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Democracy Struggles in Parts of Africa

The violence that has been unleashed in the wake of Kenya's controversial presidential election has led some analysts to question whether democracy is struggling in Africa.

More than 600 people have died and about 250-thousand have been forced to flee their homes since President Mwai Kibaki declared victory in December's disputed election in Kenya.

According to official figures, Mr. Kibaki had a razor thin majority over opposition leader Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement. Mr. Odinga claims that the vote count was rigged. International observers say that the vote was flawed.

Many experts say that Kenya seemed an unlikely place for Africa to descend into widespread post-election violence. They note that Kenya's 2002 presidential election was the best that the country had ever had and created public enthusiasm about Kenya's future.

Kenya's Position in the Region

Kenya, a politically stable and prosperous nation, has been deemed a reliable regional player by the international community. Along with South Africa and Nigeria, many experts say it has been key to the stability of sub-Saharan Africa.

David Shinn, a foreign affairs expert at The George Washington University with extensive U.S. diplomatic experience in Africa, says Kenya is an indispensable trading hub. "Kenya serves as the entry point for the hinterland, Uganda, Rwanda, to some extend Burundi, eastern Congo and increasingly for southern Sudan. Trade goes through Kenya," says Shinn. "Kenya is critical for commerce of these other countries that are landlocked. In addition, the Kenyan economy is the driving economy in the region. In fact, it's one of the most successful economies in all of Africa, certainly in all of Sub-Saharan Africa."

Shinn says Kenya is also an important diplomatic player and a place from where international and non-governmental organizations can address crisis zones in the region, including Rwanda, eastern Congo and southern Sudan.

Kenya's vibrant civil society has also been a model for many African nations. Political scientist Michelle Gavin with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York says democracy has made significant inroads in Kenya. "Kenyans fought very hard for multi-party democracy and they struggled for a long time for their political and civil society rights. I believe that there is some real depth to that civic element that believes in democratic political processes, that believes in the rule of law," says Gavin.

Yet, Gavin notes, Kenya suffers from decades of bad governance, corruption, tense tribal divisions and most of its 35 million people remain poor. Frustrations like these, she says, fueled Kenya's post-election violence.

Democracy and Election Crises in Africa

Many analysts warn that flawed elections have spread throughout the continent in recent years. Some international observers called Nigeria's elections last April, in which dozens of people were killed, the most fraudulent vote ever witnessed in that country. And the year before in Ethiopia, flawed elections led to violence that claimed about 200 lives.

"There are an awful lot of phony democratic experiences -- 'free and fair elections', which are held only if it's absolutely certain that the governing party is going to win," According to William Foltz, an Africa expert at Yale University, who says that for many African leaders, elections are a zero sum game, which often invites a backlash.

"Particularly this sense that, I got to win, it's my only chance. If I lose, I will never get back in power. Therefore, I will do whatever is necessary for the sake of the country, which could not really function without my expertise," says Foltz. "And the willingness of political leaders to play the ethnic card is an appalling thing. It isn't that there is just age-old hatred that boils up automatically. It is whipped up, using it as a tool for their political entrepreneurship."

But other experts contend that despite many setbacks, much of Africa has been on a steady learning curve since the 1960s when most of the continent was freed from colonialism. At first, many African nations were run by military dictators or strongmen. But in the 1990s, a wave of democratization swept many of them away.

More Than Simply Voting

Robert Lloyd, a political scientist at Pepperdine University in California, has monitored numerous elections in Africa. He says people are eager to exercise their right to vote, but that they are also mindful that each ballot should count.

"They know what they need to do. They go on to vote. They get behind someone from their own group to be sure, but there's lots of enthusiasm and political discussion that's going on and all those things are good things," says Lloyd. "It's just that at the top, that will can be frustrated. And if people get frustrated and despondent about their ability to make a political change -- in other words, the system is sticky -- that can lead to some problems."

Lloyd says that there is more to democracy than just an election day -- it needs institutions that strengthen tolerance and enable productive political compromise. He says Zimbabwe best demonstrates the perils of rebuffing the democratic process.

"Zimbabwe had a vibrant civil society, an open media, a reasonably well preforming economy. And all those things have been gradually shut down in order to maintain control," says Lloyd. "That tells you something. If that's what you have to do to maintain control, then the opposite is, I think, also true. Those things such as civil society, the media and a growing economy need to be present in order to move in a more politically open way."

Lloyd and many other analysts agree that strengthening democratic processes has been a difficult task in Africa. But they also note that countries like Kenya have come a long way in a fairly short time and that the experience they have acquired can help them improve the way they deal with political freedoms in the future.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.