Monday, June 28, 2010

A Tale of Two African Elections

In this year of important African elections, two elections have taken place in Africa that have provided hope – both to their people and the international community.

In Guinea, for the first time since independence, voters had a free choice that wasn’t predetermined by political manipulation or military power. The late longtime ruler Lansana Conté died in 2008. The military government that replaced him was led by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, who badly overplayed his hand while in power. After first pledging to lead a transition to civilian government, he began talking about running for office himself. His rambling television monologues were known to many as “The Dadis Show.”

The straw that broke the camel’s back for Guineans and the international community was last September’s massacre of protesters and the mass rape of women. Although there was evidence that Camara had not given the orders for the brutality, as leader, he was blamed for it and pressed to make accountable those who had given orders in the matter. One officer, fearful that Camara would make him the scapegoat, shot Camara, sending him to medical treatment and exile outside Guinea.
The next leader of the transitional government, General Sékouba Konaté, agreed in the Declaration of Ouagadougou that no member of the military or the transitional government could run in the elections last weekend.

That agreement opened the way for 24 candidates to contend for the presidency. The top three were former Prime Minister Cellou Dalein Diallo, an 11-year holder of that office who is from the main Peul ethnic group; former Prime Minister Sidya Touré, the member of a minor ethnic group who is credited with bringing water to the capital for the first time, and Alpha Condé, a longtime political opponent of the late President Conté who has been in exile in Paris. A runoff election is expected between the top two vote-getters.

Voters widely told the media they felt elated at making a free choice at the polls, many voting for the first time in their lives. Some are skeptical that any one of the contenders could keep their promises of progress. There may be discontent in the future, but for now, the people of Guinea and the international community are optimistic – nine months after a massacre that was Guinea’s low point in recent history.

In Somaliland, voters defied threats and warnings and enthusiastically went to the polls to vote for a new government they hope will result in international recognition. Although Sheikh Muktar Abu Zubeyr, the Ameer or supreme leader of Al-Shebab in Somalia condemned the practice of democracy and elections, voter in Somaliland still turned out reportedly in large numbers. Al-Shebab is the strongest Islamic militant group in Somalia and is believed to have ties to al-Qaeda.
Sheikh Abu Zubeyr said democracy and elections are copies of Christian and Jewish governments and therefore are incompatible with Islam.

“Every individual should fight democracy verbally, (and) if necessary use his hands to fight democracy or leave the area where democracy is practiced,” he said.

His opposition to elections and a democratic form of government are not even promoted in many other Islamic governments. Even Iran has held elections, questionable though they were. Meanwhile, the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia is experiencing a serious split between President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Sharma’arke that not even newly elected Speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden has been able to mediate.

In Somaliland, there is a functioning government, an army, a national flag, and anthem and its own currency. There are five private airlines, several electricity providers and as many as five telecommunications companies. There are thought to be oil deposits in Somaliland’s coastal region. While there are no formal banks, money traders buy and sell the Somaliland shilling. However, foreign investors are inhibited by Somaliland’s lack of recognition, which makes insurance for facilities and equipment all but impossible.

The former British Somaliland seceded from union with the former Italian Somaliland in 1991. The former British territory has more of the attributes of a functioning government than does its renounced partner. Clans still determine the political landscape in Somaliland, but constitutional reforms look to change such a divisive policy. Voters look to the new government to reduce unemployment, fight poverty, strengthen business laws, end corruption and reach out to the grassroots. Most of those questioned seemed more than willing to hope that such changes by a new government are possible. The question is: will the rest of the world find that those changes warrant formal recognition of Somaliland?

In the midst of troubled elections across Africa and the world, it is heartening to see voters embrace their political choice and look to the future with optimism.

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