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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is Democracy Finally Coming to West Africa?

This is my script about the coming election in Guinea for the CBC Radio's program on foreign affairs, Dispatches, hosted by one of CBC's most experienced correspondents, Rick Macinnes-Rae.

The report will air (barring unforeseen circumstances, like a coup) on Thursday September 16that 13h00 local time with a repeat on Sunday (Election Day in Guinea) at 19h00 local time.

Check the CBC website for details.



Africa is seeing a surge in democratic activity. Rwanda is the latest in a number of countries to hold elections. Former French colonies in West Africa are also moving in that direction. Jeffrey Dvorkin is a Toronto journalism professor and former head of CBC Radio and NPR in the US. He recently traveled to Guinea at the request of the US State Department to work with local journalists. Their challenge - and his - how to cover the first free elections since France granted independence to its former colonies in 1958. Here is his report:


The first thing you notice when you get to West Africa isn't the heat, or the humidity, or the poverty or the constant energy of the people.

In Guinea, I was struck by the sight of...bedroom furniture...for sale everywhere, outside, on the streets...double beds, headboards, credenzas and closets.

It's as if I'd stumbled on a vast, outdoor showroom at Ikea or The Brick.

Conakry, the capital, is a major international shipping center. Packing crates come and go from all over the world. Sometimes, they just...disappear and are miraculously transformed into ornate pieces of furniture by the dexterous carpenters of Conakry.

That inventiveness was also in evidence in the lead up to this presidential election. They needed a  lot of it. Democracy has not had much success in West Africa, and particularly in Guinea. Only a few months ago, a pro-democracy demonstration was brutally crushed by the presidential guard, known as the Red Berets.

Ordered by the dictator, Moussa Dadis Camara to deal with the protesters, the guards shot and killed 150 demonstrators. This was followed by a Red Beret rampage of rape through the streets of Conakry.

No one knows how many women were raped, but one doctor estimated the number in the hundreds.

This was little noticed in the western media. But according to news reports, intense diplomatic and economic pressures were put on the regime. A month later, the same Red Berets guards turned on Camara, badly wounding him. He fled the country and is recuperating in neighboring Burkino Faso, while an interim government prepares for the elections.

Previous elections in Guinea were marked by fraud, intimidation and violence. What approach could possibly work in a country still reeling from a long tradition of military dictatorship and the brutality of the recently ousted regime? The Red Berets were still around, racing through the streets of Conakry in jeeps with 50 caliber machine guns, trying to intimidate people before the vote. One Guinean journalist assured me that this election would be stolen again.

In the past, ballot boxes simply disappeared. Opposition supporters were beaten and frequently murdered. Could anything be done this time to lessen the intimidation and restore confidence in an untested democracy where the literacy rate is less than 20 per cent for men and half of that for women?

The answer? In a country where newspapers reach few people and television is a luxury, radio is king.

I proposed that radio go on the air immediately after the polls close: a CBC-style election night program. Results to be broadcast twice an hour with analysis in between. Even if few numbers were available, the fact that live radio would be there to report what was happening, might just lessen public anxiety about the possibility of a stolen election.

Not surprisingly, Guinean public radio turned us down. A long tradition of government subservience meant the public broadcaster was too afraid to do a live election program. So we approached commercial radio. They readily agreed to do a national broadcast on election night.

Then, since young Guineans love their cell phones, we asked them to text any examples they witnessed of fraud or intimidation. Confidentiality guaranteed. This appeal was broadcast for three weeks before
the vote. The threat of public scrutiny virtually eliminated the usual election thuggery and thievery. Call it democratic vigilante-ism...

Finally we even asked the national beauty queen, "Miss Guinea" to record public service announcements to get out the non-violent vote. Banners over main intersections in Conakry proclaimed that "Miss Guinea met sa beauté au service de la Paix" - Miss Guinea puts her beauty to serve Peace (it sounds better in French...).

The results? An 80 percent turnout in the first free election in Guinea's history...No violence and the election to be decided in a run-off between the two top contenders on September 19th.

And remember all that bedroom furniture? It might not be put to good use, as Guineans can rest easier knowing that for the first time, they might just finally have their own democracy at last.

For Dispatches, I'm Jeffrey Dvorkin in Conakry, Guinea.

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