Democracy Unleashed

With a flurry of elections hitting Africa this year, here are four countries where things could get lively -- maybe too lively.


It’s the year of the African election, with 27 countries scheduled to hold presidential, legislative, or local polls throughout 2011. And as much as elections can contribute to democratic progress, in the immediate term they can often be a flashpoint for conflict. Recent examples abound: The Ivory Coast was thrown into a four-month crisis when its outgoing president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to accept the victory of his opponent, President Alassane Ouattara. Uganda’s incumbent President Yoweri Museveni won reelection in February, but the opposition has cried foul and his inauguration was marred by violent protests. In regional giant Nigeria, post-election violence killed as many as 800 people.

In many cases, this instability derives not from the elections themselves but from the pressures and fractures that voting brings to the surface. Those cleavages and weak spots are exactly what the Failed States Index (FSI) measures. So what can this year’s FSI results tell us about the readiness of these 27 countries for election year? Here is a look at a few of the biggest hot spots.


Elections: General, February 2011

FSI Rank: 21

Just weeks after Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni won reelection, hundreds of Ugandans walked to work in protest, heeding the calls of opposition leader Kizza Besigye to demonstrate against the rising cost of living. The police responded forcefully, and Besigye was arrested. The protests gained traction, spurred by videos of Besigye’s treatment, and soon thousands took to the streets. By the time Museveni was sworn into office for a fourth term in May, tear gas was suffocating protesters who tried to disturb the festivities. His mandate will extend his rule to 30 years.

The events of early 2011 are emblematic of the multitude of challenges Uganda faces, from economic strain to democratic decline, many of which show up clearly in this year’s index. Uganda faces severe demographic pressure, with a rapidly growing population and high youth unemployment; by some estimates, nearly one-third of the youth in Kampala, the capital, are unemployed. The country’s economic development has been significant but poorly distributed throughout the population (half of the population still lives on less than $1 per day). Political power is concentrated in the ruling party, and the security apparatus has been used to crack down on the opposition. In recent years, rising costs of food and fuel have exacerbated poverty, particularly in rural areas.

On top of the material challenges, there are the political ones: There are strong divisions between the ruling party and the opposition, which contributed to the protests and violent response. Besigye’s arrest, as well as the arrest of other opposition members and leaders, raises questions about human rights and freedom of political expression. And an ongoing spat between Museveni’s government and the ethnic kingdom of the Buganda has periodically erupted in violence. On top of it all, the Somali militant group al-Shabab poses a new security threat, having bombed two restaurants in Kampala in July 2010. At exactly the moment Uganda needs to unite, it looks as divided as ever.


Elections: Presidential, legislative, and regional; April 2011

FSI Rank: 14

When Nigeria held elections in April, observers declared them the most credible in the country’s history. For the most part, voting went smoothly, and the ballot-stuffing was far less prevalent than in previous years. But the voting itself aside, these were in fact among the most violent elections in Nigeria’s history. In addition to local-level candidates who were abducted, killed, or otherwise intimidated prior to the election, post-election violence left some 800 dead, according to Human Rights Watch, and displaced thousands more. Even in a country where politics has often been marred by bloodshed, these were devastating stats.

The Failed States Index offers some clues about the devastating mix of grievances, political cleavages, and economic strains that produced this post-election violence. Although many indicators have improved slightly in the last two years as an amnesty has helped reduce militant violence in the Niger Delta, the future of the arrangement is far from certain, and the underlying grievances remain. Many of Nigeria’s 250 ethnic groups have historical bones to pick with the state, and these often cut along geographical and religious lines. A low-level rebellion in the oil-rich Niger Delta has been fueled by the contrast between the region’s poverty and the lucrative petroleum extracted from it. In the country’s so-called Middle Belt, economic pressure to control scarce farm and grazing land has pitted neighbor against neighbor. Across the board, inequality is pronounced, with 64 percent of the population living on less than $1 per day. Public services are limited — just 58 percent of the population has access to clean water. After years of corruption, trust in the state is low — such that in some areas, citizens and even local government officials have turned to vigilante groups to crack down on crime.

Although Nigeria’s elections have passed, the underlying pressures that contributed to the post-poll violence remain: poverty, inequality, corruption, grievances against the state and rival identity groups, and a proliferation of armed militant groups. The country’s stability going forward will depend on how effectively the new government tackles these issues.


Elections: General, October 2011

FSI Rank: 26

Just minutes after you arrive in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, many of the West African country’s weaknesses are vividly on display. Poverty is overwhelming, there is no water system, and only seldom does electricity flicker on without a generator. But construction sites also highlight the country’s slow and steady forward momentum. Elections in October will be watched around the world as a test of the country’s progress, now almost a decade after its 14-year civil war came to an end.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in office since 2006, has been widely hailed abroad for the investment boom she has ushered into the country. On the ground, however, many Liberians feel that progress isn’t moving as fast. Unemployment remains high, with only 15 percent of the population employed in the formal sector. Meanwhile, land rights are a major source of tension, frequently erupting into violence. Families and individuals often lack records of their land ownership, and there have also been disputes over the demarcation of towns, districts, and even county boundaries that have complicated the voter registration process. Liberia has also been affected by a major influx of more than 150,000 refugees fleeing violence caused by the disputed election in neighboring Ivory Coast, putting pressure on border communities. For now, Liberia’s security is relatively assured; the country is home to a 9,000strong U.N. peacekeeping mission. But as those forces are eventually whittled down, Liberian forces will face a daunting challenge patrolling a country with few paved roads.


Elections: General, November 2011

FSI Rank: 4

The Democratic Republic of the Congo earned its FSI ranking through years of conflict, an alarming prevalence of violence, and a lack of government services and presence in much of the country. Presidential elections are scheduled for this November — the second since the end of a civil war that drew in most of the country’s neighbors and may have killed as many as 5 million people between 1998 and 2008.

Yet though Congo’s conflict is officially over, much of the worst violence persists, particularly in the country’s east. Rebel groups and militias frequently spar over land, resources, and access to the Congo’s lucrative mineral deposits. Civilians bear the brunt of this ad hoc fighting; a study released this May indicates that sexual assault is so rampant that annual rape statistics would translate into 48 women every hour. The police force is underequipped and undertrained to deal with the crime, nor has a U.N. peacekeeping mission of nearly 20,000 troops been effective at stemming the conflict.

Congo demonstrates among the worst scores across the board on the Failed States Index, with implications for the upcoming presidential election, scheduled for this November. It is home to 185,000 refugees and more than 2 million internally displaced men, women, and children. The security apparatus is not only among the world’s least effective, but it has also been implicated in widespread abuses against civilians; and demographic pressures are exacerbating conflicts over scarce land and resources.

In 2006, the elections turned violent when militias supporting the two major candidates clashed in the capital. This time, the stakes are higher because the runoff round of the presidential election has been eliminated in favor of a single winner-take-all contest, and the state of insecurity in much of the country paves the way for violence and intimidation before, during, and after the polling process.

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