afrol News, 3 December - If Ivorian opposition leader Alassane Ouattara is let to take over the Côte d'Ivoire presidency, West Africa could indeed become a democratic lighthouse and an example to the rest of the world.
There is only one true dictatorship left in West Africa: The Gambia. And Gambian Dictator Yahya Jammeh is increasingly becoming a disgrace for the West African region's progressive leaders. Over the rest of the subcontinent, a democratisation storm is sweeping.
Only two decades ago, one-party dictatorships were the norm all over West Africa. In 1991, President Mathieu Kérékou of Benin became the first-ever African leader losing a democratic election and handing over powers to the opposition leader.
During the 1990s, most West African states only paid lip service to their new system of "multi-party elections". With the 2000 Senegal elections, won by long-time opposition leader Abduolaye Wade, a new dynamic decade of democracy and economic growth however started in West Africa, by now leaving The Gambia as the only remaining dictatorship.
Currently, Ghana is described as the forefront example of a well functioning democracy in all Africa, only comparable to South Africa. Power has twice shifted between political parties in regular elections; press freedom is close to perfect; and human rights are respected. Investors appreciate this new democratic climate, endowing Ghana with high growth figures.
Even more fascinating, Niger, one of the poorest nations in the world, is genuinely struggling to beat Ghana and become the region's democratic lighthouse.
As a decade of proud democratic advances in Niger where threatened by a steadily more authoritarian President Mamadou Tandja, a military junta in February this year overthrew him to secure a "model democracy" in the country. The democratic transition process is still ongoing, but the junta has shown no signs at all it wants to remain in power.
The military road towards democracy had earlier proven successful in West Africa. A Mauritanian coup in 2005 did away with four decades of authoritarian rule and provided for exemplary elections. A December 2008 coup in Guinea paved way for democratic elections, which last month saw long-time opposition leader Alpha Condé being confirmed as president-elect.
Meanwhile, West Africa also has several well established model democracies, which have seen several democratic power transfers and no threats to democratic institutions. These include stable and progressive Cape Verde, Mali and Benin.
Even recent war zones have made it into shining democracies, with only Guinea-Bissau still finding it difficult to find political stability as drug cartels are establishing in the country.
In Sierra Leone's 2007 elections, opposition candidate Ernest Bai Koroma came to power. A tough democratic decision in neighbouring Liberia in 2005 brought Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first woman president, to power. Liberia's pending October 2011 elections represent a watershed as this is the first time in nearly eighty years of the country's history that an incumbent will be challenged in a true electoral process.
Africa's greatest democracy, Nigeria, has made much progress since the brutal military dictatorships, although the system still is far from perfect. But the emergence of a tussle between the "old guard" and the "young Turks" could make for an unprecedented upcoming contest that has the potential to usher in an era of true democracy.
The only West African countries where the "old guard" still is firmly in power are Burk
Nathaniel Barnes, Liberia's Ambassador in Washington
ina Faso and Togo. Burkinabe President Blaise Compaoré last month again was re-elected in a landslide, more thanks to a split opposition than to unfair elections. In Togo, the equally split opposition is coming each time closer to defeat the Gnassingbé dynasty. Both countries meanwhile allow for a free press and true opposition.
In most West African countries, a run-off election between two candidates to the presidency is necessary a no one typically sweeps the polls in the first round. More and more typical, the winning candidate - including recent elections in Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Sierra Leone - wins the run-off with little more than 50 percent of the vote, contrasting earlier 80-90 percent victories.
These democratic victories have not come without struggle, as evident in many of the recent elections. But democratic forces in West Africa have been able to count on a forceful regional body, the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS).
Contrary to other regional African bodies, ECOWAS has shown its willingness to intervene militarily. The West African body accepts no rupture of the constitutional order, not even referenda to change the constitution shortly before an election, as happened in Niger last year when President Tandja wanted to assure his eligibility.
Any unconstitutional moves are punished strongly, with ECOWAS seeing to that the African Union (AU) and non-African countries follow up with sanctions. Pro-democracy coups, such as in Niger this year, are viewed upon somewhat milder.
Compared to the rest of Africa, West Africa indeed stands out, even if outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo should manage to stay in power in Côte d'Ivoire despite his election loss.
In Central Africa, no democratic country exists, with the decent exception of São Tomé and Príncipe. In the Horn of Africa, only the breakaway republic of Somaliland can be called a true democracy. East Africa's most functional democracy is Tanzania, even if the same party has held power since independence.
Only Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean region have more democracies than authoritarian regimes. But regional bodies here, such as SADC, have been far less successful in defending democracy, as shown by the inability to bring Madagascar back to a constitutional order or the disinterest in stopping at least the worst abuses of Robert Mugabe.
Nathaniel Barnes, Liberia's Ambassador in Washington, agreed with the afrol News analysis, saying the region "is experiencing a major renaissance and the establishment of true democracy is at the core of this movement."
Commenting on the apparent set-back in Côte d'Ivoire, Ambassador Barnes holds that "this transition to true democracy in Western Africa is occurring so rapidly that the turbulence could be perceived as confusion, instability or plain belligerence on part of some of the stakeholders. At the end of the day, however, the noise around elections represents the birth pangs of real democracy."
"True democracy is taking root in West Africa and the world is watching," the Liberian Ambassador concludes.
And he is not alone. Economic growth and foreign investment has never been bigger, reflecting a dramatic shift in the image of the West African region. Apparently, the markets believe that political stability and transparency has come to stay in West Africa.
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