Active citizenry

2011-01-18 00:00

THE ultimate responsibility for the health of Africa's democracies, or any democracy for that matter, lies with the citizens.

Where leadership fails, citizens are within their rights to intervene to nudge them in the right direction and even to remove them from power. After all, sovereignty rests with the citizens. They cede it temporarily to leaders through the vote, but can usurp it again if they are dissatisfied.

So, the duty to make a democracy such as ours work rests not only with responsible leadership, but also an active citizenry.

Oftentimes the new de- mocracy­ in Africa has failed because citizens allowed leaders to neglect their duties without any consequences.

Recently the focus has been on Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to concede electoral defeat to Alassane Ouattara, his long-time presidential challenger, who was declared a winner by the chair of the electoral commission under controversial circumstances.

This former island of stability in a West African proverbial sea of instability was plunged into chaos after the death in the early 2000s of Felix Houphouët-Boigny, who had ruled the country through guile and patronage since the sixties. The problem has been the disputed citizenship of many descendants of migrant labourers, mainly found in the north. Under Gbagbo, the division between the south and the rebel-ruled north of the country has deepened, leading to the postponement of elections several times, for about six years, due to disagreements over census arrangements and identification of voters.

The Economic Community of West African States-brokered (Ecowas) agreement underwritten by the United Nations (UN) cleared the way for elections in November 2010. Part of the agreement was that the multi-party electoral commission would release results within 72 hours, failing which the constitutional council would take over, verify data and announce the final results.

The current stalemate came about because the commission missed the deadline, but still its chair announced Ouattara as the winner. The fact that the chair of the commission used the hotel that is Ouattara's headquarters, to announce results, created suspicion of foul play. Shortly there-after the council announced Gbagbo as the winner, but it too, being headed by a Gbagbo man, could not be fully trusted to be objective. Both leaders inaugurated themselves as presidents of Côte d'Ivoire.

First Western diplomats and then later the UN envoy and the regional body Ecowas recognised Ouattara's victory and lambasted Gbagbo for this failure to concede defeat. They initially called for the forced removal of Gbagbo, but now they are calling for a political solution to be found.

Last weekend the Jasmine Re-volution in Tunisia, a popular uprising sparked by high food prices and unemployment, led to the collapse of the government and the escape of president Zine Ben Ali, who has ruled Tunisia for the past 23 years, to Saudi Arabia. His prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, is now the acting president.

A mass uprising co-ordinated through Internet social networks, given the suppression of newspapers, rescued Tunisia's controlled democracy from the hands of a powerful political elite, at least for now. Had they used the same Internet to influence democratic change through the many polls of the past, change could have been smoother.

The people of southern Sudan came out in huge numbers last week, casting their votes in a referendum to decide whether they remain part of Africa's biggest country or if they should declare their independence as a separate entity. The probable secession will create one of the poorest countries, likely to face problems of weak governance, Khartoum-inspired internal conflict and incompetent leadership. These problems will deepen if the citizenry gets gripped by the euphoria of independence for too long.

While the people of Côte d'Ivoire have allowed the politics of division to continue and have further entrenched it, if both results of the last poll are to be believed, Tunisians and south Sudanese have expressed themselves strongly in favour of maturing democracy.

Of course, the notion of rules generally represented by both constitutions as well as institutions are both important for African democracy today. But these factors are rendered ineffectual if there are irresponsible leadership and apathetic citizenry.

As South Africans go to the local government polls this year, citizens­ who care about this country should make intelligent rather than emotional decisions. They should vote in numbers and vote for men and women of integrity. They must be willing to withdraw their support from local leaders or organisations that have not served them well in the past five years.

If we come out of this with greedy, callous and incompetent councillors, we would have voted them in. So we should not turn around and pretend that we are not to blame. We should not be hypocrites. People should exercise their power to determine who governs them wisely and for the common good.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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