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A Stony Path: Democracy in West Africa

Currently, the Ivory Coast peace process depends on how Alassane Ouattara, the new president, is going to act. One can hope that he will find the strength to patch up his torn country and set a good example by incorporating the opposition into policy making. One step in this direction was taken by appointing a committee with the difficult task of instituting conciliation and honest communication between the conflicting parts of Ivory Coast.

In addition to the generous offer to waive all debts owed to the European Investment Bank, the €180 Million promised by the European Union as an aid package to boost reconstruction efforts should help the stabilization progress. With banks opening for the first time in months and cocoa exports up and running again, the nation’s economy should be on its way to recovery.

Apparently, the civil war has come to an end with the arrest of Gbagbo, who refused to leave office in-spite of being voted out of office. It seems, however, that the election in November divided the country even more and that the current peace is a very fragile one: At the end of April, the German ambassador and his bodyguards were pelted with stones by an outraged crowd – bloody shootings and plundering continue.

The hotly debated question arising from this conflict is: Does the concept of democracy work at all in West Africa? There is no single answer to this. Nigeria and Ghana are both well on their way toward becoming stable democracies, whereas countries like Libera and Ivory Coast trail far behind.

Ghana is a fairly safe place to be in comparison with other African states. In 2009 John Atta Mills took office as president of Ghana, marking the second time that governmental power had been transferred legitimately, therefore securing Ghana’s status as a stable democracy.

In spite of its oil wealth, Nigeria isn’t quite as progressive as Ghana, seeming underdeveloped or even stunted compared to the latter. The country also took a big step forward with its recent elections which ran smoothly with relatively little violence or fraud in contrast to previous elections. This event was crucial for the future of Nigeria, strengthening President Goodluck Johnathan’s position and marking the end of a decay of democratic values. It could easily help to restrict the rampant corruption in the country’s administration.

All this leads to another question: How come the differences between West African states are so immense? To find an appropriate answer one has to take a look at their respective historical backgrounds. Ever since the 15th century, the Portuguese, French and Britons founded forts and factories along the coastline with the purpose of gold, ivory and slave trade. Today, West Africa is marked by large contrasts between the Francophone and Anglophone territories. Quite often, connections between former colonies and their mother countries are stronger than those between neighboring countries. Up until the 1950s and 60s, when independence movements arose, Nigeria and Ghana were under British and Ivory Coast under French reign. In 1957, the Republic of Ghana became the first country south of the Sahara to achieve independence, with others soon to follow.

Since its nations’ independence, West Africa has suffered under numerous dictatorships, military coups and rampant political corruption. The region has seen a number of bloody civil wars – examples being the Nigerian Civil War which lasted from 1967 to 1970 and the conflict in Ivory Coast that began in 2002 – and in the 1990s, AIDS became a significant problem, particularly in Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Nigeria.

As a stable presidential republic in the Commonwealth, Ghana exerts the separation of powers based on a constitution that grants the population basic human rights. With around 56% of the population conducting subsistence agriculture, Ghana is still one of the poorest countries of the world. Yet with the economic situation having stabilized in the early 2000s and the joint debt relief program of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund having been put into practice in 2004, improvements are made on a daily basis.

In contrast, Ivory Coast has quite a progressive economy but significantly larger problems on the political side. This is mainly because Ivory Coast had enormous economic advantages from having been in possession of the French, as French colonists tried to stimulate the development of export economies in their colonies, whereas British colonies like Ghana had mainly been exploited for mining gold. At the time of its independence, Ivory Coast was West Africa’s most prosperous nation. The first independent government guaranteed farmers good prices for their products, further stimulating production. By 1979, the country was the world’s leading exporter of cocoa. Contrary to other African nations that sought to expel Europeans, Ivory Coast allured them – a large contribution to the ‘Ivoirian miracle’ was made by French technicians. For twenty years, the West African nation’s economy maintained a steady annual growth rate, until the global recession of the early 1980s and a local drought set an end to all this positive development. Due to the collapsing sugar and timber prices, its external debt increased threefold. Thesedays, Ivory Coast has a relatively high per capita income and remains the world’s largest exporter of cocoa. The continued maintenance of close ties with France, diversification of agriculture for export and the encouragement of foreign investments have been driving factors that positively influenced the economic boom. Still, the combination of competition, falling market prices of export goods and internal corruption hinder a return to the financial success story of the nation’s past.

Nigeria has an abundant supply of natural resources as well as highly developed financial, legal, communications and transport sectors and a functioning stock exchange. Corruption and mismanagement have, however, prevented the country from exporting oil at full capacity and have slowed growth in the mining industry and agricultural sector. As a result, Nigeria has vast areas of underutilized arable land. Throughout the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, who can be described as really interested in free and fair elections and the administration of the democratic activist Attahiru Jega, Nigeria could regain strength.In April 2006, the country made history by becoming the first African Nation to pay off its debt of an estimated $30 Billion completely. In this new and invigorating position, Nigeria – the African Giant with its population of over 150 Million – could be able to achieve its democratic goals and serve as a role model for all other West African nations. As a current member of the UN Security Council, now is a great time to take a stand for democracy and equality, proving that wealth isn’t everything and showing Ivory Coast the way.

Frankfurt Globe


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