In my 50-plus years of public service, some of my proudest moments include my work in Africa. From when I authored the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 to when I was appointed chair of the President Clinton's Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, my heart has always been with the people of Africa. Now as a retired congressman and former mayor, I spend a great deal of my time working with nonprofits that are dedicated to educating and mobilizing U.S. citizens on issues pertaining to Africa. Earlier this year, I had the distinct pleasure of spending some time with President Alpha Condé of Guinea when he visited the United States for meeting with President Obama, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Congressional Black Caucus and a host of other groups advocating for increased assistance for his nation's Ebola virus epidemic.


Meeting with Condé made me reminisce on some of the experiences I had working with the late South African President Nelson Mandela during the anti-apartheid movement. Obviously we are talking about vastly different times and circumstances, but the tie that binds is the difficulty that nations have in adjusting to democracy.

In the 1960s, Condé was a student leader and activist who was critical of Guinea's dictatorial regime. He was exiled from Guinea and became a professor in politics at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he continued to mobilize against the dictatorship. Guinea's first president sentenced Condé to death in absentia for his criticisms. The second president of Guinea actually imprisoned Condé for over two years for his advocacy against dictatorship.

Given this context it is even more improbable that Condé was able in 2010 to win the first democratic election in the history of Guinea. Condé campaigned on a platform of national unity and eventually won three of the Guinea's four regions representing many of the country's different ethnicities. Numerous independent international observers, led by the Carter Center, were invited to Guinea to observe the 2010 elections. The Carter Center concluded that the election results were fair and credible. While Condé's unlikely victory was a tremendous leap forward for democracy in Guinea, and Africa, the upcoming elections will be even more telling. The citizens of Guinea were open to the experiment of democracy; what the election this weekend will test is their commitment to those ideals.

It is a sad state of affairs — though no surprise, given Guinea's history — that the main opposition leaders in Guinea today were leaders in prior dictatorial regimes. In all countries, including our own, there are always entrenched interests that oppose change. The reality is that changing from a dictatorship to a democracy is a slow and painful task, especially in a poor country recently plagued by Ebola. It is no surprise that the cynical politics of fear and intimidation are being stirred among the electorate in Guinea by henchmen of former dictators. But President Obama said it best when he hosted a reception honoring Condé and three other freely elected African leaders in 2011: "Africa does not need strongmen; Africa needs strong institutions." Under Condé's regime, Guinea has improved its public finance management and the transparency of the business environment. After a decade of trying, the nation was able to achieve Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) status and have $2 billion in debt forgiven. The inflation rate has declined from 23 percent to 9 percent and the budget deficit fell from 13 percent to 3 percent. There have been substantial investments in agriculture and access to electricity has doubled in the country. The country's institutions are more transparent, stable and stronger.

The question is whether these incredible advances will translate to the average Guinean voter. While there have been many victories under the democratic regime of Condé, members of the old guard are quick to point out the failures. They are quick to rely on poverty, ethnic divisions and intimidation in an attempt to stem the rising democratic tide. As Guineans go to the polls this month, the world should be paying attention. This year has been an extraordinary one for democracy in Africa. In March, we saw the largest country on the continent, Nigeria, have a peaceful democratic election. This month, voters in Guinea will have a similar opportunity to go to the polls. The election in Guinea underscores many of the challenges that African nations face when transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. In this month's election, we will see if Guinea's experiment of democracy passed the test. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Guinea has waited too long for real democracy, and my hope is that it continues to move toward justice and democracy and never turns back.

Dellums is a 13-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California who served from 1971 to 1998. He also served as the 48th mayor of Oakland, Calif. from 2007 to 2011. He served as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on the District of Columbia. He also served on the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus. Dellums has previously represented Guinea, and a host of other African nations, but does not currently represent the country.