The biggest small election

(As some of you may know, I have been involved in past and ongoing work in West Africa. I have been paying devout attention to the current Senegalese elections and finally decided to coalesce my thoughts into an article, which follows.)


A young man sends text messages from a Dakar streetcorner. Photo credit: Erik Delaquis

On February 26th millions of Senegalese headed to the polls for the first time since 2007. The results of their first-round voting are forcing a heated runoff election between the incumbent, Abdoulaye Wade, and opposition leader Macky Sall later this March. A bastion of democracy with its parliamentary system and fixed term lengths, the former French colony is an EU darling. At least, for the moment. As riots erupt and the two-horse electoral runoff reaches fever pitch, the future of one of West Africa’s success stories faces a major fork in the road.

The incumbent in this year’s elections, the 85 year-old Wade, has been in power since 2000. According to Senegal’s constitution, presidents may serve 2 terms, which Mr. Wade has already done. However, since the term limits were legislated shortly after his first election, the octagenarian leader has successfully persuaded the courts that his first term  does not retroactively apply.

The term ‘persuaded’ has particular heft here, as the judges in the case were hand-picked by the president, reputedly given healthy raises, and the president paid US law firm McKenna, Long & Aldridge 150,000 USD from the state purse to argue his case. The same judges quashed grammy-winning superstar artist Youssou N’Dour’s opposition bid, citing a lack of signatures.

During Mr. Wade’s tenure the number of presidential terms was not only reduced to 2, but the term length shortened from 7 years to 5, a move Senegal’s population applauded, but which the leader has recently been seeking to reverse.

Perhaps most troubling of all, Mr. Wade has been increasing his son Karim Wade’s power at an alarming rate; the Senegalese derisively refer to their minister of energy, infrastructure, air transport, regional development and international cooperation as ‘Ministère du ciel et de la terre’ (Minister of the sky and the earth). One estimate suggests that the younger Wade’s operations account for 46% of the national budget.

Diplomatic cables from the US and Senegal released by Wikileaks in 2010 suggested not only that the younger Wade was using his position to effectively embezzle vast sums of money, but also that Senegal was “a weakening democracy” facing a possible “dynastic presidential succession”.

These allegations follow a string of increasingly erratic and self-aggrandizing behaviour by the familial regime, including the construction, at an estimated 27 million USD, of the ‘Monument de la Renaissance Africaine’, a colossal 49m brass statue depicting a family standing on a mountain peak. The monument looms over the people of Dakar on a prominent hill.

It is worth recalling that during the construction of this monument subsistence farmers (which make up the vast majority of the population) were starvating within a day’s drive from the site as the Sahel famine gripped the region. To further rub salt in the wound on the national psyche, Mr. Wade is now claiming intellectual property rights over the Monument, entitling him to a 35% share of all future profits derived from visitors.

Is it any wonder, then, that the slogan of the youth-led resistance is ‘y’en a marre’ (‘we are fed up’)? While I was in the Senegalese capital of Dakar in February 2011, an ex-soldier set himself ablaze near the steps of the presidential palace, echoing the now-legendary self-immolation of Tunisian vegetable seller Mohammed Bouazizi, the catalysing symbol for the recent string of Arab revolutions. Political graffiti cloaked nearly every surface in Dakar in an updated-nightly monologue reflecting each political development. Rival groups repeatedly scarred out the others’  diatribes, replacing them with their own. Political protests were already stirring the peace; the anger of the people was palpable. The mood was electric.

Since Senegal’s elections have begun, violent clashes between protestors and police have claimed at least half a dozen lives, and the Committee to Protect Journalists reports several incidents of press intimidation and brutality against journalists. Crowds have gathered in the streets chanting “gorgui na dem” (“Old man go away” in the local Wolof language), and exchanges of rocks and tear gas have rattled the capital as well as the major economic centers of Kaolack and Thiès.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the situation is the polarity between the new Mr. Wade and his roots. Born a merchant’s son around 1926 (records are not reliable for this period) in the village of Kébémer, Mr. Wade earned two doctorates, in Law and Economics, and for a time taught law himself at the Lycée Condorcet in France. He was subsequently appointed as dean of the faculty of Law and Economics at the Université de Dakar in his home country.

He worked tirelessly as an opposition member for the party he created (the Senegalese Democratic Party, or PDS) for 25 years before finally ending the 40-year reign of Senegal’s socialist party with his successful fourth electoral bid in 2000. Since his installation in the presidential palace, Wade has been an influential advocate for unity within both the African Union and ECOWAS, the regional economic zone. He presided over many positive changes in his country, especially regarding education, public health and free-market reforms.

At the Lisbon Africa-European summit, Wade’s government led what became a remarkably united Africa-wide charge to refuse to be forced into Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) the EU was pressuring local governments to adopt. If the EPAs had been signed as the EU wished, African countries would have been unable to begin new partnerships with other prominent international players such as China or Brazil.

Wade’s successes are apparent for the fact that despite the scandals, mismanagement and rampant nepotism, Mr. Wade still received 38% of the popular vote this February. This was much to the embarrassed surprise of the president, who had repeatedly confidently predicted a “crushing” first-round victory, a feat which would have required over 50% of the ballots.

However, neither does Wade’s 38% assure success in the runoff round, where several other opposition leaders, including Moustapha Niasse, who received 13% in the first round, and the singer Mr. N’Dour have already thrown their support behind the opponent Mr. Sall. As the opposition continues to coalesce, the chance of Mr.Wade being handed a defeat looms very real.

In light of Mr. Sall’s proposed constitutional reforms, his bid is becoming increasingly colored as a question of voting for democracy. Mr. Sall has already pledged to keep the term length at 5 years and to enforce the 2-term limit. If this strategy effectively takes hold, the fiercely proud democratic populace will almost certainly cast Mr. Wade out in favor of a united opposition rallied behind the banner of democratic choice.

Had he gracefully bowed out this election, even had he endorsed his son as a candidate, Mr. Wade’s legacy would have likely been largely positive. To clutch power into his 90s seems uncalled for and counterproductive to any chance at realizing his son’s speculative presidential ambitions.

Mr. Wade is an intelligent man who must surely realize how negative his decision is for his country, regardless of his victory or loss. Senegal has benefited immensely from its positive international reputation as a peaceful and democratic state and trade partner. Wade seems poised to undercut this reputation and to encourage the widepread international stereotype that African leaders are dynasty-thirsty tyrants at heart, stopping at nothing to covet their maximum time in power.

Attempting to reinterpret and modify the constitution to his government’s benefit only opens the door for further abuses of power. At the very least, his resignation would have signaled, as Nelson Mandela’s did, that in a democracy one of the most significant things a ruler can do is know when to step aside.

It must equally surely not escape the president’s sense of irony that the biggest threat to Senegal’s healthy democracy since independence comes from this new iteration of his Senegalese Democratic Party.

Today, news of an African leader’s growing despotism or failure to relinquish power sadly raises few eyebrows here in the West.

It should.

Senegal, with its freedom of the press and commentary and progressive views on religion, sexuality and political orientation, is a beacon for democracy in a geopolitical region plagued with civil war, endless rebellion and corruption. As neighbouring Sierra Leone, Mauritania, Liberia and Côte D’Ivoire have recently demonstrated, peace is tenuous as ever in the area. The continuing reign of leaders for whom the constitution is a personal document, subject to interpretive change at will, sends a very clear message to the whole region. It says: leaders are above the rules, and if it’s acceptable here, it’s acceptable everywhere.

The stakes of the upcoming runoff vote in a few weeks’ time could be momentous to the future stability of the entire region. They could either provide a blueprint for positive change or another step towards dictatorship. Unfortunately, the window has already closed for Mr. Wade to do the single most valuable thing a modern African leader can do: to step down with humility.



(As an aside, it is encouraging to note that independent electoral commissions and watchdog groups have generally applauded the Senegalese voting system for its transparency and legitimacy. At least they don’t have any robocalls to contend with…)

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