The swearing-in of Cyril Ramophosa  as president for a second term continues South Africa’s remarkable break from the past.

The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 distributed African countries as colonies to European powers, rolling away centuries of self-rule and altering national destinies forever. The fact some people still look back to colonialism with nostalgia means that colonialism meant different things to different people. However, for South Africans collectively, colonialism meant the cruelest kind of subjugation.

Apartheid and all its abominable accretions was a nightmare of unimaginable ramifications. It is doubtful that history has ever recorded anywhere the kind of discrimination that apartheid was.

But no matter how long evil festers or is fostered, its reckoning will still come. For apartheid, reckoning was on 10th May 1994 when the immortal Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first Black President.  After decades-long storm, the rainbow had finally spread itself across the South African sky in hope but especially in defiance.

One democratic transition has since succeeded another as Africa’s most iconic country has shown that it is possible to bounce back from the iniquitous indiscretions of apartheid with the latest being President Ramophosa’s second term in office as a democratically elected president.

South Africa remains a deeply divided and unequal country, where racial and xenophobic tensions often boil over to betray surging economic inequality. But the country’s story is one of spectacular triumph over a formidable institutional evil.

It is also an incredible story of democracy’s triumph over fascism, especially racial fascism, and its enduring value as the best form of government for every society but especially one of many disparate parts and divides like South Africa.

South Africa’s tortuous path to nationhood, democracy, and hope is also a luminous lesson for African countries which continue to tether on the brink of disaster, lurching from one avoidable crisis to another.

Unfortunately, governance in Africa is still largely misunderstood, especially by leaders who are products of disastrous leadership experiments and ideologies, and citizens who are victims of historical trauma and immiseration.

In many African countries, dictatorship is on the rise, with the military seizing power, as has become rampant in many West African countries. Democracy continues to recede even in countries that are supposedly democratic, with high-handed leaders stripping away many of democracy’s flagship rights.

In a deeply flawed world, democracy has its flaws but still offers the best options. These options are perhaps typified by the concept of a vote which is by far democracy’s most valuable gift because it expresses choice and in doing that feeds into the right to free speech, which is perhaps the most important of rights.

South Africans pooled at the polls in May, but the election could produce no outright winner, forcing President Ramophosa’s African National Congress to seek coalition with other parties. It was a demonstration of  the delicate dynamics of democratic elections, and Africans living in Africa must seek free and free elections as a crucial part of their citizenship experience. This is because in many ways, a wholesome experience of good governance by the citizenship begins from the ballot box.

When people can express informed choices about those who will lead them, they are best able to participate in governance, thus shaping the trajectory of their citizenship experience. This in turn has many implications.

The right to freely choose without interference carries with it a corollary right to remove without interference. This breeds accountability and transparency in government which is good for democracy which otherwise dies in the darkness.

It is a tragedy of continental proportions that many years after independence many African countries are still struggling to build strong institutions and enshrine good leadership. Rubber-stamp legislatures and dependent judiciaries are often powerless to stop the tide of tyranny unleashed by those who seek to crush all opposition as they empty their country’s treasuries.

Shortly after the inauguration, President Ramophosa was pictured in an audience with Nigeria’s President Bola Ahmed Tinubu. It was an iconic moment for democracy in Africa.

Nigeria is another African country where democracy is proving remarkably resilient. On June 12, Nigeria celebrated 25 years since it returned to democracy after decades of military misrule. In 2023, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu was elected and sworn in as Nigeria’s 16th president. As a stalwart of democracy who was exiled as the country fought against a brutal military regime in the late 90s, President Tinubu was immediately faced with the coup in neighboring Niger Republic. His sharp rebuke of the coup plotters and defense of democracy in the country indicated his unwavering belief in the enduring values of democracy. Nigeria unflinchingly supported South Africa as it brutally fought apartheid, a fight which saw the immortal Nelson Mandela spend 27 years in incarceration.

After independence in 1994, South Africa returned the favor as Nigeria fought to relegate the military to the barracks in the late 90s. Particularly, South Africa offered vocal diplomatic support as Nigerians sought to dislodge General Sani Abacha’s brutal dictatorship.

Both countries are giants of the African continent who have shared years of close collaboration and cooperation, especially in the economic and democratic fronts, the unfortunate instances of xenophobia notwithstanding.

The two countries are also sterling examples of the fact that democracy can survive and thrive in Africa. In a continent where the forces of tyranny are fast closing in, this example is especially existential.

As Nigeria and South Africa celebrate crucial democratic milestones, the hope is that other African countries will toe the path of democracy to lasting peace and prosperity for their long-suffering people.

Ike Willie-Nwobu,

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