By EUGEN ILADI -A host of African countries set out each year on the road to democracy. Since the beginning of 2016, four nations – Benin, Gambia, Ghana and Somalia – have held relatively transparent and open elections and have peacefully transferred power. Angola – a more established and respected nation than the others – held multi-party parliamentary elections in August and is now in the midst of its first transition of power in 38 years.
These competitive, free elections represent a welcome departure from the controversy and violence that have become all-too-commonplace in Africa.
The new African leadership is making a key break with the past because it understands the reality of today’s investment environment: Without making a strong commitment to creating and nurturing democratic institutions, their nations will lag in receiving the foreign investment that leads to much-needed economic development. If given a choice between investing in an African democracy or an autocracy, the choice for investors is clear. A working democracy wins.
While the electoral processes and experiences vary from country to country, there are some common threads. The elections have been issue-based, not grounded in ethnic or tribal politics nor overshadowed by personalities. The elections also have been overseen by independent election commissions with the power to protect the integrity of the electoral process.
While there is still much work to be done, peaceful, constitutionally based transitions are becoming the new normal in Africa. In the 2016 Gambian elections, for example, opposition candidate Adama Barrow defeated long-term incumbent Yahya Jammeh. While some observers feared that Jammeh would cling to power, he ultimately stepped aside and Barrow assumed office in January.
Similarly, in Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a 55-year-old former prime minister and dual U.S.-Somali national with a reputation for independence, defeated the incumbent president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. The process was peaceful and the former president even congratulated his successor.
Peaceful and fair elections also took place in Benin and in Ghana, according to outside observers.
Angola’s upcoming transition of power will be the nation’s first in 38 years. The election of MPLA candidate Joao Lourenco to replace longstanding president Jose Eduardo dos Santos is a monumental step, one of the most important events in recent African history. Unlike many of Africa’s long-serving leaders, dos Santos has remained a relatively popular figure in Angola. Under dos Santos’ presidency, Angola emerged from its 26-year civil war as a united nation for the first time since it declared its independence from Portugal in 1975.
By crafting a legislative agenda around economic development and market liberalization, dos Santos offered solutions to Angola’s pressing problems. His policy initiatives put Angola among a small group of African countries and paved the way for the successful elections this year. In turn, President-elect Lourenco campaigned on economic liberalization and diversification. He promised a vast infrastructure program to extend the sort of development that has invigorated the Angolan capital of Luanda.
More than 1,400 local and international observers supervised and monitored the Angolan elections from the African Union and the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries.
Poor weather delayed voting for several days at some polling stations, but the election was otherwise free from drama. MPLA candidate Joao Lourenco won 61 percent of the vote with UNITA candidate, Isaias Samakuva, coming in second with 26.7 percent. The African Union observation mission, led by former Cape Verdean Prime Minister Jose Maria das Nevas, expressed its satisfaction with the election. According to African Union observers, there was “significant participation by all stakeholders,” and the process ran smoothly.
The remarkable success stories of Angola, Benin, Gambia, Ghana and Somalia stand in contrast to Africa’s often-violent electoral history.
Poll violence has often centered on tribal politics and ethnicity. This knowledge has proved invaluable for nations such as Angola, Benin, Gambia, Ghana and Somalia as they orchestrated their own elections. They moved away from tribal politics and instead focused on issues important to their nations – a seemingly obvious, but utterly crucial change.