NEW YORK – It went almost unnoticed on a day of brinkmanship and geopolitical pyrotechnics. At the United Nations, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rolled out his demand for full statehood. Israel responded predictably, backed by the United States and others. Diplomats scuttled hurriedly to and fro, seeking compromises and middle ground – anything to do a deal that would keep the matter from coming to a vote in the Security Council or General Assembly.
Meanwhile, famine in the Horn of Africa continues. A new UN mission began to deploy in Libya – the vanguard of the international community’s effort to help a newly liberated and, one hopes, democratizing country emerge from conflict and 42 years of despotic rule. As the first week of the annual UN General Debate drew to a close, there was lofty talk of seize-the-moment imperatives – from climate change and sustainable development to renewed pledges of aid for the impoverished and the advancement of women around the globe.
But, on the radar of gloom and challenge, one bit of good news – the result of the presidential election in Zambia – scarcely made a blip. True, Zambia is a small African country, far from the international spotlight. Events there seldom reverberate globally. Certainly, the Zambians’ achievement cannot compete with the intervention in Libya or the drama of the Arab Spring. And yet, what happened in Zambia is related to those developments – and thus relevant everywhere.
What made Zambia’s election so important is that the challenger won. Indeed, he defeated an incumbent who really wanted to keep his job, and who might reasonably have been tempted to follow the lead of other African leaders defeated in a popular vote by simply refusing to accept the result. After all, smooth transitions of power are not to be taken for granted.
In 2005, government forces in Ethiopia shot opposition supporters following a contested election. Kenya erupted in violence in 2007, after a presidential election in which the voting, and the subsequent counting of ballots, was deeply suspect. In 2008, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe refused to accept his loss in a first-round presidential ballot and forced his opponent to drop out for the second. In time, he agreed to “share” power with the winner, Morgan Tsvangirai, who was subsequently named the country’s prime minister – but only after he and his top aides faced violence and death threats as part of an effort to make him back down.
A similar scenario played out in Côte d’Ivoire. Last December, President Laurent Gbagbo lost an election to his challenger, Allasane Outtara. Gbagbo, too, refused to step down. He, too, offered to share power – retaining the presidency, with its privileges and clout, while ceding the premiership, with its portfolio of troubles but no real power. Had the UN mission in the country not stood firm for democracy and helped force Gbagbo out, the all-too-familiar trend would have been cemented.
Contrast all this to Zambia. There, election officials announced the result of the vote – 36% for President Rupiah Banda versus 43% for his opponent, Michael Sata. Hackers broke into the election commission’s Web site, delaying the announcement. But there was no challenge, either from the government or the opposition. On September 23, Banda conceded, with remarkable grace. The people had spoken, he said; he would abide by their wishes.
It would be pleasant to think that all this would have happened anyway; and perhaps it would have. Yet let us not deny the power of example. The year has not been kind to dictators, or to those who would cling to power regardless of the democratically expressed will of their people. Libya, Côte d’Ivoire, and the revolutions sweeping North Africa and the Middle East have contributed to a new trend, now on display in Zambia – proof that change can come about peacefully when citizens are allowed their say. For Africa and the world, it is a momentous moment.