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Remarks to the Conference on Elections and Democratization in West Africa

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
Meridian International Center, Washington, DC
December 8, 2006

As Prepared

Good Morning. I'd like to thank Ambassador Walker and the National Intelligence Council for asking me to speak today on elections and democratization in West Africa, a topic which I believe is of exceptional importance to our global agenda. West Africa is a fascinating place where Islam and Christianity come face to face, where the West has historical influence, but where the dominant culture is decidedly non-Western.

It was not too long ago that it was fashionable among certain political science scholars to posit that democracy could only survive in relatively wealthy countries with a history of Western values. The extension of that theory was that the United States was misguided in its efforts to promote democracy in the developing world, and that such efforts were doomed to failure. In particular, many have questioned whether democracy can thrive in Islamic countries, or poor countries, or any country whose philosophy did not descend from the Greeks.

The recent experience of West Africa has revealed that theory to be seriously flawed. Democracy has taken hold and begun to thrive in the region, showing that the fundamental human right of a people to choose its own government has near universal appeal. For example, the country rated last on the U.N.'s Human Development Index, Niger, is a young democracy. In fact, most of the countries of West Africa have democratically elected governments now, and those that do not are increasingly becoming the exception, not the rule. While democracy is young and fragile in many of these countries, it is showing surprising strength and resilience in places like Senegal, Ghana, Benin and Mali. Even strife-torn nations like Sierra Leone and Liberia are turning to democracy to heal the wounds from their long conflicts. In Mauritania this spring, it appears that another nation stands ready to join the community of democracies.

Many of these nations are predominantly Islamic, offering living proof that Islam and democracy can coexist. These Islamic democracies offer a strong example for the rest of the Islamic world and their very existence is a defense against radical Islamists who denounce democracy as un-Islamic and a product of the decadent West.

That is not to say that democracy is secure in West Africa or that democracy alone will solve all of the problems of the region. Democracy is a never-ending process, rather than a single event. After more than 200 years, we are still tinkering with our democracy, seeking ways to improve it and adapt it to changing conditions.

Free and fair elections are an important component of a successful democracy, but there are many other components. The challenge facing most of the young democracies of West Africa is the development of these other components, the democratic institutions that deepen and widen democracy, giving it the strength to withstand inevitable challenges.

The nations of the region need to take action to strengthen their judicial systems and improve respect for the rule of law. They need to address persistent official corruption in many cases, and assure not only democratic governance, but also good governance. They need to decentralize power and enhance the role of local governments, moving power over many of the decisions that affect people's lives closer to the people themselves. They need to develop a press corps that is both free and responsible, providing perhaps the single greatest defense against tyranny and oppression. And they need to develop civil society to provide non-governmental actors in everyday political life that will act to defend the interests of the people.

Democracy in West Africa will continue to face significant challenges, of course. The fear of military coups and authoritarian governments is ever present, and the solution can only be found in the thorough professionalization and depoliticization of the region's militaries. Ethnic and religious strife threaten some nations, and governments need to be seen as representative of all their people, not just the factions currently in power. External actors such as international terrorist groups or extremists of various stripes threaten stability in many places, and their influence needs to be countered.

Perhaps the single most significant challenge democracy faces in West Africa, however, is development. Throughout the world, governments are expected to meet the legitimate needs of their people, not just for freedom, but also for prosperity -- the ability to not just make ends meet, but to have the opportunity to advance through their own efforts. It is by how well they accomplish this difficult task that the young democracies of the region will be judged by their own people.

At times, we may have been guilty of overselling the benefits of democracy and free market reforms, so that some came to view them as a cure-all for whatever ailed a country. Some seemed to think that development would automatically follow from elections and democracy, looking at the American and European experience, in which political and economic freedoms created a powerful profit incentive that drove rapid development, and still does drive an impressively resilient economic engine.

However, hard experience has shown that democracy may be necessary for long-term economic growth and prosperity, but it is not sufficient. For example, there has been a backlash in some parts of Latin America against democratically elected governments and free market economic reforms, because they did not produce significant and broad-based prosperity immediately. Polls now show that many people would sacrifice their political freedoms in favor of an authoritarian government, if they thought it would lead to more economic security. If the young democracies of West Africa cannot find a way to spur development, they could experience a similar backlash.

Therefore, it is strongly in the interest of the United States government and other Western governments to help the young democracies of West Africa prosper economically. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) was created with just that purpose in mind, on a global scale, and roughly half of the compacts signed thus far have been with West African democracies, including some of the largest ones. Other nations are coming closer to qualifying. We must also not neglect our traditional assistance programs, which, though smaller than MCC compacts, enable us to address specific areas of great need such as mother and child health, education, infectious diseases and hunger. Attention to these issues is a necessary prerequisite for economic development, for a healthy and educated workforce is necessary for long-term economic prosperity and for the growth of democratic institutions.

We also need to work with our regional partners to promote peace and stability in the region, for nothing endangers both political freedoms and economic prosperity as much as war and civil strife. The international community needs to continue using its influence to help resolve remaining areas of instability like Cote d'Ivoire. Stability is an absolute prerequisite for both economic prosperity and healthy democracy, while conflict spreads famine, disease and economic disaster in its wake as surely as day follows night.

2007 will be an important year for the spread of democracy in West Africa. At one end of West Africa, the most populous nation in Africa, Nigeria, will be holding historic presidential elections that will lead to an unprecedented transfer of power from one civilian administration to another. At the other end, in Mauritania, a nation with one foot in the African Union and the other in the Arab League, stands poised to enter the community of democracies after many years of military coups and authoritarian rule. Both of these elections are highly significant for the United States. Both are oil producing nations with significant Muslim populations, and both face threats such as ethnic strife, corruption, hunger and disease. Our stake lies not just in the successful execution of the elections themselves, but in the successful development of democratic institutions in Nigeria and Mauritania, and in all the countries in between.

In the coming year and in the foreseeable future, our task will be to support not just these vital elections, important as they may be, but also to support the growth of democratic institutions, to promote economic prosperity, and to reinforce peace and stability through judicious use of our diplomatic leverage and assistance programs. It is a formidable task, and one that we cannot hope to succeed in without the active engagement of the rest of the donor community. Even more important, however, for democracy to succeed and economies to grow, the governments and peoples of the region must work steadfastly toward those goals. In the end we can only assist. Political freedoms and economic prosperity can never be given as an external gift, they must be seized by the people themselves and never relinquished. [end]

Released on December 18, 2006

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