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Africa's PMS approach to democracy

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay hopes Africans can move from a hormonal defence of certain emotive issues to a consistent approach to our democracy.

Senegal's people refused to let a would-be dictator destroy their democracy. (AFP)

PMS.

The acronym was scrawled throughout Dakar’s bustling city centre, on walls, fences and signs. In red paint.

I shuddered. What could it mean? Somehow I couldn’t picture a mass uprising of Senegal’s elegant long-limbed women in a hormonal rage.

One wall finally decoded the mystery: Pro-Macky Sall, the current president of the West African country.  

The graffiti I spotted during my visit in November was the last vestiges of a remarkable uprising in that country before its elections in March this year. It was not nearly as incendiary or dramatic as the revolution further up in the Arab North of the continent, which captured the world’s attention, so perhaps you might have missed it.

Senegal’s president, the fairly respectable Abdoulaye Wade, pulled that old favourite of would-be anti-democrats across the continent: he tried to run for an unconstitutional third term in office on a dubious technicality. Instead of retiring gracefully at 85, he tried to hang on to power. The country's people rose up in anger. This was their democracy. No one was going to mess with it.

“It was amazing,” one diplomat told me. “The people just said 'no'. It seems ingrained into their value system – this idea that power must be transferred.”

The reaction wasn’t entirely noble. A few people died as protests became heated.

Images of Wade on campaign posters had their eyes scratched out, and his convoy was stoned towards the end.

But in the end a number of opposition politicians, popular celebrities like Youssou N'dour and ordinary Senegalese people united behind Wade’s rival, Macky Sall with one slogan, "Out with the incumbent." And it worked. Sall won and everyone breathed a sigh of relief as Wade handed over power without throwing a loser’s tantrum, the likes of which saw their neighbour Côte d'Ivoire fall into chaos after their elections in 2011.

Perhaps Wade came up against the fierce determination of his people and decided he couldn’t fight back. Perhaps he realised it was better to bow out with a semblance of respectability instead of entirely ruining any legacy he may once have had, like Robert Mugabe has done in Zimbabwe. Either way, one thing was certain: the country’s people made themselves heard.

Along West Africa’s coast lies Ghana, which experienced a similar moment when its president unexpectedly died in July 2012. Other countries on the continent could have plunged into crisis at such a moment. Ghana, one of the most stable African democracies, accepted the rule of their deputy president, and on Sunday quietly elected him to lead the country.

Senegal’s reaction to Wade’s attempt to secure a third term reminded me of our own horror at Thabo Mbeki doing the same here in South Africa. The ANC particularly rose up against the idea, and as many have subsequently noted, voted for Jacob Zuma in what was essentially an anti-Mbeki vote. The e-tolls saga has seen even our usually complacent middle class come out anger against the measure.

It is these small, pedestrian stories of success from our continent that intrigues me and sometimes gives me hope. What makes one country’s people hang on to certain democratic values, and others dismiss them? The argument that ethnic loyalties and the "Big Man" syndrome rules the way we govern here are giving way to evidence that, actually, many Africans value certain democratic norms. In Ghana they have a saying: "Ghana in peace, not in pieces."

We must not, of course, underestimate the power of a brutal military or rebel force that keeps people from fighting for their rights.

And of course this sense of democracy can vary and be quite complicated. Rwanda has pulled itself up by its bootstraps after the horrific genocide in 1994. Its spotless streets, growing economy, and green spaces are now quite famous and I often envy the clear path they are on, given the chaotic and directionless leadership offered by our own president, Zuma. Yet Rwanda is led and seemingly held together by Paul Kagame – a near benevolent dictator who has rode roughshod over certain freedoms, cracked down on opponents and backed rebels in other countries.

In Ghana and Senegal too, while their elections are to be commended, corruption with the public sector seems to be on the rise.

Why do we value some things so much we are willing to die for them, and not others? Are we like the literal version of that PMS slogan, raging erratically on one emotional issue, while ignoring others? I hope not.

I hope that these small stories of success across the continent are indicative of a gradual maturity. As our governance structures become more robust, the hope is that our other development indicators will follow suit: our education will improve, the middle class will grow, civil society activism will increase and governments will become increasingly accountable and clean.

Already Africa has seen the economic growth that puts the West to shame, even if such growth is patchy across the continent. A light is dawning on the continent but that comes from a change in our hearts and minds. We’ve latched on to certain values, like two terms for a president, after history has taught us how breaking that rule can devastate a country.

I look forward to a day when Africans will hold on to other democratic values with such passion and stubbornness.

Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G Online. You can read her column Background Noise every week, and follow her on Twitter here.


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