Obama Romney Battle: Lessons for Africa

Published on 6th November 2012

Obama and Romney campaigns hold vital lessons for Africa P. Courtesy
As at the time of writing this article, the cliffhanger election campaign in the United States has not being resolved. President Barack Obama is in a statistical dead heat with Governor Mitt Romney for the powerful presidency of the United States, according to virtually all pre-election polling numbers. The leader of the only existing global superpower will be chosen by ordinary Americans performing the extraordinary,   majestic process of voting according to their beliefs and conscience. 

For Africa, the titanic contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney should help bring renewed focus to the ideal of population-based democracy. In virtually all development indices of multilateral institutions and think tanks, countries and regions that embrace population-based democracy have better prospects of peace and long term prosperity. Democracy ignites, reinvigorates and rejuvenates the capacity of all stakeholders to jointly participate in nation building.  

Population-based democracy at its purest sense is about the led freely choosing their leaders. Democracy is also about the led grading their leaders within, defined time limits in office. It is also about political leaders recognizing that their ultimate fate and career in politics resides upon the knowledge, attitudes and perceptions of the led regarding their performance in office. No matter how powerful and larger than life in office, democratic leaders understand that they are one legitimate election away from the pink slip.

Population-based democracy at its core is about the broadest exchange of ideas, solving present problems, a competing vision for the future and reasonable compromise in national interest.  It is also about peaceful co-existence, free press, and the rule of law, a strong parliament and the protection of the weak. Democracy revolves around representation and access to decision making processes.

No matter the trappings of office, motorcade sirens, the fawning of courtiers and partisan supporters, the ultimate judge in a representative democracy are men and women struggling to fend for their families. These men and women in legitimate democracies often focus on what is best for their children now and in the future. Despite the best efforts of spin masters and image makers, lobbyists and pundits, the fate of any elected official in a legitimate, representative democracy is ultimately at the mercy of voters. 

Voters are the unquestioned kings and queens of democracy for three simple reasons. First, every action taken on behalf of democracy should be in the best interest of the people. Second, every government institution is answerable to the people. Every policy decision and program implementation by a democratic government is ultimately answerable to the people. It is no secret that an important anchor of a strong democracy is the ethics of governance, to precisely hold office holders accountable in all their official actions regarding their ultimate responsibility to the people.

Think of countries where the majesty of the ballot box is impeded, sullied or destroyed. Politicians and ruling elites, sometimes over multiple generations, practice their craft without the fear of recall by voters. In this scenario, affected politicians have little incentive to invest significantly on issues that resonate with voters. Frank debate, exchange of ideas and long term competing vision for the future are often sidestepped or considered “dangerous” to national security. Governance ethics, prudence and accountability are not critical in impeded democracies. In addition, politicians weaned on contempt of the ballot box eventually regard political power as a birthright for themselves, family members and cronies.   

Perhaps, two of the most important drawbacks to nations that eschew democracy are lack of vigorous national debate about the future and the dangerous disconnect between educated but unemployed youth and their government.  Today in Africa, many countries do not encourage strong internal debate about the future in a rapidly changing world. Fewer countries cater to the needs of a growing proportion of educated but disaffected youth. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are important pointers of what educated disaffected youth can do. Kenya, preparing for a decisive national election in 2013 strengthened the prospects of a successful outcome by the national debate and referendum that eventually led to the adoption of a new constitution. However, Kenya still faces challenges regarding its army of educated but unemployed youth.

Every generation in the United States a vigorous debate takes place regarding the future direction of the country. The 1980 election between Governor Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter was basically about the role of government. The electoral contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is once again tasking Americans to determine the role of government in the future direction of the country.

What is often missed is that in strong democracies, between generation changing elections, a basic, bipartisan consensus undergirds national policies for governments elected every four years. This basic consensus may be tinkered but essentially intact on the economy, the military, foreign affairs and civic responsibilities.  Even after a presidential election, voters have the opportunity during mid term Congressional elections to force policy course corrections. In 2014, the American electorate will have another opportunity to grade the winner of the 2012 presidential election. 

Finally, it is important to note that democracy has not and will never be easy. Every country with strong democratic traditions, including the United States, have clawed their way through threats, controversies and scandals in attempts to safeguard the sanctity of the ballot box. The 2000 election controversy that required the intervention of the US Supreme Court for Governor George Bush to become president over Vice President Al Gore is well known. At best, democracy is messy, noisy and expensive. 

Critics also suggest that the elaborate dynamics and rituals of democracy can “slow” down “brilliant” ideas. In addition, a powerful minority taking advantage of legal and political loopholes can slow down or obstruct progress on key national issues. However, while successful democracies reflect majority views, they also have verifiable protections for the views of minority constituencies.   

External vigilance is critical as nothing is taken for granted in safeguarding democracy. Sophisticated attempts to build firewalls that can shield leaders from the day of reckoning by voters are always on the menu, even in the best democratic traditions. Ultimately, every country eyeing long term stability must create opportunities for its citizens to participate legitimately in governance. 

African countries should redouble efforts to enthrone population-based democracy across the continent.  Population-based democracy should be one of the most abiding priorities of all continental institutions in Africa. The most important commitment should be the creation of enabling environments that guarantee free and fair elections. The voice of Africans outside corridors of power will be crucial as Africa seeks to fulfill its limitless promise in the 21st Century.

By Chinua Akukwe

Chair of the Africa Working Group of the National Academy of Public Administration, Washington, DC. He is a former Chair of the Technical Advisory  Board of the Africa Center for Health and Health Security at the George Washington University, Washington, DC. Dr. Akukwe is solely responsible for this article. He can breached at [email protected]

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