Monday, May 23, 2011

A Functioning Democracy in Africa

There’s been a lot of upheaval around the world, especially regarding elections. Cote d’Ivoire was engulfed in a multi-month quasi-civil war, Libya has its citizens rising up declaring their desire for a democracy, the same with Egypt. That being said, there are many countries in Africa where democracies flourish, Benin is one of those countries.

As with many things in this country, the election was slow to start and took awhile to actually get up and running. One of the main culprits was a lack of voter registration. The literacy rate in Benin is rather low, and the rate of those with actual identification cards is even lower. This means that registration is impossible for some, difficult for most, The president, Dr. Thomas Yayi Boni, postponed the election to allow the Beninese citizenry to go and get their identification cards after many information campaigns headed be local election officials all over the country. In Kerou, there were lines of interested Beninois that stretched for “blocks” of people who were trying to get their voter registration cards. Ingeniously, the government declared that these registration cards would double as citizen identification cards.

After weeks of postponing and hemming and hawing around, the elections finally took place. In Benin campaigning can only begin two weeks before the election actually takes places. Unfortunately, the voting date got pushed back three or four times. So, the two-week campaign season turned into a month. All throughout the country posters supporting candidates such as Abdoulaye Bio Tchane, Salifou Issa, incumbent Yayi Boni, and Akuavi Marie-Elise Christiana Gbedo proclaiming their unique visions for the future and how they’ll be the ones to take Benin there.

Historically, there are normally two rounds of elections. The first round is for all of the candidates, this year there were 14. After the first round, things are usually whittled down to the top two candidates, who face in a run-off. They usually find some of the candidates who haven’t made it to the second round and create alliances. Then the non-second rounders throw their support behind the second rounders in hopes of garnering influence from the winning candidate and hopefully a position in the new president’s administration. A candidate must get more than 50% percent of the vote to win. This normally doesn’t happen in the first round, with some candidates getting up to 30% and thus needing the support of the other candidates. If during the first round a candidate gets the necessary 50%, there will not be a second round.

This year we had such an event. Yayi Boni, the incumbent, got 54% of the vote in the first round. This is not a regular occurrence and garnered some attention from those of whom did not get enough votes. There were some protests in and around the capital, Porto Novo, and Cotonou, populated by people expressing their discontent with someone from the north; Yayi Boni is Bariba and from the same area and people who have taken me in. Yayi Boni has thus been sworn in as the president of the Republic of Benin.

It was exciting to see how a democracy functions in a culture that is so completely different from my own. In America, it’s taboo to speak of politics and for whom you’ll be voting. Here, you’re encouraged to talk about your feelings and political leanings, as long as they coincide with your heritage and tradition: Muslims are to vote for Muslims, Christians for Christians, Fon for Fon and Bariba for Bariba, et cetera. Having a dissenting view is looked down upon and might evince upbraiding from those closest to you. But, is that really so different from America? Oh, how I’ve been chided by family members for being a liberal. But, I’m surely allowed to vote for whomever I please without fear of reprisal. I’m not so sure that’s the case for my neighbors.

Elections are tricky things. Everyone has an idea about how the country should be led. Everyone is passionate about their feelings. In a democracy there is nothing more important than an election. We’ve seen that sometimes this passion can lead to violence and upheaval, but we’ve also been witness to how democracies are supposed to function: people vote, leaders listen, and the country moves forward. I’m glad Benin is one of those countries.

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