The Obama administration and Secretary Kerry have been deeply invested in supporting free, fair, and credible elections in Africa. President Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron were directly involved in Nigeria’s national elections in March, as was Secretary Kerry, who also attended the inauguration of President Muhammadu Buhari in May.
This month, national elections will take place in Guinea, Tanzania, Cote d’Ivoire, and the Central African Republic. Elections are also expected soon in Burkina Faso. Marking these upcoming events, Secretary Kerry published an op-ed in AllAfrica.com on October 6, titled Decisive Moment for Democracy.
The op-ed praises Africa’s progress toward democracy and recalls the elections in Nigeria, where for the first time in that country’s history the opposition came to power through the ballot box. It affirms the genuine hunger for democracy in Africa and elsewhere. The op-ed also reiterates U.S. policy. But, in this pre-electoral period, it is useful to reiterate them. First, Secretary Kerry calls for the respect for term limits, as President Barack Obama did earlier this year during his Africa trip. Term limits are currently challenged by incumbent presidents in, among others, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. Second, while free, fair, and credible elections do not guarantee a successful democracy, they are important milestones of progress. And, third, elections, important though they are, “cannot be the only moment for citizens to shape their future.” The op-ed asserts that citizens must be part of an ongoing process of engagement between the people and their government.
The Secretary’s last point is salutary. Too often observers of Africa see election events as the very definition of democracy rather than as part of an on-going process of governance.