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Another African president joins small club of democrats.

Another African president joins small club of democrats.

Photo: Monrovia, Liberia


 Sixty-five years after the fabled wind of change blew across Africa, genuine democracy remains elusive in most countries in our beloved continent. Democratization efforts of the 1990s retreated to the more comfortable swamps of choreographed rituals that clothe thinly veiled autocracies. Democratizing states reverted to military rule, except by name and ritual, complete with old-fashioned armed repression and killings of the rulers’ opponents. 


Predictable cycles of violence during scheduled pretend presidential elections became the norm. International election observers called them “irregularities that did not alter the will of the people.” That those irregularities included heavy human blood stains, incarcerated political actors, stuffed ballot boxes, fraudulent vote tallies, and other anti-democratic acts by the state, did not sway news media and “development partners” from declaring the beneficiaries of these crimes as the victors.


The new breed of dictator was served well by their Saville Row suits, their command of English, French, Portuguese or Spanish. They cut figures that distinguished them from their 1970s predecessors that donned military uniforms and lost wrestling matches with speeches in foreign languages.  These modern chieftains cut deceptively benign figures, even as they neutered their countries’ institutions of governance, presided over grand corruption, sold Africa to foreigners, and devised strategies for self-entrenchment in their state palaces. 


Their educated courtiers, many with revered professional titles, provided a façade of progressive modern governments, a change from the days of semiliterate enforcers of raw dictatorship that was dispensed by the likes of Uganda’s Idi Amin Dada, Central Africa’s Jean Bedel Bokassa, Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko Koko Ngbendu wa Zabanga, and Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam.  However, the alert observer could not miss the obvious, namely, that the modern dictator was, at best, as lethal as the despised lot that occupied their countries’ top jobs in the last years of the twentieth century.


The addictive power of the African presidency intoxicated many of the new rulers. New constitutions, heralded as instruments of good governance by Africa’s “new breed of leaders,” were soon amended to lift term limits and, in at least one case, to eliminate an age-limit for the convenience of the incumbent ruler.  Those who were defeated at the polls claimed victory. Their neutered courts dismissed petitions by the real victors. Many citizens, some of whom had witnessed Africa’s descent into hell in the early years of political independence, danced and ululated as the new dictators shredded the hopes of freedom and universal progress. It took great courage to retain faith and hope that genuine democracy and freedom would one day become the norm in Africa.


Happily, one’s near despair has been occasionally relieved by the appearance of truly patriotic political leaders that have resisted the intoxication that imprisoned them in stolen presidencies. Though it is a very small club, it is one we unhesitatingly celebrate and honour.  The patron of that club is South Africa’s Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, a man who walked away from a presidency that could have been his for life. Club members include Tanzania’s Ali Hassan Mwinyi, Benjamin William Mkapa, and Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete; Botswana’s Ketumile Quett Masire, Festus Gontebanye Mogae, and Seretse Khama Ian Khama; Ghana’s John Agyekum Kufuor; Namibia’s Hifikepunye Lucas Pohamba; and Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. 


To this partial list, we now add George Manneh Weah, the president of Liberia who claimed his membership when he conceded defeat at last week’s presidential election and rallied his supporters to accept the results. “I stand before you tonight with a heavy heart, but with the utmost respect for the democratic process that has defined our nation,” President Weah told his countrymen. “The results announced tonight, though not final, indicate that Ambassador Joseph N. Boakai is in a lead that is insurmountable. A few moments ago, I spoke with President-elect Joseph N. Boakai to congratulate him on his victory and to offer my sincere commitment to working with him for the betterment of our beloved Liberia.”


With those opening remarks, President Weah achieved an honour greater than that enjoyed by other club members that gained entry because they quit after serving their constitutionally limited terms. To accept defeat after only one term in office does not come easily. To do so without waiting for the final ballot to be tallied suggests a state of mind that is free from the addiction to power that is at the core of the rigging and other mischief that has derailed many countries’ attempts at democratization.  Weah then prayed that the incoming presidency be marked by success for all Liberians. “May our nation prosper under his leadership,” the defeated president declared. 


This was statesmanship at its best. It was patriotism of a man to his country, not to himself, and a demonstration of his understanding of why his country had gone to the ravenous dogs under the terror regimes of men like Master Sergeant Samuel Kenyon Doe, and Charles McArthur Ghankay Taylor. 


Weah ended his concession speech with a plea for unity, not the chaos that some African rulers threaten to unleash on their people should the election results favour their opponent. “As we transition to the new Boakai administration,” President Weah said, “we must be vigilant to the dangers of division and work together to find common ground. Now, more than ever, unity is paramount for the love of Mama Liberia. I urge you to follow my example and accept the results of the elections.”


Liberia, once written off as a failed state, has demonstrated that democracy is not a pretend game of controlled, ritualistic, restrictive, political campaigns followed by fraudulent “elections” and declaration of “winners.” It is a culture that respects the rule of law, founded on strong, non-partisan institutions, a robust and free news media, and a vibrant, educated, and free civil society. There is no democracy without full promotion and enforcement of human rights and freedoms. There is no democracy without complete equality of citizenship.  


It requires leaders who are willing and able to nurture it, practice it, live it, and walk the walk with the understanding that they do not have monopoly on the country’s vision or possess exclusive ability to lead their people. For the moment, at least, Liberia is walking in the right direction towards this achievable goal. Ellen Sirleaf gave post-civil war Liberia a new beginning. Her successor is peacefully passing the baton to a new president. It is great cause for celebration and hope. 


© Muniini K. Mulera


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