Democracy and regular alternation of power in Africa

For regimes that are considered to be democratic (or those that try to become one), the leaders are replaced after free and fair elections, which means that there is no democracy without regular alternation of power.


In his article « Economic development and democracy» the American political analyst Seymour Martin Lipset defines democracy as « a political system, in a complex society, which gives the opportunities to legally change the governing officials and as a social mechanism which allows a large part of the population to influence the decisions through their ability to choose among alternative contenders for political office ». Important reminder: right after the Cold War, that ended by the triumph of liberal democracy over communism, African authoritarian regimes joined, in the early 1990s, what Samuel Huntington described as "the third wave of democratization".


The results of the last survey carried out in 2014 by the Afrobarometer Institut in 34 African countries, show that the majority of African people (71%) prefer democracy to any other political system. However, the global performances of Africa regarding alternation of the political power are quite poor. The Guinean case is a good example: if the president Alpha Condé hands over power to a new government after the presidential elections (scheduled on October 11th 2015), it will make Guinean history. And if he is reelected, some of his fellow citizens fear that he will imitate his predecessor Lansana Conté, who was not eligible for reelection as he had served two consecutive terms. So he modified the Constitution in 2002 to be allowed to serve a third presidential term. In 1984, Conté took power in a military coup the day after the death of the first Guinean president, Ahmed Sékou Touré, Conté kept power within his grasp until his death in 2008.


Another more recent example: the sociopolitical conditions under which Pierre Nkurunziza has been reelected in Burundi for a third term confirm that many African leaders are skilled manipulators and ready to do whatever it takes to cling to power, including bloody repressions of any public demonstrations organized by political opponents, scam elections, or changes of the constitution. Nkurunziza used these three processes at the same time.


Africa also offers some examples of role model Heads of State who were elected in the right way, and who actually left power after one or two mandates, as stated in most of constitutions.

Everything is not black and white. This paradox is amply enough to raise this fundamental question: how is it possible that some African countries successfully replace their leaders by way of regular and legal elections, whereas others do not achieve it?


Let’s be clear, this question is so complex that there are as many answers as African countries, because each country has their own endogenous and exogenous factors. Senegal is neither Central African Republic, nor Rwanda, even less Algeria, that gives an idea of this complexity.


However, South Africa and Ghana, among others, are not only showing to some countries like Ivory Coast that an alternation of power is possible without bloodshed, but they are also and especially proving to other countries, like Guinea, that presidency for life or military intervention are not established rites of passage to achieve a successful alternation of power.


In South Africa, Nelson Mandela chose to leave office after a unique term and gave his place to Thabo Mbeki in 1999. After two-year presidency, Mbeki let Jacob Zuma, the current president, take his place in 2009. In Ghana, Jerry Rawlings, elected in 1992 and 1996, chose to follow the Ghanaian constitution of 1993 which limits the number of President's terms to two. This is how his fellow countryman John Kufuor succeeded him, following the presidential election of 2000.


In fact, since 1990, we can notice that African countries, which regularly replace their President, had great political leaders who knew how to successfully maintain regular alternation of power. They had the will, wisdom, courage and patriotism to teach their fellow countrymen that alternation of power is the fuel of democracy.


In the African political game, the probability of a successful alternation of power increases under one of the two following conditions: a real political will of the outgoing president to organize elections considered as legitimate by all, including the opposition. That is how, in Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan yielded power to the current president. The second condition is : a unique candidacy from all the political opponents who seriously pursue alternation of power. Isn’t it that way that the current Senegalese president Macky Sall came to power in 2012? As the saying goes and always comes true : Unity makes Strength.


In conclusion, by addressing the African Union last July, Barack Obama rightfully reminded us that, "if a leader thinks that he is the only person who can hold his nation together, he has failed to truly build his nation. Nelson Mandela and George Washington forged a lasting legacy, because they were willing to leave office and transfer power peacefully".

Translated by Anne-Sophie Cadet