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Soon, an Indian flavor to democracy in West Africa

December 09, 2013

Two Circles / by Biswajit Choudhury

In a region with a chequered democratic past, there could soon be an Indian flavor to emerging democracies as India looks to increase its engagement with resource-rich West Africa.

A 24-member delegation from eight African and Middle East countries, which witnessed the just concluded elections in five states, including Delhi, comprised the election commissioners from Gambia and Guinea Bissau and senior representatives from Nigeria and Senegal.

"I will ask our government to have the VVPAT ( Verified Voters Paper Audit Trail) machines, that we saw here, instead of paper ballotting in the next Gambian elections. The use of paper creates lots of problems," Alieu NJai, Gambia's election commissioner, told IANS.

The VVPAT, used on a trial basis in Delhi and Mizoram, is an electronic voting machine (EVM) where, after casting their ballots, voters can see the candidate's name and political party along with own name and electoral identification number.

"A lot of our practices in Africa are based on European examples. It is much better to come to India and directly learn about things that we can put to use," Njai added, describing his experience of the visit.

As those tasked with instrumentalising democracy in their countries liberated relatively recently from European colonial rule, the visitors stressed in no uncertain terms on the importance of democracy - and of learning from India about this.

"Democracy is most important for a country's development and to ensure that the fruits of development are redistributed equally," Augusto Mendes, chief election commissioner of Guinea Bissau, told IANS. A former Portugese colony, Guinea Bissau became independent in 1974 and held its first free elections in 1994.

"We have had various coups in Guinea Bissau and have lived with the problem of the military intervening in the polity," said Mendes, whose visit is part of an initiative of the West African electoral association ECONEC.

ECONEC was established in 2008 to serve as a regional platform for exchange of best practices and enhance the capacities of the electoral commissions of member states.

"India can help us implement new technologies in the electoral process, like electronic voting machines (EVMs) that reduce the risk of manipulating the election process," Mendes noted, adding: India can also organise some training courses for some African election commission members."

The designation of the observer from Senegal, Colonel Moumar Gueye of the National Election Commission (CENA), as poet and writer, reflects its history as one of Africa's model democracies.

Situated in the western-most part of Africa, Senegal has an established multiparty system and a long tradition of civilian rule in a region that has been dogged by coups.

"Senegal is quite different in this respect of a democratic tradition. Even as a colony Senegal had representatives in the French parliament," Gueye told IANS.

"Senegal is the only country in West Africa that has never experienced a coup. The army is very professional and educated. Where armies are composed and led by people of low education and calibre, it increases the propensity of military takeovers," he added.

Gueye was quite struck by the peaceful, orderly conduct of the Delhi elections and the "educated" voters casting their votes here.

He too is keen to promote EVMs in his home country. " We have a lot of paper used in our elections. The machines save time and nobody can manipulate the results," Gueye says.

Gueye, who has only known India through its films that are quite popular in Senegal, said that on returning he would initiate a process of checking out the efficacy of the EVMs in the heat and dust conditions of Senegal.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation as also the second largest economy, and the continent's biggest supplier of oil to India. It is similar to India in its mix of many ethnicities and religious groups.

Abubakar Momoh from The Electoral Institute of Nigeria was most impressed by "the trust that people have in the elections" here and the orderly conduct of elections by India's election commission.

He said the major challenges faced by the election body in Nigeria are voter apathy and ensuring violence-free, peaceful conduct of elections.

"To have the elections in a peaceful, orderly manner, that includes the logistics of transporting equipment, officials and people to areas difficult to access are major challenges. People get restless if arrangements to vote are not made in time," Momoh told IANS.

Describing the EVM as an "awesome" innovation that many countries could emulate, Momoh said Nigeria can specifically learn from the Indian election commission's "good educational strategy for voters" that includes voter assistance units for illiterate and handicaped voters.

He was talking about the newly launched initiative called the Systematic Voters Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) under which awareness programmes through mass media are organised by poll officials and non-government organisations to woo voters.

(The views expressed above are personal views of writer)

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Soon, an Indian flavor to democracy in West Africa