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African Observers Comment on US Presidential Campaign


Since the end of the Cold War, a number of African countries have embraced multi-party democracy. Several African officials from the new democracies are observing the U.S. election season and VOA Reporter William Eagle asked some of them for their views.

U.S. presidential campaigns are long and expensive. The Washington Post newspaper estimates that this year candidates have raised hundreds of millions of dollars from individuals and corporate interests in the United States. By contrast, in African democracies the electoral machinery and political parties often receive support from foreign donors.

Abdoulaye Diop, Mali's ambassador to the United States, says "Here [in the USA] the amount of money by each candidate or party is huge. It is very impressive. Also, the primary process has been long. For us, the campaign is about 35 to 40 days. Here it is almost two years of campaigning before the election."

Enthusiastic Participation

On the other hand, Ambassador Diop is impressed by the commitment of many Americans to work for free in support of their party's candidate.

"The level of volunteerism in U.S. elections impresses me," says Diop. "Many [campaign supporters] pay their own [airline and hotel] and campaign door to door. I would love to see that in Mali - citizens getting involved in that way."

African observers note cultural differences among African and American voters.

A poll by the Rasmussen publishing firm shows that about 61 percent of American voters said the candidate's wife is somewhat important in determining their vote. Twenty-two percent said the spouse is very important.

A Significant Role for First Ladies

Senator Ike Ekweremadu is the deputy president of the Nigerian Senate. He is surprised at the amount of attention given to prospective first ladies, who make prominent appearances at the conventions and campaign stops.

"In Nigeria, attention is on the candidate, not on the spouse," says the Nigerian senator. "In Nigeria, it is a different marital situation. Some [politicians] who are Muslim have four wives. So where do you start? Among the four wives, it might not be clear who would be the first lady."

Senator Ekweramadu says aside from corruption charges, moral values - such as faithfulness to one's spouse - would not likely be on the mind of voters.

Nor would taxes, which are often at the forefront of the U.S. candidates' debates. Some of them argue that taxes are too high and must be cut to stimulate economic growth. Others argue that taxes should be raised to pay for deficits or for government services.

Ambassador Diop says in his own country, Mali, there is a strong demand from the state to supply social services. But he says Mali cannot raise enough in taxes to support all the development needed, so politicians must look elsewhere.

"It can be an issue," says Diop, "but in our countries it is less about taxes than promising to create conditions for better living for the population like building more roads, providing water, and ... job creation. It is more about improving the living conditions of the population, [and not by bringing] down taxes."

The Power of Pundits

African observers say they are surprised by the influence of U.S. commentators who favor one candidate over another, and by negative advertising, which attacks an opponent's record or character.

Nigerian Senator Ike Ekweremadu says he does not think negative ads would go over in Nigeria.

He says, "Most media houses would not have the courage to accept a negative advert. And ... in any lawsuits, the media house must compensate you adequately. Most media houses will not allow themselves to be used in that kind of negative campaign because it could extract [serious] consequences."

The Press: Thorough and Accurate

U.S. journalists seeking to publicize a candidate's record often rely on the Freedom of Information Act, which allows access to the government's records. Nigerian reporters are also pressing for a Freedom of Information Bill (or FOIB).

Senator Anthony George Manzo is the vice chairman for the Nigerian Senate's Committee on Information and Media. He says the bill is considered likely to pass, with reservations.

"We now are processing a Nigerian Freedom of Information Bill in our committee," he says, "and we hope to pass it in some form. But when you talk of the bill, public officials have a lot of anxiety. We feel sometimes the press wants to enjoy freedom without the responsibility that goes with it. The [press] should be factually correct, verifying and re-verifying their sources. We should have a FOIB passed, but then have strong libel laws to [ensure] people will have facts."

Mali's ambassador Abdulaye Diop says he hopes the U.S. campaign will raise issues of interest to Africans. That includes continued support for the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which has led to an increase in exports from the continent to the United States, and support for stalled world trade talks.

Ambassador Diop is hopeful. He says the current administration has tripled aid to Africa and both candidates have promised strong support.