Sunday, October 25, 2015

Abidjan - Dar es Salaam - Brazzaville: Of elections and national conscience

I woke up in Abidjan this morning. A few hours before the voting for the first round of presidential elections in Côte d'Ivoire opens. At this time, polls should be underway in Tanzania, since there is a three-hour difference. In Brazzaville, and across Congo, the population has been convened  to a referendum, whose results will determine whether Sassou Nguesso will continue to be President of the country or not.

While we do not know if Alassane Ouattara of Côte d'Ivoire will win the elections in the first round or after the run off, we are even more unsure if the ruling party in Tanzania will be returned to power. For Congo Brazzaville, like the blogger Anna Guèye said in response to a tweet of mine "I would not call it a vote".

Whether we are voting in Côte d'Ivoire, in Tanzania, in Congo or in any other part of the world today, election times are times of building a collective national conscience. And that explains why I am passionate about them, tracking them from Cape to Cairo, Dakar to Djibouti via Nairobi and Lagos... in this beautiful mother continent of Africa.

What I am passionate about is not necessarily who wins or who loses. Here are the 5 things I track:

The social audit
Election times are times for social audits. Political formations in and out of power take time to evaluate themselves. Citizens also evaluate leadership. It's the time for the big question "what has been done for the past xyz years?" The Nigerian election was one that got straight at me. The "Report Card" of Goodluck Jonathan was the topic in homes in Nigeria, in Nigerian homes in the Diaspora and even in many other spaces that are remotely Nigerian. By the time the election date itself drew near, the incumbent was desperate in trying to "make up" for mistakes made during his tenure. In Côte d'Ivoire, the government has gone ahead and published its own Report Card in a bid to prove to citizens that it did, indeed  move the country forward.

The mass education
Elections happen after every four or five years on the general.  At every election period, a new wave of voter is added. In most countries, 18 is the voting age.  For the new voters, it is  a rite of passage, a realisation of their political importance, and for some, a time to "test the political waters". What interests me the most is how the new voters are inducted into the system. Do they engage in a civil manner? Are they given all the information? Are they channeled into a one-party-system?  Whichever way, the need for education on electoral issues goes beyond the new voters.  In many countries the electoral agency begins an entirely new work of step-by-step education, sensitization and grooming of the citizens. Who can vote? Who can run for office? How and where to register to vote? When to pick up your voter cards. How to vote. How not to vote. How best to vote. Decorum for the period..

The citizen engagement
 Offline and online, this is the time that politically minded or interested people are obliged to listen to citizens, or at least, pretend to listen.  In many places, town hall-like meetings are held. During these meetings, candidates respond to questions from citizens. In some spaces, the national TV joins the game, creating "situation rooms", inviting  candidates, organizing live debates, taking  questions and generally dancing to the tune of the citizens. For those of us who "come from the Internet", the social media landscape is getting to be "the place" to be at these moments. It is a time for content creation, for analysis, for jokes and for serious engagement. Candidates are "tracked" and their speeches, dressing, governance plans and whole lives are meticulously dissected.  But beyond the candidates, voters also engage other voters, either as volunteers for one camp or another, or just as opinion bearers.

The Human Rights narratives
 The respect of fundamental human rights during elections periods is the yardstick with which I personally measure the process. Do opposition parties get air time? Does the ruling party bulldoze its way? Is the Election Agency autonomous? Are rallies free and fair? Are minorities allowed to show their support even when they are in the "stronghold" of their adversaries. How long is the campaign time?  How free is the media to do their work? Are citizens free and able to say exactly what they think of the power in place?   For me, once the human rights bases are covered, I am fine. Otherwise, frustrations are created, disenfranchisement follows and in many cases, the elections do not go down well.

The "Shift" after the polls

I still recall the major shift in Senegal when Abdoulaye Wade lost his third term bid, after all the "constitutional gerrymandering". The most recently is the ousting of PDP of Nigeria with Buhari's win. In Burundi, things have yet to go down as the killings are continuing. In the last edition of  Côte d'Ivoire's polls, it turned out into a full-scale civil war. 

Whether we look at elections from the political,  the engagement, the human rights or even the economics perspective, it is a time when a lot happens.  Except for the few African countries like Gambia, Eritrea, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea where authorities are doing all they can to suppress a national civic engagement while upholding the President as a demi-god,  this continent is gently changing, molting into a space of more regular social audits, massive increase in citizen education, web empowered engagement, and for a broader discourse on the rule of law. Elections are processes in national conscience building. It is  not so much about who wins  or loses at the polls, but whether the nation is more consolidated.

It is about moving forward or backward.