OXFORD, ENGLAND — The last decade has, in many respects, been a tragic one for sub-Saharan Africa.
Wars in Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the Great Lakes-Congo region have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and baffled would-be peacemakers. Refugees and internally displaced persons have added strain to already meager resources. HIV/AIDS, infecting up to 30 percent of some countries' populations, has already killed several million, and threatens to cut life expectancy in some regions by half.
It's hard to believe progress can raise its head anywhere on the continent, but Ghana has reason to be proud.
In 1992, President Jerry Rawlings won Ghana's first democratic election against the New Patriotic Party's Albert Adu Boaheen in an election that domestic and international observers widely viewed as rigged. In 1996, the NPP's John Kuffuor lost to Rawlings in a significant victory for the president and his NDC party, leading many to wonder if Ghana's fledgling democracy was on its way to becoming a one-party system.
But last week, free and fair elections produced a surprising victory for Mr. Kuffuor and the NPP. Kuffuor's politics look promising for the developing nation. He has proclaimed an aggressive commitment to economic development and avows an allegiance to the country's nearly decade-old democratic Constitution.
But those who follow the forward steps of developing countries will celebrate Kuffuor's victory not because of his politics, but because it provides strong evidence of the effectiveness of Ghana's young democratic system.
One of the greatest challenges to introducing democratic government in African nations has been their heterogeneous populations. (Botswana, long heralded as the success story of African democracy is notable in this respect: The population is almost absolutely homogeneous.) Creating democracy is difficult. Creating democracy in a country both blessed and cursed by a plurality of ethnic groups has proven nigh impossible.
Congratulations are due the Ghanaian people because they have shown a commitment to pluralism can produce a progressive African society.
The Oxford University educated Kuffuor hails from a famous Asante family. His sister was married to the late Sir Agyeman Prempeh II, King of Asante. Asantes are the largest of the major ethnic groups in contemporary Ghana, making up just under 30 percent of Ghana's population of about 18 million.
Many observers of the recent election, myself included, doubted Kuffuor would overcome his reputation as the "Asante candidate" enough to entice members of other ethnic groups to support him.
The election returns suggest Kuffuor was able to transcend the boundaries of ethnicity in his campaign. The responsibility now lies with him to be a genuine Ghanaian leader, rather than an Asante one.
Congratulations are also due Mr. Rawlings. Here is a man who came to power in a bloody military coup two decades ago, led Ghana in a precarious military dictatorship through constitutional reforms, emerged as the elected leader of a nascent but thriving democracy. Though his chosen successor, Vice President John Atta Mills, was defeated, last week's election signals a great victory for Rawlings and is a testament to his leadership.
For the first time in Ghana's history, democratic elections have produced a change in leadership. One of the greatest benefits of democracy, when it's done right, is that it provides a stable political foundation that both allows for and can deal with political change. In less than a decade, the reforms enacted under Rawlings's leadership have transformed Ghana from an autocracy to a functioning multiparty democracy.
Of course, the real winners of this election are the Ghanaian people, who have proved to themselves and the world that African nations are capable of overcoming a history of exploitation, dictatorships, and ethnic strife, and that such nations can successfully embrace a mandate for human progress.
Amid all of the tragedy that has characterized recent African history, it is right the West should recognize the glimmers of hope on the African continent. The success of last month's elections in Ghana gives weight to the West's responsibility to aid African nations in their efforts toward progress.
"They can't be helped" is not a satisfactory response to Africa's enormous and variegated troubles. They can be helped, and they can succeed, as Botswana, South Africa, Nigeria, and now Ghana, have proved.
In the wake of the United States' protracted post-election mess, Americans have been left with several valuable lessons. Now more than ever, Americans should be grateful for the stability of their own country. The fact they were able to spend more than a month debating an election without fearing a disintegration of the rule of law is a priceless luxury.
The US election should have also taught Americans how important it is to feel that leaders are chosen by the people. The most important role in any election is not the candidate but the voter. And this election should have strengthened American resolve to protect and perfect the workings of democracy both in the United States and abroad.
As President-elect Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and their advisers set the agenda for the next four years, they would be wise to reaffirm America's commitment to helping other nations establish and sustain viable systems of democratic self-government.
Daniel Baer, a former special assistant for African affairs to ambassador Richard Holbrooke, is a Marshall scholar who will study for a doctorate in International Relations at Oxford.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society