Fancy the fatigues
Why the worst of times in Africa can also be the best of times, concludes Gamal Nkrumah
Africa's policymakers need to change their rhetoric on military takeovers in 2009. Faith in the idea of long-term democracy is fast being eroded. After a prolonged and deliberately stalled transition to democracy, multi-party democracy started with a bang in Africa south of the Sahara two decades ago. But, why does multi-party democracy matter? This debate matters. At a deeper level it concerns the very purpose of African democracy. In the past it was a simple question of one step forward and two steps back. At the moment it is a rather more complex conundrum. However, the ruling cliques are worn into a frazzle.
Most African civilian leaders appear out of their depth -- dead wood at best. The electorate understands that all too well. Yet the voters are determined to exercise their democratic rights. Africa has recovered from past traumas. It makes one question the hierarchy of African political establishments. The rules of multi-party democracy need to be consistently and transparently applied. The creepy return of military takeovers in Africa in 2008 renders the sunny optimism of the turn of the century when a number of African nations espoused multi- party democracy rather ill-founded. Coups remain a potent threat to political stability in Africa. Several African nations witnessed the intervention of their respective military establishments in their political lives in 2008. Some succumbed to military dictates while others resisted. And, it was vital to keep trying to resist the temptation of military intervention. Soldiers should be confined to their barracks even when the civilian administrations fail to fulfil the aspirations of the African masses.
The political crises in 2008 marked a clean break with the past in both the West African nations of Mauritania and neighbouring Guinea. Senegal -- another poor and predominantly Muslim country that has enjoyed multi-party democracy Western-style since its independence from France in 1960 -- geographically separates the two countries. The three countries share much in common. So why was Senegal so politically stable in 2008 and its neighbours to the north and south so politically volatile?
The people of Africa are disillusioned with all the gruff about democracy. This is precisely why many Africans emphasise the need to use force to oust the powers that be. Guinea and Mauritania's political problems present lessons for the rest of Africa.
The dramatic events of 2008 hold two lessons in opposite directions. One from the African masses to the elected civilian leaders, presumably their representatives, and one the other way. The first is by far the more important. The democratically- elected civilian governments in Africa need to secure in place political systems that could produce positive results in terms of poverty alleviation. The African masses cannot accept wishy-washy constructive ambiguity to avoid military takeovers and popular unrest.
Perseverance pays off. The people, however, are impatient. The civilian governments' arguments are widely viewed as complacent and reflect the mindset of a generation of policymakers that naively assumes that freedom of expression can remedy all political and economic woes.
Western-style democracy may not be as sound as previously thought. Take Mauritania, for instance. The political crisis in the country prompted rethinking about the very nature of democracy. Mauritania has changed beyond recognition. The good times were sputtering before the military junta stepped in to rescue the country from what they viewed as the untrammeled corruption and depravity of the civilian administration. After a spectacular run of growth, thanks to proven oil reserves and abundant mineral wealth, Mauritania, like other mineral-rich countries, stands at the crossroads. It is hardly surprisingly that even the brashest of boom economies in Africa are vulnerable to political upheavals. What international investors look for is political stability. Mauritania's economy promptly tanked.
The striking gains in prosperity of recent years owe a great deal to the arid, predominantly Muslim and sparsely-populated sprawling country to attract foreign capital -- Western and Arab. The Chinese have also stepped into the fray. But Mauritania's fortunes were on the turn well before the generals took charge. Golden opportunities do not come along everyday, and most Mauritanians believe that such opportunities are more likely to arise when the good times are rolling.
The crisis marks a clean break with the past. In retrospect Mauritania epitomises the quandary Africa finds itself in. What opportunities does the current political turmoil in Mauritania create?
To spot such opportunities, there must be leadership that displays exceptional statesmanship. The United States, too, is stepping up pressure on the ruling clique in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital -- ordinarily a sleepy seaside town. Washington is likewise intensifying pressure on Zimbabwe and Guinea and other African nations that in the view of Capitol Hill have strayed from the straight and narrow path of Western- style democracy. Washington has turned a blind eye to other countries, like Uganda and Rwanda, which are conveniently regarded as key allies.
On 11 March 2007 the first presidential elections in Mauritania were held. The country has made some strides towards democracy in recent years. The presidential poll was won in a second round of voting by Abdullahi with Ahmed Ould Daddah, son of Mauritania's founding father Moukhtar Ould Daddah, a close second.
The coup was led by the head of the Presidential Guard General Mohamed Ould Abdel-Aziz who was sacked by President Abdullahi days before the coup. General Abdel-Aziz was implicated in the last Mauritanian coup in 2005 that ousted the former Mauritanian strongman Mouaouya Ould Sidi Ahmed Taya.
In a surprise move, the Mauritanian authorities released the democratically elected President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdullahi. The generals' luck is running out. The tide, finally, seems to have turned on Mauritania's military rulers. The ruling junta is obviously on tenterhooks.
With a strong electoral mandate, African leaders such as President Abdullahi have a right to rule. In sharp contrast the Somali President Abdullah Youssef resigned amid regional and international pressure to do so. The septuagenarian and octogenarian coterie have obviously fallen out of favour, both with the African masses and with the Western donor nations.
As political fortunes brighten, so will the economic. Africa is the only continent where breakneck economic growth is sorely needed. Yet African countries cannot choose to abandon their hope for democratisation. Africans have a right to choose their representative governments. More importantly, the quest for political change must not overshadow the need to ensure sustainable development. That is where the West comes in.
Glum forecasters, mainly through the medium of the Western media, seem to have been competing in a reverse auction to cut the expectations of the African masses. With the right policies, Mauritania could be poised for the good times. And, so could Guinea and Zimbabwe.