Ideas to Action:

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Long-delayed elections finally happened last Sunday in Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea (even the New Yorker noticed). Good for those countries and for West Africa. But it strikes me that there are three absolutely huge elections coming up in the next six months that—at the risk of being over-dramatic—will determine nothing less than the future of Africa. We’ve seen a wave of optimistic assessments of Africa (including my former colleague Steve Radelet’s book Emerging Africa and this bullish assessment of African markets by McKinsey ). I hope they are both right, but Africa cannot “succeed” if the winners are just Botswana, Ghana, Tanzania, and a few other small economies. The big ones—the ones that can either pull up their neighbors or drag everyone down with them—are what really will make the difference between the continent finally taking its place within the global economy or Africa just falling further behind. These big ones are:

  1. In the East: Sudan. The January referendum on possible Southern independence is make-or-break. If this goes sour and the North-South civil war re-ignites, it would be calamitous and likely suck in many neighbors. A peaceful stable Southern Sudan might even join the East African Community and help to build that growing market.
  2. In the West: Nigeria. West Africa’s giant holds a presidential election in April. The last one in 2007 was an utter debacle and the country scraped through a very fragile transition after President Yar’Adua’s death. A credible election this time could get Nigeria back some of the positive momentum of 2003-07 and start to really deal with problems like the Niger Delta, electricity, and sectarian violence. Another bad election would be destabilizing for the country and the region.
  3. In the South: South Africa (proxy test in Zimbabwe). Ok, South Africa doesn’t have its own national elections until 2014, but its northern neighbor Zimbabwe may have a constitutional referendum in March, followed by possible elections in June. And those elections will be a pivotal test for President Jacob Zuma, who has been sending confusing signals about his vision for South Africa. How Zuma responds to Zimbabwe will be taken as a strong indication of the direction he plans to take his own country. If he allows Robert Mugabe to steal another election, it will be another warning light that he is caving to some of the worst tendencies within the ANC, as exemplified by the rise of Julius Malema. If Zuma stands up to Mugabe, and finally uses his country’s influence to push for real democracy in Zimbabwe, it will show South Africa is finally ready to play on the world stage and will help the region finally end the embarrassment in Harare.

These are all tenuous. Although the outcomes of each are really in African hands, the United States and Europe have strong interests in seeing all three of these come out right. Leverage is weak however. Most attention has been on the carrots & sticks mix in Sudan, of course, where the stakes and risks are perhaps the greatest. I suspect a modest investment in election monitoring and gentle nudging in Nigeria could have a huge payoff. Zim may be trickier, sadly.