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Elections In 3 African Countries Raise Questions About Continent's Path To Democracy

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As the U.S. goes through one of its most contentious elections, three African nations are simmering in the aftermath of their own votes. Elections in Tanzania, Guinea and Ivory Coast are raising questions about whether democracy is in retreat in Africa. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: After an election riddled with irregularities, Tanzanian President John Magufuli was sworn in for a second term yesterday. Meanwhile, his top opponent, Tundu Lissu, was holed up at the German ambassador's house, scared for his life.

TUNDU LISSU: I'm trying to leave the country because I have received information that word is out that they should deal with me once and for all.

PERALTA: Lissu survived an assassination attempt in 2017. So after the government briefly detained him this week, he sought diplomatic refuge, and the Germans are currently trying to get him out of Tanzania safely. Lissu calls last week's election a travesty.

LISSU: All across the country, the police and the intelligence and security apparatus took over the election exercise.

PERALTA: Tanzania has been ruled by one party since independence, but the country used to enjoy a robust civil society and a vocal opposition. Magufuli came to power in 2015 promising to drain the swamp. And he quickly went full authoritarian, quashing any dissent. His hand-picked electoral commission announced that the bulldozer, as he is known, won by a landslide. Lissu says, for now, this marks the end of Tanzania's democracy.

LISSU: Obviously, if my life is in danger, if I get killed, the fight is over for me. So it is only a retreat, and retreats are not uncommon in Democratic struggles.

PERALTA: There was a point through the '90s and 2000s when democracy seemed ascendant on the African continent. Here's Yolande Bouka, who teaches African politics at Queen's University in Canada.

YOLANDE BOUKA: There was a welcoming of multiparty politics and competition and elections.

PERALTA: But in the past few years, Africa has seen many flawed elections. In Cote d'Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara got the OK from a friendly court to run for a third term. Last week, he won with more than 94% of the vote. In Guinea, Alpha Conde first changed the constitution through a referendum and then last month won a third term with nearly 60% of the vote. Bouka calls these elections constitutional coups, and the aftermath, she says, is a good time to pause and think about what democracy means in African countries.

BOUKA: It's one thing to have the right to vote, but you have to have the right to live, the right to eat, the right to thrive.

PERALTA: In a lot of ways, the promises of democracy, she says, have not borne fruit for regular Africans. Instead, politicians have so often stoked mistrust in institutions, the electorate and the political class have become nihilist, often leading to violence. Bouka says Africa could provide lessons for the United States.

BOUKA: What we see in the U.S. is when people don't have trust in the system, they challenge it and engage in very similar behavior.

PERALTA: As we spoke, armed protesters gathered outside an Arizona election office. An American pundit worried about violence. I asked Tanzania's Tundu Lissu if he had any thoughts about the American election. He said democracy is fragile, and Americans should guard it.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "SOURCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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