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What Africa Can Learn from American Democracy and Election 2006*

                                                Ghelawdewos Araia

                                                November 18, 2006

Some background history: - The development of democratic tradition in the United States featured historical and social engineering. It evolved historically along capitalist and democratic ideals, but it was also deliberately fashioned and engineered by enlightened statesmen in the respective states, and later by the founding fathers at a national level. Though the democratic process in the US was not inclusive (African slaves during the antebellum and women till 1920) and, by and large, had a checkered history, the impetus behind its realization owes to great awakening that seldom appears on the stage of history. Factors that contributed to this historical package are the many visions of enlightened men, citizen and state initiatives, and certainly a heavy dosage of the Age of Enlightenment with its attendant democratic principles and institutions.

In the final analysis, students of history and politics can easily detect that the US democratic experiment is an amalgam of external and internal influences. There is no doubt that the invention of democracy (demos + kratien) by the Greeks and representative democracy (senate –nobility- + assembly – commons -) of the Romans influenced Western political thought and the founding fathers of the United States . While that of the Greeks was total democracy where there were no representatives, and the people governed themselves; that of the Romans was a type of democratic republic. However, despite absolute democracy, the Greek form of government too excluded slaves and women, and to be sure the Greek democratic experiment was hijacked by the oligarchy, and it was never tried again anywhere in our planet earth.

Other important influences in American democracy was the Magna Carta that King John singed under the supervision of the English nobility to forge a law-making superstructure (incipient parliament). Next to Magna Carta, major influences were the Petition of Right (1628), by which the king’s power to collect taxes was curtailed by parliament, and the Bill of Rights (1689) that stipulated freedom of speech and prohibited cruel and unusual punishment. Just one year after the Bill of Rights, John Locke’s Two Treaties was published, in which the philosopher argued that governments, by virtue of the ‘social contract,’ are responsible for protecting the natural rights (life, liberty, and ownership of property) of citizens. Jean-Jacques Rousseau further extrapolated Locke’s idea in his Social Contract (1762). Both philosophers were in favor of participation of the people in government affairs, and their input is clearly embedded in the Declaration of Independence of 1776.

The writer of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, directly borrowed Locke’s ideas and inserted it as ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ in the American constitution. Jefferson also took some ideas from Rousseau “when he said that all men should have the right to take up arms against the government if it did not respect these rights (Jefferson).”1 In fact, in the Declaration it is stated “that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”2 On top of formulating the Declaration and the law of the land (the constitution), the actual structure of the American government was borrowed from Charles de Montesquieu’s ‘separation of powers’ (checks and balances) of the legislature, executive, and judiciary.

Long before the Declaration of Independence and the constitution of the United States , however, the fundamental democratic principles were already enshrined in the Bill of Rights of some states. For instance, the 1641 “Body of Liberties” of Massachusetts incorporated, among other things, the following democratic rights: 1) “Every person within this Jurisdiction, whether Inhabitant or forreiner shall enjoy the same justice and law…” 2) “Every man whether Inhabitant or forreiner, free or not free shall have liberte to come to any publique court, councel, or towne meeting…” 3) No man shall be twise sentenced by Civill Justice for one and the same crime, offence, or Trespasse…” 4) All Jurors Shall be Chosen Continuallie by the Freemen of the Towne where they dwell…”; 5) Any Shire or Towne shall have liberte to chose their Deputies whom and where they please for the General Court…”; 6) The Freemen of Every Towneship shall have power to make such by laws and constitutions as may concern the welfare of their towne, provided they are not criminall, but only of a prudentiall nature…”3** The ‘Body of Libertes’ was written 102 years before Jefferson was born.

Similarly, rights embodied in the US constitution were already incorporated in the Virginia Bill of Rights, written by George Mason, one of Jefferson ’s idols. Most of the sections of the Virginia Bill of Rights were unmistakably endorsed by the US constitution later, and here are some of them:

Section 1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Section 2. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.

Section 3. That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety, and most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration; and that, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

Section 4. That no man, or set of men, are entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services; which, not being discernible, neither ought the offices magistrate, legislator, or judge to be hereditary.

Section 5. That the legislative and executive powers of the State should be separate and distinct from the judiciary; and that the members of the two first may be restricted from oppression, by feeling and participating the burdens of the people, they should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station…and vacancies be supplied by frequent, certain, and regular elections.”4  

American democracy, thus, was founded on the above-mentioned philosophies, principles, body of laws, and constitutional frameworks, and it is against this background that we must now examine the US election of 2006.

Election 2006: Towards Administrative and Policy Changes: As some observers and commentators have pointed out, the 2006 election was a political Sunami in its strength and a referendum in the turn out of voters for regime change and subsequent change of the composition of the legislative branch of government. Just one day after Election Day, the Wall Street Journal reports ‘power shift’ in American politics and makes news analysis under the title of “Democrats Roll Toward House Win.” The Journal indicated that “voters, dissatisfied after six years of Republican-led government and worried about the Iraq war, handed democrats a majority in the House, according to projections based on exit polls and voting results…Some 6 in 10 voters said they disapproved of Mr. Bush’s performance as president and of the way Congress is handling its job. Even among voters who voted for President Bush in 2004, about 16% were giving their votes to democrats running for congress.”5 Most importantly, the Wall Street Journal captured what it calls ‘Mood of the Electorate’ and this, definitely, was crucial in voter’s decision to oust the Republican regime and put democrats in higher public office instead. Voters saying the country is generally going on the right direction were 40% as opposed to 56% who said it is seriously on the wrong track, and out of the former 21% were Democrats and 78% Republicans; and of the latter, 80% were Democrats and 18% Republicans.6   This voter mood was already anticipated by Newsweek Magazine a week before election day: “Voters in the new poll say Dems are better able to bring about the changes the country needs (50% vs. 30%), manage the government well (47% vs. 31%) and govern honestly (39% vs. 27%).”7               

Ultimately, the Democrats won the day by taking five more seats in the Senate and 27 seats in the House of Representatives. Democrats now control 54 out of the total 100 seats in the Senate and 230 seats out of the total 435 seats in the House. The Democrats did not only make a sweeping victory in controlling the legislature, but they also brought a woman, Nancy Polosi, as the first woman speaker of the House ever in US history. It is also for the first time that the House witnessed a new addition, a Moslem and an African American, Mr. Keith Alison from Minnesota, and had it been for the success of Harold Ford Jr. from Tennessee, we would have had two African Americans in the Senate. Democrats were successful not only in their traditional sphere of influence but also in the heart of America, states like Indiana and Kentucky, normally considered strongholds of Republicans. Another major victory for Democrats was the victory of Eliot Spitzer, Democrat, over the incumbent George A. Pataki, Republican, after 12 years.  Democrats also gained victories in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Rhode Island; they took over the Northeast, with the exception of Connecticut, where Joseph Liberman, who defected from the Democratic Party after he lost in the primary to Ned Lamont, was reelected to the Senate.

What Africa Can Learn from the American Electoral Process:

As indicated above, the Jeffersonian model of democracy ordains the people or the electorate as sovereign. There is no doubt that the ‘elitist’ conception of democracy as opposed to the ‘pluralist school’ of thought, that have been debated for decades in academic circles, will once more regenerate dialogue with respect to the reaffirmation of ‘peoples power’ in the American context. Election 2006 clearly testified that elite politicians were unable to curtail the general will, the peoples choice, or the decision of the electorate. On the contrary, the elite were unable to maintain the status quo, were unable to survive the people’s avalanche, and to their great surprise or chagrin they were out of public office on Tuesday, November 7, 2006.

On top of the democratic tradition reflected in the US constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the electoral process, as a whole, is free and fair. The latter guarantee universal suffrage, freedom of citizens to register and run for public office, freedom of speech of candidates without restriction or precondition, freedom to assemble and hold rallies, demonstrations, and campaigns without restriction and precondition; freedom from fear and harassment; freedom of voters and candidates to have equal access to polling stations; freedom of candidates to have equal access to and obtain feedback (vote outcome) from an impartial board or committee of elections.

In most Africa, with the exception of some countries, dictatorship prevails over fair and free elections; in some African countries, elections, let alone ‘free and fair’ elections, are unthinkable. In fact, some African nations are governed by paternalistic, personal, and oligarchic regimes and hence the people are subjected to oppression and dehumanization. But, before I galvanize the lessons Africa can get from election 2006, I like to first deal with the relatively democratic, albeit ephemeral in most instances, African experiment with respect to elections.

Some African countries have attempted to implement the democratic principles of free and fair elections, but because they were not grounded on a solid foundation of a democratic culture, most of these experiments were short-lived. A number of African countries, however, despite the conspicuous absence of democratic culture, have managed to evolve a relatively fair and viable system. “Nigeria developed a sophisticated federal system; Gambia, Botswana, and Mauritius have been able to sustain multiparty politics in the 1980s; and most recently, Senegal returned to competitive elections. These countries constitute important examples of a possible shift away from the convention of centralized non-participatory politics.”8    

The general view held by Africans that multiparty democracy guarantees peaceful transition in any election season is not necessarily true. Neither multiparty system, nor elections, nor brilliant and shinning constitutions, can guarantee peaceful transference of power unless a system of checks and balances is in place. Dictatorial and/or hegemonial regimes, especially the military variety, can easily trample over the ‘general will’ and they have done it in the past repeatedly. The countries in Africa that haven’t had military dictatorships were Botswana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Malawi, Senegal, and Zambia.

With respect to multiparty democracy in the African context, I have argued the following in 1993: “The fact that it has become a vogue to declare a multiparty system in order to be reciprocated by the major, stable and donor powers is at once unfortunate and ironic. Unfortunate because Third World countries, in one form or another, are compelled to adopt a “multiparty democracy” irrespective of the latter’s relevance to their particular concrete realties; ironic because the prescription of “multiparty democracy” comes from those who are stable due to conspicuous absence of what they are offering. My reservation on “multiparty democracy”, however, does not automatically justify a mono-party system as an alternative. Although the latter can also be democratic, the danger of the emergence of oligarchy without checks and balances could be regrettable. For Ethiopia, the best road toward realizing a democratic society is to rethink the proliferation of multitude of parties without resorting to a mono-party system. Dual or triad party systems, with issues and policies agenda, accompanied by an obligatory referendum to the constitution, are a viable democratic option. In many multiparty democracies, people are mobilized but do not effectively participate in politics. Referendum and/or peoples initiative, by and large, guarantee peoples participation not just in politics in general, but in the decision making process as well.” 9

In some instances, Africans’ reservation on multiparty systems is justified, simply because multi parties tend to gravitate toward manipulating ethnic politics; the electorate exhibit affiliation to sectarian ethnic-based parties, and the experience for the most part was polarization of the larger society. A case in point is the Zambian experience where tribal and linguistic affiliations were manifested in a multiparty scenario, and various ethnic groups forged coalition and unity under a one party system. The dominant group, the Bemba, for example sought an overarching umbrella and included related groups such as the Bisa, Lunda, Chisiga, and Membwe in an effort to rally them around a national agenda. Otherwise, Zambia would end up having 73 parties if indeed multiparty system is allowed.

Some of the African mono-party systems were also mass-based liberation parties that were also the founding political organizations of their respective nations following decolinzation. A good example of these are the Kenya Africa National Union (KANU), Tanganyika (Tanzania) Africa National Union (TANU, later Chama Cha Mapundizi), the Parti Democratique de Guninee (PDG), Peoples Liberation Movement for Angola (MPLA), and Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO). These political parties were unifying forces in nation building but they were unable to create a viable democratic system and institutionalize free and fair elections. Nevertheless, as Phyllis Martin and Patrick O’Meara convincingly argue, “some one-party regimes, such as Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia, were able to retain a modicum of electoral competition, even where voters were allowed to choose only from among candidates who were themselves members of the single party. The Tanzanian African National Union (TANU) is a good example of such competition. In elections after TANU became the only legal political party in Tanzania in 1964, voters rejected as many as 45 percent of the incumbent members of parliament, and even cabinet ministers became subject to similar accountability.”10      

Therefore it is not necessarily the number of parties that augment the participation of the people in elections and the decision making process. It is the nature and goodwill of the parties and a counterchecking or countervailing mechanism for transparency and accountability that matters. The nature of TANU, quoted above, was also discussed in one of my articles with respect to Nyerere’s contribution to good governance, and here is how I put it then: “Nyerere was highly emphatic on good governance, which, in the 1990s has become a buzz word, if not a cliché in premier literary publications. In 1967, under Nyerere’s supervision, TANU introduced a ‘Leadership Code’ for all its leaders to report regularly to the president on their wealth and income, and for the next three decades, he argued that the state officials must be accountable to the people. In fact, in his latest book entitled Our Leadership and the Destiny of Tanzania (1995), Nyerere still emphasized on leadership ethics and good governance. Government officials, especially those at the top level, should be “persons of integrity of principles, and who respect the equal humanity of all others regardless of their wealth, religion, race, sex, or differing opinions.” With respect to tolerance of differing opinions, Nyerere was perhaps at the forefront for the battle of democracy, and most of his writings, speeches and actions bear the imprint of dialogue in the promotion of meaningful political discourse for the benefit of all citizens of society. Nyerere was one of the few African leaders who could listen and respect ideas diametrically opposite to that of his own.”11      

In spite of the African overall fragile political systems, proliferation of hegemonic and dictatorial regimes, and massive corruption, Naomi Chasan et al argue that “managed political change has also been launched through the ballot box.” The authors further pointed out that “elections in most part of the continent have been neither infrequent nor totally manipulated,” and most importantly they identify five main types of post-colonial elections: “the first are symbolic elections, in which a single slate of candidates for parliament and the presidency is presented to the voters and receives near unanimous (engineered) mandate…the second kind of elections permits competition for office within a single-party system…A third form of elections, held regularly in the pluralist regimes of Gambia, Botswana, Mauritius, and Senegal throughout the 1970s and 1980s, entertains limited multiparty competition…[the fourth kind is plebiscite that] seeks popular approval for constitutional changes or proposed adjustments in the organization of the political center. In Ghana, the 1960 plebescite on the republican constitution and the Union government referendum are two examples of the widespread practice of seeking to bring about a regime change without a shift in the composition of the government. A fifth kind of elections, however, has provided a mechanism for the simultaneous turnover of both leaders and regimes. These elections (held primarily in administrative regimes) are a concomitant of a military withdrawal from the political arena.”12           

Many African countries, therefore, have implemented different mechanisms and styles in conducting elections. Some have managed to exhibit constancy and change in upholding the democratic process. Gambia, Botswana, and Mauritius are a good example of this category. Others intermittently sustained democratic elections but their respective single-parties deteriorated to the level of emasculating democratic rights and shutting down parliaments. Examples of this variety are the bygone regimes of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Sekou Toure in Guniea, Seaka Stevens in Sierra Leone, and Milton Obote in Uganda. Although the military regimes that followed Nkrumah and Obote were by far repressive, the two countries made a come back to electoral politics in recent years. By the same token, Nigeria’s democratic electoral process was interrupted several times and has now been resuscitated by Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a military interventionist but who abdicated power voluntarily and now again wielded the reigns of state power as a moderate and reformist president of Nigeria. However, beneath these revivalist scenarios lie the patron-client relations that effectively preclude genuine democratic elections. Clients could be bribed or intimidated to vote for patrons rather than for qualified and capable leaders. Countries such as Algeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal and Zambia exhibited this phenomenon, time and again.


African electoral process is also undermined by the virtual absence of tolerance and dialogue in some and by lack of accommodation to political opponents in others. A good example of the former is the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Uganda; and the latter is best exemplified by the 2005 elections in Ethiopia. The pre-election debates in Ethiopia were wonderful civic virtues that seemingly signaled peaceful power transference in the country, but the incumbent Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Forces (EPRDF) and the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) were far from reconciling and ironing out their differences. On the contrary, they were at loggerheads and the end result, as expected, was a violent conclusion to the democratic process. Given the Ethiopian psychology of power and the long history of skirmish among rival powers, the CUD would probably have put the EPRDF officials behind bars had they got a chance to control the reigns of power.

One African country that has just emerged from the ashes of long civil war is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country has just resuscitated from an apparent death and just conducted elections on the second week of November 2006, and according to many observers the election was “free and fair.” The National Electoral Commission of DR Congo reported that Joseph Kabila defeated his opponent Jean-Pierre Bemba in a 65% turn out of 25 million registered voters. As per the Commission, Kabila got 58.5% of the votes and Bemba 41.9% but the challenger has now filed at the Supreme Court for a recount.  I hope the healthy sign of democratic elections in DR Congo will exhibit relative durability.

One important dimension of the American election is the fact that voters cast their votes based on issues, policies and ideas.  The demographics of the electorate are highly diverse; it cuts across classes, racial and ethnic affiliations, sex, income gradations, and religious groups etc. Nevertheless, voters in the US vote on policy-related issues that may or may not affect their life directly; they vote on legally sanctioned statues and laws; they vote on controversial issues such as stem cell research or abortion; they vote on a variety of Proposals as in California. By doing so, they participate without inhibition or prohibition in the electoral process, and all this is done in a single day, the first Tuesday of the first week of November. 

A week before Election Day, for instance, Newsweek’s poll survey indicated that, “55% of likely voters said they would vote for the Democratic candidate in their district if the election were held today. Only 37% would vote for Republican…in the new poll, 31% of voters said that Iraq was their top issue, with the economy second at 18%, a majority (54%) thinks the U.S. was wrong to go to war in Iraq, up from 47% in August.”13 The issues are inseparable from the candidate in the minds of the electorate, although from time to time charismatic personalities could escape the scrutiny of unsuspecting voters. It is this culture that Africans need to embrace before they cast their votes for a candidate.


If there are no foundations and necessary ingredients that contribute to a vibrant democratic culture, how is it possible then that I urge Africans to learn from the American experiment? Understandably, in the absence of democratic principles and practice, one could not expect much for an overnight triumph of free and fair elections. Notwithstanding the cliché ‘more time is needed to foster democracy in Africa,’ it is crucially important for Africans to begin to admit their weaknesses, appreciate other democratic cultures and learn from them. Even if we agree that comparison between the US and Africa is a futile exercise in history, there is no doubt that we can gain immensely and make great stride not so much in implementing democratic principles but in borrowing ideas that could help us inculcate the democratic culture. Thus, Africans should begin at the beginning and take ‘lessons in democracy’.


While taking ‘lessons in democracy’, we must concurrently attempt to implement the following proposals in order to fashion a modicum of democratic principles as guidelines for our electoral processes:


  1. Change of attitude and/or psychological make-up via education and not by imposition or ideological confrontation.
  2. Educators and other professionals should transcend the patron-client relations and organize annual or biannual conferences surrounding issues, policies, or anecdotes pertinent to democracy and elections. They may also supplement the conferences with ‘workshops on democracy’. For recommendations, please refer to footnote # 14 below.14
  3. Educators in administrative positions –from university staff to the ministry of education- should seriously and deliberately foster curricula deliberately designed to promote history of democracy and the electoral process in countries such as the United States.
  4. It is incumbent upon scholar intellectuals to write books or produce literature in any form and address important departure points in the making of a democratic culture.
  5. Government officials and enlightened men and women in public service should transcend personal vested interests and join hands with intellectuals and professionals who are willing to serve their respective nations.
  6. The media (TV, Radio, newspapers, websites etc.) and the ministries of culture and information in African countries should disseminate ideas of democracy and the electoral process and must sustain their efforts.



Notes and Sources:


*When this article was underway, to my great surprise, I came across almost identical title on Dekialula website and I had to make slight adjustments to my own title. It is, however, a delight to learn that some African observers (in this case, Ethiopian) are on the same wavelength.

  1. http://library.thinkquest.org/26466/history_of_democracy.html
  2. The Declaration of Independence (1776)
  3. Diane Ravitch and Abigail Thernstorm (editors), The Democracy Reader, Harper Perennial, 1992, pp. 99-100; ** note the archaic English in the Body of Liberties
  4. Ravitch and Thernstorm, ibid, p. 106
  5. The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, November 8, 2006
  6. The Wall Street Journal, ibid,
  7. Newsweek, October 30, 2006, p. 40
  8. Naomi Chazan et al, Politics and Society in Contemporary Africa, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, Colorado, 1988, p. 7
  9. Ghelawdewos Araia, Democracy in A Historical and Ethiopian Context, Ethiopian Commentator, May 1, 1993, p. 51
  10. Phyllis M. Martin and Patrick O’Meara, Africa, Third Edition, Indiana University Press, 1995, p. 350
  11. Ghelawdewos Araia, Tribute to Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerrere, African Link, Fourth Quarter, Vol. 8, No. 4, 1999, p. 20
  12. Naomi Chazan et al, op cit, p. 206
  13. Newsweek, op cit, pages 30 and 36 respectively
  14.  1) “Designing Continuum to Enrich Ethiopian Educational Discourse and Debate Culture,” www.africanidea.org/designing.html; 2) “Coalition Government and Comparative Politics: Meanings for Ethiopia,” www.africanidea.org/coalition_government.html; 3) “Humanizing the Ethiopian Political Culture,” www.africanidea.org/humanizing.html ; 4) Political Culture in the Context of Contemporary Ethiopian Politics,” www.africanidea.org/political_culture.html ; 5) “Education for Tolerance: Sustainable Dialogue for Human Dignity,” www.africanidea.org/tolerance.html


Copy Right © IDEA, Inc. 2006 Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be reached at ga51@columbia.edu for educational and constructive feedback.