Democracy Ascendant In States of West Africa

Supporters of opposition presidential candidate John Atta Mills celebrate in Winneba, an Atlantic coast town near Ghana's capital, Accra, after learning that rumors of Mills's death were false.
Supporters of opposition presidential candidate John Atta Mills celebrate in Winneba, an Atlantic coast town near Ghana's capital, Accra, after learning that rumors of Mills's death were false. (By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
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By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 13, 2008

WINNEBA, Ghana -- Ama Maysiema danced down the main drag of this seaside town in sweaty exultation. Rumors had spread that opposition leader John Atta Mills had died. But there he was, standing up through the sunroof of a Toyota Land Cruiser, waving to supporters as they drummed, sang and cheered their support.

"He's our savior!" shouted Maysiema, 49, whirling in a blue dress as she waved palm fronds -- like those once laid in the path of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem -- to celebrate the apparent resurrection of her candidate. "People said he's dead, but he's alive!"

Reborn as well, over the past decade, has been democracy itself here in Ghana and among its neighbors along West Africa's Atlantic coast. From Sierra Leone east to Nigeria, stability and at least a tentative version of multiparty politics have begun taking hold after many years of coups, military dictatorships and civil war.

As Kenya has become the latest East African nation to descend into conflict, these West African countries have moved toward politics that are vigorous but rarely violent. Maysiema said she could not imagine Ghana's partisan enthusiasms ever turning bloody, no matter what the outcome of the presidential vote scheduled for December.

"Ghanaians are a naturally peace-loving people," said Maysiema, a divorced mother of seven struggling to support her family selling bread on Winneba's streets. "They will make the noise, but there's no way they will draw blood."

The progress in the region is far from uniform. Ghana and Benin have held several free elections with peaceful transfers of power; Togo, on the other hand, is still run by the son of a longtime strongman but in October had its first vote in which all major parties participated.

Civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast have ended, and although Ivory Coast has yet to hold its first postwar vote, Liberia and Sierra Leone have elected leaders with popular mandates. Regional giant Nigeria, where military rule ended in 1999, has had a series of deeply flawed votes, but the disputes are being settled in an increasingly independent court system.

These countries are all freer, more stable and more democratic than they were a decade ago, regional analysts say. Peace, however fragile, is the norm rather than war. And citizens of these nations increasingly are demanding responsive governance from their leaders.

"There is a clear direction where people more and more are asserting themselves," said Emmanuel Bombande, executive director of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding. "So even where there is slow progress, things are much better."

The exile and prosecution of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, who spread conflict to the country's neighbors, has helped stabilize the region, as have U.N. peacekeeping missions.

But just as important, Bombande said, Ghana and Benin have become models of durable, thriving democracies, and their experience has been transmitted to the region through growing numbers of independent radio stations, cellphones and air links.

"The fact that in countries like Ghana there is a very clear definition of how democracy is the way forward does not only help Ghana," Bombande said. "It is transmitted as a signal across the region."


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