By Eric Chinje
Africa is emerging as a player on the global stage. This should not be news to anyone. Mention of the fact should, however, serve as an invitation to reflect on its significance.
For the first time in history, events and outcomes in Africa will impact and be directly impacted by what goes on in the rest of the world. Even as late as 2008, less than a decade ago, the sub-prime crisis and global economic meltdown of that year had nary an effect on the continent. Africa was essentially outside the global economic system – too small a player to matter!
That has all changed. The world will not catch a cold when Africa sneezes – not yet! – but the threat of a cold is becoming real. The continent’s growing middle class complete with its voracious consumerist tendencies, its potential as a source of essential minerals such as coltan, uranium, manganese and others, and a growing desire and ability to seek value-addition prior to exports, all of this is moving Africa ever closer to the economic heart of global affairs. It is about time, therefore, that Africans – citizens and governments – recognize this and talk about it.
The challenge of injecting this fact into the public discourse mostly lies, I believe, with media professionals and, to some extent, with academics, social commentators and other opinion leaders on the continent.
Citizens and their leaders have to be reminded of this important fact because their actions today and tomorrow at the individual, micro level have consequences at the collective, macro level.
The discussion must focus on the quality of leadership on the continent. What quality of men and women are in leadership in Africa today? What quality of men and women should lead Africa in the 21st century?
The answer to these questions will bring us to the one element that is increasingly central to the choice of leaders today: elections!
One of the most important drivers of change in Africa now is the system of governance that came into prominence after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Freed from the imperatives of a bipolar world, people in Africa ultimate rose to demand the right to participate in the governance of their countries.
The result was the slow but steady collapse of centralized states and single party rule, and the rise in Africa of participatory democracy. Elections have since become the mode for determining entry into the circle of national leadership. And the leaders who will ensure that Africa remains an actor in world affairs this century will come to power through elections. Other options have proved to be disastrous for regional stability and economic growth.
The future of the continent is inextricably linked to what happens during elections. And in this, the role of media is critical! That is why it is important that journalists and other media professionals get into the game, understand what elections represent, and figure out how they cover these intensely political, economic and social activities in the life of any nation.
Elections strengthen national democracies and institutions; they determine the quality of leaders who will govern the nation; they help ensure the sustainability of peace and progress, and ultimately they define the pace and quality of development and change.
Key to electoral outcomes is the quality of public information and debate. Informed citizens are empowered citizens. Never before in its history has the need for quality public information in Africa been in greater demand. Never before has the role of the communication professional been more important.
What journalists and other opinion leaders do in the lead up to elections, in the organization and coverage of the elections, and in bringing the country together again after elections may be the single most important role played by the media in any country. Their actions may be the one factor that reinforces the bonds that bind the nation, strengthen its governance institutions, and ensure national progress and development.
There are elections each year somewhere in Africa. Even in cases where outcomes are known before ballots are cast, elections present an opportunity to bring out the issues and general debate on them. There is hardly a country on the continent that does not face issues related to youth unemployment, inadequate infrastructure, public health and education, economic and financial management, energy, agriculture and food security, and challenges to peace and security. Who is offering the public viable policy options for dealing with these? There is no better time to put out these issues and have aspirants to power discuss them.
The African Media Initiative will be partnering with some global institutions to help strengthen the ability of media professionals to adequately cover elections and to make sure that media in Africa play that central role in defining the future of this continent.