- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2011

While many see the political crisis over the debt ceiling as yet another example of Washington’s dysfunction, at least one African leader has a different take.

“This is very instructive for Africa,” says Mahmadou Issouffou, president of Niger. “This is a system where a single man cannot decide everything alone. This is very important for all African countries to see.”

Mr. Issoufou made the comments during a panel discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace with three other West African presidents: Guinea’s Alpha Conde, Benin’s Boni Yayi,

The four men, who will visit the White House tomorrow, are being held up as exemplars of progress in a continent where democracy was once an exception. Sub-Sahran Africa has quintupled its number of electoral democracies over the past two decades, according to Freedom House.

But the leaders said that preserving democracy will remain the greatest challenge.

“Your president said when he was in Accra [Ghana’s capital], ‘Africa doesn’t needs strongmen, it needs strong institutions,’ and we agree with President Obama,” said Mr. Issoufou.

All four men acknowledged the challenges of democratization in a region plagued by ethnic divisions, economic deprivation and persistent security threats.

Mr. Conde, who survived an assassination attempt in July, said that African leaders need to “attack the problem of security without weakening human rights,”adding that economic growth also is key.

“There’s no magic wand,” he said, “so it’s very important that we understand that if democracy doesn’t advance living conditions, democracy itself can’t advance.”

Mr. Yayi agreed: “Democracy needs to feed itself, it needs sustenance. People must know that its via democracy that we’re moving toward prosperity. If people believe that misery will continue, we will not have democracy, so that is why democracy must be accompanied by economic renewal.”

Mr Ouattara, who assumed office this year after a violent, five-month standoff with his predecessor, crowed that voter turnout rates in his country’s recent elections exceeded those of post-apartheid South Africa, but he insisted that democracy is about more than just a ballot box.

“It’s not just about organizing democratic elections, it’s about behaving democratically afterwards, about respecting the rule of law,” he said, adding that “democracy means the protection of minorities.”

He said that America, with its array of ethnic groups, provides a good model for his fractious country.

“Whatever your color, whatever your religion, you’re an American, and this is what I tell my people: We need to be Ivorians first,” he said. “Americans have a sacred idea of citizenship, and that’s what I want to achieve in my country.”

The wave of democratization is part of a rare spate of good news out of sub-Saharan Africa, which now boasts 10 of the world’s 20 fastest-growing economies, as well as its newest nation — South Sudan.