Senegal’s Election: What’s at Stake

Senegal has long enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as something of an exception to the depressing cycle of poor governance, economic mismanagement, military intervention, and flawed strongmen that characterized politics in much of post-independence Africa. Recently, however, a not insignificant bit of that West African country’s luster has been lost, thanks in large part to the antics of President Abdoulaye Wade, who is seeking a legally questionable third term. Depending on the results of the runoff to be held Sunday, the country will either recover its élan just in the nick of time or very quickly fall behind the neighboring states for which it was once an inspiration. 

The only country in the region that has never suffered a military coup, Senegal was also blessed with extraordinary leaders who nurtured a unique and deeply rooted democratic culture anchored in strong political and civic institutions. Unlike other colonies, Senegal had elections since the late nineteenth century and, in 1914, elected the first black African to sit in a European parliament, Blaise Diagne, as its deputy in the French National Assembly. Diagne subsequently persuaded his colleagues to pass legislation, the Loi Blaise Diagne, which gave full citizenship to residents of the four major municipalities in Senegal. Léopold Sédar Senghor, the brilliant philosopher and poet who led the country to independence from France in 1960, established a multiparty political system and a reasonably performing administrative framework before becoming, in 1980, the first postcolonial African leader to voluntarily relinquish office, declaring on his way out his regret over having been away from his beloved books for too long. To leave room for his successor, Abdou Diouf, Senghor even moved to France, where he settled in his wife’s home village of Verson in Normandy and became the first African elected to the Académie Française. In turn, Diouf, after he was defeated in the 2000 run-off election by the longtime opposition leader Wade, peacefully handed off the presidency and likewise exited the national political scene. Since 2003, he has served as secretary-general of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. 

After more than a quarter of a century in opposition, Wade entered office with incredible promise which, at least initially, he seemed to live up to. A French trained jurist, he wrote most of a new constitution which voters approved in 2001. The charter seemed to bolster democracy, with provisions like a two-term limit on the presidency (both his predecessors had essentially served four terms in office). He was one of the architects of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), an independent program of the African Union aimed at eradicating poverty, promoting sustainable growth and development, integrating Africa in the world economy, and accelerating the empowerment of women. So impressive were some indicators of progress that the Obama administration awarded Senegal a $540 million compact through the Millennium Challenge Corporation over the objections of several skeptical members of Congress. 

Over time, however, worrisome indications of corruption and authoritarianism have surfaced. After Wade was declared the winner of the 2007 presidential election, a poll which opposition leaders charged was rigged, their parties boycotted the subsequent parliamentary polls, thus gifting the president’s Democratic Party (PDS) with an overwhelming legislative majority which it has used to pass a raft of constitutional changes. In 2007, a new Senate was created to replace the one abolished in 2001, albeit with the significant difference that the president now appoints 65 of its 100 members. The presidential term of office, reduced to five years in the earlier constitution reform, was extended to seven years.  

Since 2007, the country’s slide has been occurring at a dizzying pace. In 2009, Wade named his son Karim, whom he is widely believed to be grooming as a successor, minister of state for international cooperation, regional development, air transport, and infrastructure; the following year, he added energy to the young man’s already burgeoning portfolio. With the extra appointment the younger Wade is believed to control as much as half the national budget. The father-and-son duo launched a series of dubious prestige projects more reminiscent of the old Soviet bloc than the “African Renaissance” they claimed to be fostering with such boondoggles as a 49-meter bronze statue overlooking the Atlantic Ocean (by way of comparison, the Statue of Liberty is only 46 meters tall). To add insult to injury, while the Senegalese state bore the monument’s cost, Wade père asserted intellectual property rights to it, claimed a 35 percent royalty on admissions and souvenirs, and appointed his daughter Sindjely to manage the whole enterprise. In the meantime, the budget for health and education was trimmed by one-eighth last year and teachers’ salaries are often up to seven months in arrears. 

Things came to head last year when, after failing to get the constitution changed to create a vice presidential post many thought destined for his son, the president announced that he was running for another term, arguing that the two-term limit did not apply to him since it was enacted after his was elected in 2000. The move contradicted Wade’s own words when he declared after his 2007 reelection, “I can no longer stand as a candidate for another term because I am blocked by the constitution.” When, in late January, the Wade-appointed Constitutional Council accepted the incumbent’s new argument, all hell broke loose, with opposition politicians declaring the move a “constitutional coup d’état” while ordinary Senegalese grew ever more restive. Unprecedented mass protests took place, with police firing tear gas and, ultimately, live rounds at youthful demonstrators from the Y’en a Marre (“enough is enough”) movement who, mobilized by social media, tried to turn Dakar’s Place de l’Obélisque into Senegal’s version of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. An ensuing month of clashes with left at least six protesters dead and hundreds wounded, casualties which Amnesty International and other human rights groups blamed on the security forces having “repeatedly used excessive force.” 

Worried about the spread of the upheaval such as seen in North Africa, international figures began quietly urging Wade to retire. Just days ahead of the February 26 vote, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement calling for “a peaceful, credible and transparent process in line with Senegal’s longstanding democratic tradition and the aspirations of its people.” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns told reporters that the United States was “concerned that the decision by President Wade to seek a third term undermines the spirit of democracy in Senegal…and that it could jeopardize the decades-long record that Senegal has built up on the continent for democracy, democratic development, and political stability.” The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) dispatched former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo—who himself tried unsuccessfully to run for a third term—to seek a compromise that would have officially 85-year-old Wade agree to vacate the presidency after two years even if he were reelected. 

Although Wade faced a divided opposition in the vote—no fewer than thirteen candidates challenged him in the poll—he failed to win an outright majority, receiving only 34.8 percent of the vote. Thus he will have to face a former prime minister, Macky Sall, who won 26.6 percent, in Sunday’s runoff.  

Sall, a 50-year-old geologist who served a prime minister from 2003 to 2007 and parliamentary speaker from 2008 until 2009, was previously such a close ally of Wade’s that he ran the president’s last reelection campaign. He fell out with the Wades, however, when he summoned Wade fils before the National Assembly to answer corruption allegations arising from his management of the construction for the 2008 Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in Dakar. Loyalists of the president then forced Sall out of the speakership as well as the mayoralty of his hometown and even unsuccessfully tried to prosecute him for alleged money laundering. Sall went off and founded his own party, the Alliance for the Republic, and was resoundingly reelected mayor of Fatick in the 2009 municipal elections. Since then, he has worked diligently to build a nationwide grassroots network of support. He was also helped in the first round by the decision of the Wade-appointed election commission to disqualify popular singer Youssou N’Dour’s candidacy. In the run up to the second round, he has benefited from a surging “tous contre Wade” momentum, winning the endorsement of all the defeated presidential candidates who have agreed to put aside their various personal and political differences and throw their support behind an Alliance of the Forces of Change coalition announced by Sall, as well as the enthusiasm of younger activists who are otherwise distrustful of veteran politicians. 

There are three possible scenarios going in to the run off. In the best case, Wade loses and then bows out as gracefully as Diouf did for him twelve years ago. This is the outcome that Senegal’s international partners—chief among them the United States, France, and the European Union—are hoping for. Then there is worst case in which Wade, who has been openly warning of doom should his opponents prevail, tries to steal the election. In between, there is the possibility, albeit a very slim one given the intensity of the anti-Wade campaign, that the incumbent ekes out a narrow win with the help of the vote in rural areas where the PDS has been passing out enormous sums of money on recent weeks to so-called grands electeurs—regional officials, religious leaders, and tribal elders who could possibly deliver the votes of their less politically engaged constituents. However, given how the president’s support has utterly collapsed among urban dwellers—consider that while the population of the capital has roughly doubled since the last election to 3.2 million, the number of Dakaroises who voted for Wade went down from more than 607,000 in 2007 to 189,493 on February 26—to say nothing about how passionate they have been in rallying against even the prospect of his running for a third term, it is difficult to imagine the circumstances under which they would accept his reelection as credible, much less legitimate. Thus any outcome favorable to Wade, fair or foul, would probably lead to mass unrest which could quickly spreads across the country and potentially draw the security forces, which have hitherto correctly stayed out of it, into the maelstrom of Senegalese politics.  

Its exceptional history and the outsized political and cultural influence that the country has long exercised in Africa mean that Senegal’s election will have an impact well beyond its borders. What hangs in the balance is whether it will lead the continent forward or push it back. 

Dr. J. Peter Pham is the director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center.

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