The little African country that could

Despite recent sectarian violence and harsh rule, the Central African Republic renews its democracy – and hope – with a newly elected president. It is a model for a continent drifting toward autocracy.

AP Photo
People line up to cast a ballot in the second round of presidential election and first round of legislative elections in Bangui, Central African Republic, Sunday Feb. 14.

After decades of trying, Africa still struggles to find its own brand of democracy, one that fits each country’s unique ethnic, religious, or even clannish culture. Since 2001, the most popular model has been that of an elected leader fiddling with a constitution to stay in power. A second challenge has been the rise of religious militants, especially violent Islamists.

So it should be celebrated when an African nation triumphs over these trends. On Wednesday, a new president of the Central African Republic was sworn into office. It was a remarkable achievement for a country that was beset by autocratic rule and brutal Christian-Muslim violence only three years ago.

Faustin-Archange Touadéra, a former math professor and prime minister, took power after a relatively calm and fair election, garnering nearly two-thirds of the ballots. He promised to unify and develop his small country of 4 million. “The highest of priorities is that Central Africans live in peace together throughout the country,” he said, reflecting a sentiment heard often across the continent.

His country’s progress came a year after Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, held an election that saw the first peaceful transfer of power to a duly elected opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. And that election was also held amid sectarian violence in the form of the Boko Haram insurgency. Kenya, too, held an election in 2013 amid continuing Islamist violence.

These examples stand in contrast to the dubious efforts of longtime leaders to cling to power, such as those in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Republic of Congo, and Rwanda. In Angola and Equatorial Guinea, leaders there have lasted 36 years. These autocrats claim to rule on the false promise of achieving economic development faster with heavy-handed governance.

Africans need more models of how to renew democracy, overcome sectarian divides, and lay the groundwork for equitable economic growth. Even its smaller nations can provide a good example.

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