November 8, 2006

Lessons for Africa on the US Elections

People can celebrate or grieve over yesterday's mid-term elections in the US depending on their political leanings. Continental Africans tend to favor the Democrats over the Republicans. The reasons for this preference are generally linked to Africans' feelings about US foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world and really do not reflect US policy in Africa which does not change significantly from one administration to the next.

But what does the election mean for Africa with the Democrats in power? The African American politician with the closest link to Africa, Barack Obama, a Democrat who was not up for re-election, has been rather outspoken against African dictators and corruption and perhaps he rings in a new era for relations between African American politicians and African. This is a notable change from the past when our African American brothers and sisters in the US Congress enjoyed canoodling with African dictators. We saw this with Jesse Jackson, Carol Mosley Brown, and more recently with William Jefferson.

The message that the Louisiana electorate sends to us here in Africa, after re-electing Rep. Jefferson who was found with $90,000 in cash in his freezer is a dismal one. Our African leaders will point to this example and say "see, even in America..."

But there is very positive lesson for Africa that comes out of the mid-term election. The US has been under one party rule for the last six years with both houses of Congress under Republican control for 12 years. The US electorate, in its vote, protested against this one party state. They want a balance of power and the checks and balances that come with it. The message is loud and clear.

Some countries in Africa, including the one I am in, have been in a virtual one party state for decades. Even those who have "free" elections are controlled by a single party. This is never good for democracy as we have seen in the US with the increase of corruption scandals and the general arrogance of the Republicans and the Bush administration.

The difference is that in Africa, one party control also means that the State itself is used to campaign. Public servants, government funds and often, state-owned corporations are used as campaign assets for the party in power. During elections, public servants are given paid time off to campaign for the party in power and often even receive Per Diems and travel expenses at taxpayer expense; state owned corporations are forced to pay out substantial sums of money to support the party in power's campaign. This makes it virtually impossible for any opposition party to make any significant inroads in elected office and there are therefore no checks and balances.

We hope that the new Congress will remember how it came to power and help our governments in Africa do away with the one party state mentality and understand the importance of checks and balances. We also hope that the new Congress is made of of more Barack Obamas than of William Jeffersons...

This is probably where I need to add a disclaimer: While in the US, I voted Republican in almost every race except for one election for the US. House of Representatives. I stayed up all night yesterday to watch the election returns. I am kind of dissapointed about a couple of races but I think this is a good thing for democracy.

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