Got big plans for the weekend? So does the world's most heavily peace-kept region, West Africa, where no less than three countries will tiptoe toward democracy this Sunday.
On Oct. 31, while Americans size up their appetite for candy corn, Cote d'Ivoire will hold the first national election after a decade of civil war and economic flatlining. Niger, whose military regime stomped out a coup attempt just last week, will hold a once-in-a-generation referendum on its national constitution – a referendum that doesn't just ask whether they want a strong leader or a weak federation, but also harps on more existential questions, such as whether Niger is an Islamic or secular state.
That same day, Burkina Faso will officially kick off campaigning for what incumbent President Blaise Compaoré hopes will be a fourth term in office. In the weeks to come, Guinea is expected to hold its first presidential election in 50 – as in, five-zero – years. Early next year, Nigeria will hold what might be its most contentious presidential vote in decades, then Liberia will hold just its second truly free election since the days of blood diamonds and Charles Taylor.
At the moment, Africa's western bulge hosts more UN peacekeeping missions than any other part of the planet – in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Cote d'Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and Liberia – but in a matter of months, many of those missions could seem quaint: Already, Sierra Leone's is set to end a year from this month.
If all goes well this weekend – and there is a lot of "all" that needs to "go well" – West Africa could emerge less a land of crisis than a hotspot of opportunity.
"There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic," says Africa Head Alex Vines of the London-based think tank Chatham House. "Some sort of stability will be important to assure businesses and investors, who will look to invest at longer terms."
Consider first Cote d'Ivoire, the world's top cocoa grower and the potential economic motor of West Africa (after Nigeria, of course). Its rubber, coffee, cocoa, and diamond exports have thrived alongside the financial services, tourism, and telecommunications industries in the financial capital of Abidjan. Since the country split along a north-south axis, the economy has meandered along at 1 percent growth each year, while neighboring Ghana has flaunted 7 percent growth and played host to President Barack Obama.
"Even now, Cote d'Ivoire is one of the stronger economies in terms of trade," Vines says. An end to conflict could see Cote d'Ivoire's rapid re-emergence, he adds.
Northwest of Cote d'Ivoire we have Guinea, a country rich in hydropower, agricultural, and mineral resources, with almost half of the world's bauxite reserves. While it remains an underdeveloped nation, "the good thing about Guinea is it hasn't imploded into a civil war," says Vines, voicing a backhand appraisal of its prospects for peace.
The country's Pular-speaking plurality was staged to elect the country's first Pular president when Cellou Dallein Diallo took 43 percent of the first round vote in June. But rival Alpha Condé is picking up support from other groups in the country.
Tension is high. The current military government has presided over numerous delays, and some election-related violence, as the two rivals bicker over the logistics of a second round.
And further northwest along West Africa's bulge we have the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau, famous for all the wrong things. The coastal nation is the top transit point for South African cocaine bound for Europe via unregistered planes and Saharan caravans. Its military has a history of staging wanton coups – something that could happen any minute, now that the country's diabetic president is in the hospital, as of last Sunday. The prime minister, ostensibly now running the nation, is so well-liked among the army that its top general kidnapped and threatened to kill him last April.
But, in a new twist, peacekeepers from the Economic Community of West African States and the Portuguese Language Community (Angola, Brazil) are shadowing civilian leaders, protecting them from their own Praetorian Guard.
"That is both interesting and innovative," Vines says. "The Economic Community of West African States is stronger than any other region in Africa. This is all reasonably good news."