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Yearender: Calm prevails election year as sub-Saharan Africa faces democracy tests

12-20-2011 15:18 BJT

NAIROBI, Dec. 20 (Xinhua) -- It was largely peaceful as 22 sub- Saharan African countries held presidential, legislative or local polls in 2011, when nearly half of the region's population were put to the democracy tests at the ballot box.

People's ballots, instead of their bullets, have given births to the world's youngest nation and 15 newly sworn-in presidents in a continent where an election can often be a flashpoint for conflicts.

Although Nigeria's post-election violence has reportedly left more than 500 killed and the oppositions' categorical rejection of the presidential poll outcome trembled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) and Uganda, Africa has been receiving more acclaim than criticism from the international community for its democratic progress.


Many thought it was a bad omen for Africa's election year when the bloody stand-off between Laurent Gbagbo and his opponent Alassane Ouattara ensued from Cote d'Ivoire's election in November last year.

Predictions were not uncommon that more African countries would follow Cote d'Ivoire's suits, plunging their people into the chaos of "one country, two presidents" or the vicious cycle of "delayed election-alleged electoral fraud-military coups" in their elections.

However, the omen proved false when more than 10 countries in south of the Sahara held peaceful presidential elections with no major civil turmoil being triggered by a poll. In some countries, such as Cameroon, Central African Republic, Gambia, Djibouti and Benin, the incumbent presidents won re-election by wide margin, meeting everyone's expectations.

While in others, democracy faced tough tests when power transitions were required.

The world breathed a sigh of relief when Zambia's tearful Rupiah Banda, the then-incumbent president, conceded defeat after the official poll results were released, saying he and his party "respect the Zambian people's choice."

In Sao Tome and Principe, the septuagenarian President Fradique de Menezes stepped down after serving the maximum two terms. His abidance by the Constitution made it possible for the Gulf of Guinea island country to hand over power to a new leader.

But the most relieving moment came as the International community and observers hailed South Sudan's January referendum, where an overwhelming majority opted for secession, as "timely, fair and credible."

The peaceful vote which split a country has, however, solidified the democracy.


No sub-Saharan African election this year has so far turned as ugly and violent as Cote d'Ivoire's months-long political crisis, when the "tale of two presidents" had shocked the world.

But violence and boycotts remain common occurrences in African elections.

The Nigerian presidential election in April, one of the most important ones throughout Africa in terms of its regional and international impact, was once postponed amid controversy as to whether a Muslim or Christian should become the president of the most populous nation in Africa, given the tradition of rotating the top office between the religions.

The moment Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, was declared winner, widespread violence erupted in the Nigeria's Muslim north, reportedly killing more than 500.

Same tragedies recurred months later in Liberia and DR Congo, where Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Joseph Kabila retained their presidencies.

Deadly riots occurred in the capital cities when the opposition leaders cried foul. In Liberia and Chad, major opposition boycotted the presidential elections, pointing their fingers at the allegedly unfair conditions and the rigged electoral process.

Opposition politicians in Chad even denounced the presidential contest as "election circus." In the Ugandan general election, which the European Union observers said was "marred by avoidable and logistical failures", opposition leaders of the four-party Inter-Party Cooperation warned an Egypt-style revolt after Yoweri Museveni was reelected, extending his presidential term which started in 1986.

The legislative election in Cote d'Ivoire, overshadowed by blast attacks in Abidjan after the country's ex-President Laurent Gbagbo was handed over to the International Criminal Court, registered a low turnout when some polling stations were seen almost empty.

The latest twist came after Gbagbo's party called for a boycott against the poll, which will inevitably underscore deep political divisions in the West Africa country, posing a threat to its faint hope of peace and prosperity.

Despite hitches and violence, the results of elections in African countries this year are generally accepted and acknowledged by the international community, cementing the region's pro-democracy efforts.


In a continent where democracy originated when elders sat under the big tree and talked until they all agreed, Africans have been sorting out problems with their own wisdom in the march towards democracy.

The Gambians cast clear-glass marbles into drums served as ballot boxes in this year's presidential election to address the challenge of high illiteracy. Out of the same concern, graphic symbols were used in South Sudan's referendum this year: two hands holding together stands for the option for unity while separation is portrayed using a waving hand.

Most of the elections in sub-Saharan Africa this year have shown that democracy is strengthening across the region when many African countries celebrated the 50th anniversary of independence.

"If you look at where Africa was even 10 years ago it's quite clear that elections are becoming more common, electoral democracies and constitutional regimes are no longer extraordinary, " J. Peter Pham, Africa director at Washington's Atlantic Council think tank told media recently.

"With bumps along the road you can see a trend that's progressing very nicely."

Although growing pains are expected to keep haunting the continent where countries are sometimes profoundly divided with longstanding grievances and weak national identities, the 2011 election year performance is still a consolation and feather in the hat for the sub-Saharan Africa.

Editor:Zhang Hao |Source: Xinhua

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