While democracy is tested in the U.S., it flourishes in several African states

If the world is looking for a more positive news story, try Gambia, South Africa or Ghana, writes former ambassador Darren Schemmer.

By: /
February 3, 2017
Thousands of people lined the streets of Gambia's capital Banjul to welcome home new President Adama Barrow days after authoritarian leader Yahya Jammeh fled into exile under pressure from regional forces. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

While most of us were paying attention to the dramatic presidential transition in the United States, another dramatic presidential transition was taking place on the other side of the Atlantic.

Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh, who came to power in a military coup in 1994, has transferred power to his democratically elected successor, Adama Barrow. The handover was another nail in the coffin for the stereotype of African nations having "one man, one vote, once" and then being led for decades by despots like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Mugabe, who is soon to celebrate his 93rd birthday in a national park near the unmarked graves of some of the 20,000 political opponents he had killed in the 1980s, gets a lot of international publicity but he and the stereotype he represents are relics from a different century. 

Africans in the 21st century want democracy and are willing to take action to achieve and expand it. Take this month’s Gambian example. It wasn't easy. Jammeh accepted his surprise loss in the Dec. 1 presidential elections. Then, one week later, he changed his mind and tried to cling to power after fearing he could be tried for human rights abuses and corruption. 

International pressure kicked into action — not from France or the UK or the U.S., but from the member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Barrow was protected. Resolutions were passed. Diplomatic delegations led by presidents met with Jammeh. Finally, they applied military pressure with Senegal leading soldiers from five nations and Nigeria sending its newest warship. Jammeh finally agreed to leave office and go into exile. This was the latest example of ECOWAS acting to make clear that they will no longer accept the instability and economic damage that comes with military coups and leaders clinging to power. 

Many more African countries held elections in 2016 and changed their governments without the drama and tension seen in Gambia. Three of Africa's smallest countries — Cape Verde, Sao Tome e Principe and the Seychelles — all had peaceful transitions of power. More notable were the results of South Africa's municipal elections where the African National Congress (ANC) — the champion in the fight against apartheid that has dominated all the country's elections since 1994 — lost power in most big cities, including, embarrassingly, Nelson Mandela Bay. Bad news for the ANC is good news for democracy. Seventeen parties ran candidates and three formed governments in different municipalities. To the north in Zambia, President Edgar Lungu was elected to a full term and his party won a majority in the National Assembly for the first time after four elections.

The election in Africa that inspired the most comments in 2016 was in Ghana, for good reason. As the first sub-Saharan African country to take its independence from its colonial power, Ghana — its black-star flag representing pan-Africanism — has broad symbolic and cultural influence. Many Africans look to Ghana for political inspiration and the country is leading the way in making democracy normal, even boring. This was the seventh election in a row and the third time the governing party has changed peacefully. Outgoing President John Mahama was recently part of a delegation to visit Gambia's Jammeh to tell him that it is not the end of the world to accept an election loss.

Ghana also inspired some constitutional revisions that were subject to a referendum in neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire in 2016, including a broader definition of citizenship and the formalization of traditional chiefs as a component of modern government. The revisions passed. Later, in the first parliamentary elections under the new constitution, the coalition supporting President Alassane Ouattara won a majority, but lost seats. Seventy-five independent legislators were elected with a historic high of 29 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. 

On the face of it, the final piece of good news for democracy in Africa in the past year sounds like the old negative stereotype. Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, vice president of Equatorial Guinea and son of Africa's longest-lasting dictator, is under criminal prosecution in France. However, this is the first time France has criminally prosecuted a sitting vice president of any African country. What's more, Swiss authorities impounded his expensive cars (who knew Sweden made cars worth US$2.8 million each?) and convinced Dutch authorities to seize his US$120 million yacht pending further investigation. In so doing, France and Switzerland, traditionally playgrounds for African politicians with dubious sources of income, have served notice that the playgrounds are closed. This news has been cheered by many Africans, including the Federation des Congolais de la Diaspora who worked diligently with Transparency International and Association SHERPA to press for these charges.

In an interesting example of a serpent swallowing its own tail, Nguema's tiny dictatorship, Equatorial Guinea, is where Jammeh of Gambia has gone into exile. As Africans make democracy the norm, would-be dictators have fewer and fewer places to hide. That is good news for Africa and for everyone.