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An African Election

Last night, I attended a screening of Jarreth Merz’s trending documentary, An African Election, as part of Columbia University’s Institute on African Studies’ yearlong series on African elections and democracy.  I have long awaited this film.  Not simply because it has received nods from Sundance, Spirit Awards, and other film critic bodies, but because it tells a profound story of African leadership, self-sufficiency, hope, and democracy. Indeed, those interested in democracy, elections, or just a riveting political story will be enthralled by this intimate exposé of an election passionately felt by an entire country and continent.

An African Election chronicles Ghana’s 2008 presidential election that marked the country’s historic double alternation in power and solidified its status as a maturing democracy.  Ghana has been hailed a beacon of democracy in West Africa for over a decade—and for good reason.  Former President J.J. Rawlings, who took power through the barrel of a gun in two successive military coups, organized democratic elections in 1992.   He ceded the presidency to the elected winner of the rival party in 2000 after a term-limited eight years in elected office.  Eight years later, the reigns of power passed again in the highly anticipated election that is the subject of the film.

The first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence, Ghana’s economy and global prominence is growing by leaps and bounds.  After giving the U.N. its first black Secretary-General in 1996, Ghana has been visited by each of the three most recent American presidents, and recently began off-shore oil drilling.  Last year, Ghana’s economic growth outpaced that of many higher income nations, including China.  To understand the story of the 2008 election, in many ways, is to understand the recipe for Ghana’s success, a key ingredient of which is a spirited citizenry that holds itself accountable for the future of the country.  An African Election captures this essence of the Ghanaian people with great artistry.

The film vividly portrays the prize democracy holds in the eyes of Ghanaians as an integral part of the country’s larger aspirations for sustained self-empowerment as seen in the trailer here.  Scenes of determined voters languishing in ten-hour queues and crowds jubilantly chanting the ballot count underscore that the act of voting in Ghana is more a community celebration of nationhood than a mere act of individual civic duty.  In addition, the deference, respect, and trust placed in Ghana’s electoral commission are refreshing reminders that neutral agents are vital in the structural design of successful election systems.

With Ghana’s next presidential election just months away, An African Election, released last year, serves as an important visual reference and testimonial of Ghana’s democratic achievements.  The upcoming election will undoubtedly present a variety of new challenges.  From developing factions within the incumbent party to the new administrative responsibility of registering and enabling prisoners to vote for the first time per Ghana’s 2010 court decisions enforcing the constitution’s right to universal suffrage, which I’ve written about here, Ghana will not have a easy road.  However, the stronger its history as a democracy, now archived and distributed for international consumption, the more Ghana has at stake.  More important, An African Election creates discussion points for elections beyond the continent by raising important questions and offering instruction on the electoral process and democracy in general.  In watching the film, one can’t help but wonder to what degree the internalized expectations of Ghana by it citizens and the international community served as a check on the integrity of its elections. The film also illuminates aspects of structural design, such as the role that an effective and political electoral commission can play as a crucial powerbroker in resolving the most delicate and uproarious of democratic tensions.

Indeed, as we approach the U.S. presidential election even sooner that Ghana’s in December, there is much we can learn from the unbridled enthusiasm and, at times, cautious optimism,that democracy engenders in this important African country.  And, while democratic concepts are not new to Ghana or its counterparts on the continent, it is Ghana’s ability to grapple with the challenges of the democratic process as a post-colonial nation in a region rife with pockets of grave conflict that makes this country’s election worthy of the big screen.

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African Elections in 2012 on the World Stage and in the Classroom

Teaching U.S. election law in the shadow of a presidential election is an election law professor’s dream. There is no better backdrop for the material or more engaging context to capture student interest in the subject.  However, as I also teach a comparative election law course that examines election law issues internationally, I had a difficult time deciding which to offer this fall in light of the seemingly record number of presidential and legislative elections this year.  On no other continent is this cloudburst of elections more evident than in Africa.  The concentration of African elections is owing  not just to Africa having more countries and democracies than any other continent; rather, the combination of the Arab spring and the happenstance of calendrical synchronicity has yielded a mother lode of elections on the continent.  Africa is evidence that, against many odds, democracy is at work. In the United States, democracy works in large part because of deeply entrenched historical values and a multiplicity of modern interests that depend on democratic institutions.  Indeed, in much of the Western world, democracy enjoys a worn expectation as a successful form of governance.  In modern Africa, however, democracy increasingly prevails because the lion’s share of its inhabitants is moving steadfastly and stubbornly against authoritarianism and the one-party state in hopes for a fairer, freer, and more equal form of government.  Simply put, democracy in Africa grows from the same soil of revolution and idealism that nourished the seeds of U.S. democracy nearly three centuries ago.  For those of us interested in the study of democracy, Africa is a place to watch in 2012. Read More

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Information commons and global democratic capabilities

Most chapters in the Access to Knowledge in the age of intellectual property book have been initially drafted several years ago.  As we are holding from today a 3-days on-line symposium to celebrate the publication of the book, the ideas covered in the book prove to be not just resilient, but at the heart of a difficult but exciting democratic renaissance.

As many, I joined the Access to Knowledge (A2K) movement from a specific perspective. For me, it was advocacy for commons-based innovation and culture, and struggles against legal and policy mechanisms that threaten their potential. Underlying this involvement was a wider perspective: the idea that information and communication technology (ICT) are at the root of new human capabilities, and that the a proper legal, policy and cultural environment will decide how well we seize this opportunity. As I write these lines, the link between ICT, freedom of expression, democratic empowerment and human development is hot news. And with these news come new questions and challenges.

When my book Cause commune: l’information entre bien commun et propriété was published, I did not invest much energy to get it translated in English, as the aim of the book was to reformulate American knowledge commons-thinking for European, emerging and developing country readers. But one day, I received an email from a Tunisian translator, Abdelouadoud El Omrani, who offered to produce a voluntary translation of the book in Arabic. It ended being published as a paper book by the Qatari National Centre for Culture, Heritage and the Arts, disseminated on the Internet under a Creative Commons license. Let’s be frank, I am not sure that many people read this book in Tunisia (where many likely readers read also French) or in Egypt. That’s partly because the distribution of books (and even ideas) is still very segmented in the Arabic world, and partly because potential readers had more urgent things to do. However, the publication brought me to visit a few Arabic-speaking countries, and to meet Internet users, knowledge sharing advocates, lawyers and writers from the Arab world. I witnessed their courage, their inventive use of poetry and fiction (when they explained it to me, as I don’t understand any Arabic), whether in face of authoritarian regimes for instance in Tunisia or Egypt or in face of the totalitarian imposition of religious prescriptions on individuals, for instance in Saudi Arabia1.

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