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What to watch for as election season sweeps across Africa

There are five countries in East and West Africa slated for elections in the near future. Guest blogger Alex Thurston outlines out the issues at hand in each election.

By Alex ThurstonGuest blogger / April 5, 2011

A man reads a newspaper with headline "Electoral Commission Chairman Attahiru Jega Apologies for elections postponement," published in Lagos, Nigeria on April 3. Nigeria postponed its National Assembly elections Saturday as ballots and tally sheets remained missing from polling places throughout the nation, a worrying sign as the oil-rich nation faces a month of crucial polls.

Sunday Alamba/AP

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With so much news coming out of Africa this week – ongoing civil wars and foreign interventions in Libya and Ivory Coast, a diplomatic transition in Sudan, and a tragic plane crash in Congo – I want to make sure there is some coverage of elections taking place in West and East Africa, including but not limited to Nigeria’s vote.

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The calendar runs as follows:

  • April 8: Presidential elections in Djibouti
  • April 9: National Assembly elections in Nigeria
  • April 16: Presidential elections in Nigeria
  • April 17: Parliamentary elections in Benin
  • April 24: Senatorial elections in Mauritania
  • April 26: State elections in Nigeria
  • May 8: Presidential elections in Chad (there are conflicting dates for this vote, but I am following All Africa’s electoral calendar, available on their homepage)

Here is an outline of the major issues at stake in each country:

Djibouti

Presidential elections in Djibouti are nearly guaranteed to return two-term incumbent Ismael Omar Guelleh to power, and this prospect has sparked a protest movement that aims to place this small Horn of Africa nation in the company of Egypt and Tunisia. Yesterday, Human Rights Watch called on Djibouti’s government to “allow peaceful protests.” For two different views on the meaning of the elections, see pieces by Shane Marotta and by Awate (a website run by Eritrean dissidents).

Nigeria

This weekend’s decision to delay elections in Nigeria continues to draw criticism and stoke fears of potential disaster. A number of commentators have spoken on the elections, but I found these words from journalist Tolu Ogunlesi, writing for Think Africa Press, particularly thoughtful:

I think that what we are seeing in Nigeria at the moment is not so much a “deepening of democracy” (i.e. in terms of a transformation of democratic institutions: police, judiciary, executive, legislature, political parties etc), as it is an "awareness-transformation" on the part of citizens. It is important to realise that democracy, as a system of government, is useless when citizens do not realise the extent of the power it offers them. Various interlinked factors including technology (mobile phones, social networking, a computerised voter database), the 2008 Barack Obama story (of change, and limitless possibilities), the North African uprisings and a general yearning for good leadership after 12 unimpressive years of civilian rule have combined to enlighten, inspire and empower Nigerians and to transform their understanding of what genuine democracy is all about (power in the hands of the people). So while the Nigerian judiciary remains embroiled in corruption, the police force continues to be as ineffective and compromised as ever, and the political parties continue to lack vision or ideological basis, what is happening is that citizens are realising that they have more power than they thought they had: the power to say “No”, or “Yes.”

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