September 2012


The African Democracy Project is embarking on its fourth study of an African nation’s exercise of democracy, this time in the west African nation of Ghana. The project is sponsored by the Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society (FOCIS) and the Eugene Applebaum Chair in Community Engagement in collaboration with Wayne State University’s Irvin D. Reid Honors College. This report details the preparations that were made in collaboration with the Legon Campus of the University of Ghana, from which Wayne State sought assistance for the ongoing research project on African democracy.

This undertaking follows three similar African Democracy Project (ADP) courses offered at Wayne State: 2009 in Mozambique (ADPM), spring 2011 in Botswana (ADPB), and fall 2011 in Liberia (ADPL). Like the first three projects, African Democracy Project/Ghana (ADPG) will enroll a maximum of 14 undergraduate and graduate students; they will be taught by Professor Ron Brown and President Emeritus Irvin D. Reid. They will be assisted by two graduate students, one administrative coordinator, and technical videographic assistants in support of a documentary on African democracies.

During the first two weeks of April 2012, I traveled to Accra, Ghana to hold preparatory meetings for the fourth African Democracy Project. Beginning with a visit to Maputo, Mozambique in 2008, each project has been preceded by an assessment visit to the country chosen as the target for a future course. The purposes of the visits are to establish contacts and to plan for our students to conduct research for their individual or group projects. In addition, students participate in a larger project of preparing a documentary on democracy across a number of African countries over several years. Each of these projects is summarized below.

From the beginning, those with whom I spoke in Mozambique, Botswana, and Liberia were fascinated. They wanted to participate in our project and to be helpful in many different ways, but they were mostly curious as to why anyone would be interested in them and their country. Often they wanted to know what I would do with the results or how I would change what they were doing. I had to make it clear that my goal was for the students to simply learn about their country and its people as a way to better understand themselves and their own democracy. The results often went far beyond any expectations I had about my students’ interest in African democracy or what I thought would be their capacity to expand their horizons about Africa. A summary of each program follows:

Mozambique. During November 2008, I traveled to Maputo, Mozambique at the invitation of former president Joachim Chissano to discuss a concept I had written to him about concerning the introduction of American students to democracy in the emerging nations of Africa. The idea was inspired by the Mo Ibrahim Award that was to be given to Chissano, the first recipient, in recognition of his leadership in democracy in Africa. I described to the former president my idea for introducing American students to democracy in Africa and sought his advice. He said rather bluntly, “If you want American students to understand democracy in Africa, why don’t you bring them here to Mozambique during the presidential elections next year?” Out of that suggestion, the course and the entire African Democracy Project was born. The students arrived in Mozambique in October 2009 to inaugurate the first course and the first phase of the documentary.

The Mozambique program established several very important templates for the African democracy courses that followed. It was built on the concept of the students gaining a deep understanding of the history, culture, politics, and current events of the country. Students were required to blog from the very beginning of the course. They were given extensive readings, both historical and from online newspapers, about the country of interest as well as other countries in the region and on the continent.

Another important aspect of the course was the opportunity for students to participate in the design of the course by contributing content, not only in terms of their blogs and journals, but also through suggested reading materials, social media activities, and research projects. Each course varied in some unique way, but most involved students designing an original research project on an issue in the country. In Mozambique, following discussion with the Chissano Foundation, we decided that it would be wise for our students to consult with nongovernment organizations, political parties (including opposition leaders), and government agencies.

In addition to a wide-ranging syllabus of reading and writing requirements, the course relied on outside lecturers and experts who had written or researched extensively on the country of interest.

Botswana. In 2009, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced the award of its second leadership recognition to Festus Mogae, former president of Botswana. The country had one of the highest incidents of HIV infection in the world, and deaths from complications related to HIV/AIDS soared. Mogae had led Botswana at the height of its health crisis.

Under Mogae’s leadership, government policy committed to provide treatment free of charge to any of its infected citizens. Obviously the citizen had to take the bold step of acknowledging and then seeking help. However, it was Mogae and his government who were responsible for encouraging those steps.

As with former president Chissano of Mozambique, I discussed the Wayne State University project on democracy in Africa with former president Mogae. I was able to ask him about his views on the challenges for not only his country, but the whole continent of Africa. Without hesitation, he stated that the greatest challenge for the continent was HIV/AIDS.

Unlike the project in Mozambique, African Democracy Project Botswana established a relationship with a university. Before departing on the exploratory assessment visit to Gaborone, ADP contacted the vice chancellor as well as professor David Sabadubudu, director of the Center for African Democracy at the University of Botswana. In collaboration with the Wayne State University Office of International Studies, the ADP program formed its first university alliance. Through partnership with the University of Botswana, ADP met the requirement of WSU’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) to have local approval of the research project as well as local scholars to provide considerable insight into the culture, history, and politics of Botswana.

Liberia. In August 2011, I arrived in Monrovia, Liberia to engage in an assessment for the field visit by the class, a critical part of the African Democracy Project. The visit was coordinated with the University of Liberia, which provided extremely helpful assistance in arranging contacts both within and outside the university. My gratitude goes to President Emmet Dennis as well as his entire team of vice presidents and presidential assistants. President Dennis assigned an able team of his staff to assist me and I particularly would like to acknowledge Assistant to the President Michelle Stubblefield; Vice President James R. Kollie (Graduate Program and Research); and Vice President S. Momolu Gataweh (Academic Affairs). We agreed that I would provide a complete copy of our research with appropriate interviews and that I, as principal investigator, would appear before a panel of IRB members the following week. The three-person panel examined the project, asked a number of questions, and voted to approve and support the project with a letter that we had drafted and that was reviewed by the chair of Wayne State’s IRB Committee. Two original copies of the letter were signed and given to me by Dr. Kollie.

We owe a considerable debt of gratitude to the University of Liberia and particularly to Dr. Kollie, who patiently worked with me to complete the authorization and certification before I left Liberia. Clearly the relationship with the University of Liberia made the research component of our project considerably easier than the experience we had in Botswana. In terms of priorities, the university collaboration is the most critical. Without IRB approval, none of the fieldwork for the class or the documentary is possible. With that in mind, most of the contacts for the target country are now made with the local university first.

Things don’t always go according to plan. That’s great – because, while frustrating, surprises in Africa can really be a treat! Unfortunately, my students could not meet with former president Blah and his wife because of his health issues. We were not able to meet at the University of Liberia to engage with professors and students because the university unexpectedly chose to take a holiday for the historic election, and it would have been nearly impossible to reschedule the lecture. October turned out to be an opportunity for one of the rainiest countries in all of Africa to show us what rain really is: We floated through virtually everywhere. But this is the extent of the bad unexpected. The rest of the experience for the Wayne State University African Democracy Project Liberia was full of the extraordinary unexpected!

A few days before the election, I arrived in Liberia along with my colleague, Professor Sharon Lean, my executive assistant, and a Wayne State University delegation of nine students, two graduate assistants, and a two-man documentary camera crew. We were in Monrovia for the second presidential and legislative elections that the Republic of Liberia was holding since the country’s brutal civil war ended. At that time, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first elected president of Liberia since the imprisoned Charles Taylor left the country for trial in the Hague. She was also the first female president on the continent.

The students had a unique experience. In addition to impressive meetings with governmental and non-governmental officials, they were able to observe for themselves the treatment of women and talk to former civil war fighters. They also spoke with ordinary citizens who were wounded in war, punished for not participating, or otherwise abused for their failure to join one side or the other.

War is not over as long as there are still victims, and Liberia has so many victims in so many ways. Despite efforts at peace and reconciliation and palaver meetings, pain and suffering are obvious everywhere as a country tries to host a civil society after a most uncivil war waged by neighbors and friends against each other.

I have not uttered the word “democracy.” Despite the election, enthusiasm, demonstrations, dancing, and standing in long lines to vote as well as a process relatively free of irregularities, something was not right. In many ways, it was unsettling and sometimes downright painful to watch. Nevertheless, the Republic of Liberia made history. From August to November of 2011, the country stumbled through three votes: a referendum on changing the date of its election (defeated), changing the age of judges (approved), and changing the time required to live in the country before standing for election to president (defeated). Then it held an election in which no party candidate got a majority. This required a run-off vote between the top two candidates a few weeks later – a run-off in which the challenger refused to participate. Nevertheless, it was held in accordance with the constitution and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 24th and current president of the Republic of Liberia, was elected to her second term.

The 2011 elections may not have been “democracy” as we have idealized it, but elections did take place. Liberia was designated by the Ibrahim Foundation as one of the African nations that made extraordinary progress in 2011.

The following short documentary captures the experiences of the Wayne State University participants in the African Democracy Project Liberia while the class was observing the presidential elections: Liberia_ADP.mov – YouTube.flv.