear departure from the Mubarak era, in which the legal and electoral framework was designed to ensure solid majorities for the ruling NDP at all levels of government,” Freedom House noted in the report. However, the group warned that numerous serious challenges remain, including restrictions on press and assembly as well as corruption and oppression of women and minorities.
Elsewhere, a pair of coups d’état in West Africa show that progress towards democracy is still not universal. A March 2012 coup in Mali was a major setback in a country once considered a beacon of democracy. Complicating matters, a militant Islamist insurgency began to gain momentum and seized control over large swathes of territory shortly after the coup. Meanwhile, an April 2012 coup in nearby Guinea-Bissau has not broken the pattern of the country’s violent past that has included a 2009 presidential assassination and military takeovers in 1998 and 2003.
Looking ahead to 2013, analysts and activists alike will be closely monitoring upcoming presidential elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe, for example, as each country seeks to improve upon respective elections in 2007 and 2008, both of which were marred by violence and reports of misconduct.
At least 20 African nations plus the Somaliland region of Somalia plan elections in 2013, according to the nonprofit Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA), based in South Africa. These include planned presidential elections in Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritius, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe. Constitutional referendums also are scheduled for Libya and Zimbabwe.
The Africa Center for Strategic Studies is one of five Department of Defense regional centers for research and academic outreach and supports U.S. policy by bringing civilian and military leaders together for informed debate on current security challenges facing Africa and the international community.
Since 1999, more than 6,000 African and international leaders have participated in ACSS programs.