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How to put pressure on African democracies

I've just spent a week in Ghana and Kenya, two former British colonies in Africa which both have elections coming up, and I came back with a message for America.

Ghana in West Africa was the first country on that wonderful continent to regain its independence over half a century ago. It has produced world-class leaders like Kofi Annan, former head of the United Nations. It also produces some of the world's best cocoa beans. So even if you can't place it on the map, you've almost certainly enjoyed its chocolate.

Kenya in East Africa grows tea and coffee and is a popular holiday destination for its beaches and wildlife. Kenya is a lot richer than Ghana but the economies of both countries are doing well and growing far faster than those in Europe or North America. And they are both democracies where, contrary to the myths that surround Africa, power changes hands and corrupt dictators are hopefully a thing of the past.

But before I get accused of painting too rosy a picture, it's time to say that their democracies are far from perfect. They might say the same of ours, but the last elections in Kenya in 2007 were horribly bloody. I went to an exhibition of photographs taken at the time and the images of machete-wielding thugs and burning bodies were truly shocking. Taking a taxi afterwards through the streets of Nairobi with its prosperous neighborhoods and burgeoning skyscrapers, it was hard to believe it was the same country. Equality under the law, as perhaps we understand it, has yet to take root.

But the human rights campaigners I met in both countries, while nervous about the future, were confident that it would be better than the past. And their message for America, and to the West in general is this: be careful. If we put too much pressure on their governments we will be accused of being colonialists in another guise, still trying to impose our systems on other people's countries. When we threaten to cut aid, as we sometimes do, the same charges are leveled. African politicians find it easy to get cheers by promising to stand up to Western interference, and the rights we're trying to uphold can be threatened instead.

That's not to say we should back off. Rather than we should be smarter about what we do. Democracy and human rights defenders in countries like Ghana and Kenya can and must fight their own battles. We should support them where we can, of course. But as woman said to me with great clarity - "work with us, not for us".

This is Lance Price for CBS News in London.

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