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Is Africa Losing its Taste for Democracy?

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The recent failed election in Cote d'Ivoire, which has generated competing claims to the presidency and a high risk of return to widespread violence, is the latest in a series of electoral setbacks in sub-Saharan Africa. Coming on the heels of significant democratic progress during the 1990s, Africans and international advocates for democracy are now left to ask: does democratization promise an enduring advance in political participation and fairness in Africa, or is it nothing more than a leadership experiment on the wane?

In 2007, Daniel Posner and Daniel Young compiled data on how African leaders have left office since the beginning of Independence. What they found was a remarkable embrace of democratic norms between the 1980s and 2000s: prior to that period, less than 30 percent of leaders left office through regular means (natural death, voluntary resignation, or electoral defeat), yet by 2005 that figure had soared to over 80 percent. Indeed, sub-Saharan African leaders had come to behave remarkably similarly to leaders from the rest of the world. Since that report, however, political leaders have ignored electoral defeat to remain in power in Kenya and Zimbabwe; coups have toppled governments in Guinea, Madagascar, and Niger; and the Central African Republic has postponed elections. Now Cote d'Ivoire, a once prosperous and proud nation that has undergone a decade of turmoil, has ensured its place on the list of African states whose leaders fail to relinquish power democratically.

To recap the demise of democracy in Cote d'Ivoire, President Laurent Gbagbo's term officially ended in 2005, but a civil war related to the xenophobic exclusion of presidential hopeful Alassane Ouattara provided reason for repeated postponement of new elections; for years, the joke in the U.S. State Department was that those elections would be taking place in October -- only of which year no one knew. Peace agreements brokered by African mediators eventually ensured the inclusion of Ouattara, and Ivoirians finally went the polls last month, where they delivered 54 percent of the vote to the challenger Ouattara. The result was endorsed by every major international player, including the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union, France, and the United States. Yet, Gbagbo's handpicked Constitutional Council overturned those results, and -- with backing from the armed forces -- Gbagbo refuses to cede power.

Why do many African leaders appear unsold on the benefits of democracy? The wave of democracy that swept across sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s rested largely on promises of favorable loan conditions and peace-driven prosperity, but the dividends to leaders themselves proved to be only temporary. What is more, the process of democratization in Africa often included reforms of the political party system and elections, yet institutions to constrain the power of political leaders in an environment accustomed to "Big Man" rule never fully materialized. Thus, with notable exception in places like Ghana, the incentive to remain in office at all costs once again appears greater to many African leaders than do the incentives to relinquish power peacefully. At worst, those leaders calculate, international observers will justifiably accept a power-sharing arrangement to avert potential violence.

What this means for residents of places like Cote d'Ivoire is a struggle between clamoring honestly for democratic voice and reloading their weapons. During conversations with residents and rebels in the post-civil war, rebel-held North in 2009, I heard repeatedly of a desire to set violence aside and vote, but that any perceived chicanery in an eventual election would only make matters worse. What it means for the United States, the UN, and other observers is that their ability to ensure free, fair, and peaceful elections is limited to the extent that institutions in African states fail to constrain the ambitions of political leadership.

Incidentally, the status of democracy in Africa is of contemporary importance to the United States and other powers. In January, a referendum in southern Sudan will determine whether the South should be recognized as an independent country, and by all accounts, southerners appear prepared to vote yes. The Sudanese government in Khartoum, however, has little incentive to accept that outcome. Most external observers (especially the United States and China) would like to see Sudan resolve the question democratically and avert further violence, in order to safeguard against terrorist advances and oil uncertainty. Yet, absent the ability of the AU, the UN, or any other actor to force compliance, and absent incentives for the sitting government to relinquish control peacefully, democracy in Africa may suffer still more setbacks.