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Senegal: Africa’s Exception?

With all that has been going on in the Middle East and Africa in the past year, whether it be the still reverberating echoes of the events of last year’s Arab Spring or the more recent coup d’état in Mali, there is a story of great significance that has not been getting its fair share of attention. On March 25th of this year, the results of the second (and decisive) round of Senegal’s presidential elections were announced, ending months of unrest and speculation. The incumbent, President Abdoulaye Wade, conceded defeat and congratulated President-Elect Macky Sall via phone. For one to truly grasp the weight of this occasion and its significance for the region, and for African democracy as a whole, we must take a look at Senegal’s unique political history to shed light on the events leading to Senegal’s 2012 presidential race.

Although for the last twenty years Senegal has often been hailed as a beacon of stability and democracy in West Africa, it has had a less-than-stellar democratic record since independence from France in 1960. However, Senegal’s political history is unique in the sense that unlike many of its African counterparts and neighbours, who still suffer from military coups, it has never been witness to this ill, and the ruling party has always held regular elections. But on the other hand, Senegal has only had three presidents who belonged to one, of two, political parties. That is why Senegal is such an interesting case for the study of the progression of democracy (if you will) in Africa.

Upon independence in Senegal, Leopold Senghor and his socialist party came into power without contention, as they were perceived to be the main architects of independence. Under Senghor, the Parti Socialiste (PS) maintained its stronghold on power and transformed Senegal into a single-party state through the institutionalization of the colonial structures of clientelism in combination with the Islamic foundations and traditions that had already been in place for some time. The effects of this policy are still visible today and it explains how the Parti Socialiste was able to hold regular elections throughout their rule, which not only served to legitimize and renew their mandate, but also, to silence criticisms from the international community. This persisted until the mid-seventies, when domestic and international pressure resulted in the PS allowing the establishment of three official opposition parties. The most noteworthy of these parties is the Parti Democratique Socialiste (PDS), which will later rise to challenge the dominance of the Parti Socialiste, but not for another twenty-five years.

When President Senghor stepped down after twenty-one years in power in 1981, it was only to hand power to a handpicked successor from the political elite of the Parti Socialiste: Abdou Diouf. This chain of events engrained the notion that the ruling party will always consist of the same political elites who had been roaming the corridors of power under colonial rule and into the launch for independence. A notion that was again reiterated during the 2000 elections, which was the first time the Parti Democratique Socialiste was in a position to challenge the Parti Socialiste’s forty-year monopoly on power. Their nominee for that race was none other than Abdoulaye Wade (then 73 years old), who happens to come from the same class of colonial-era-educated political elite that Leopold Senghor and Abdou Diouf belonged to. Nonetheless, Abdoulaye Wade’s ascension to power was momentous, as it signified the end of the Parti Socialiste era and established Senegal as a truly functional multi-party democracy. However, the sense of rejuvenation felt from those elections was short-lived, as President Wade soon seemed to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors.


Abdoulaye Wade (photo by: the World Economic Forum)



As president for the last twelve years, Wade has been accused of turning into a “divine right” president who conceives of the state as a monarchy without limits”. His wife and son, Karim Wade, are said have wielded great influence over the political and economic affairs of the country, instigating accusations of corruption and nepotism. In addition, Mr. Wade diluted many reforms set in effect during the past decade to allow himself and his entourage to remain in power. Most significantly he attempted to amend the constitution to remove the limit on presidential terms, a limit set shortly after his election in 2000. When that failed, Mr. Wade cunningly appealed to the Constitutional Council to allow him to run for a third term in this past election, arguing that since the term limit was set after he assumed power, it should not be retrospectively applied to his presidency. Surprisingly, his argument was upheld and he was allowed to run, causing a huge domestic uproar, which led to widespread protests and clashes between opposition groups and Mr. Wade’s supporters. Public disenchantment with Mr. Wade escalated to the point that crowd waiting to vote at a polling station jeered and threw insults at him as he entered to cast his ballot during the election.

Abdoulaye Wade’s greatest hurdle (and retrospectively his greatest triumph) in the 2012 elections was gaining the opportunity to run in the first place. Having accomplished that he appeared to be a shoe-in for a third-term, and it seemed like history was poised to repeat itself, as it did with Diouf and Senghor before him. So when the electoral commission announced on March 25th that voters had decided that Macky Sall (who served as a Prime Minister under Wade from 2004 to 2007) was to be Senegal’s fourth president, the news was greeted with more trepidation than celebration. Things being as they were, political analysts, as well as many in the Senegalese opposition and the international community believed Wade would cling to power. This would lead to a situation very similar to that of ex-president Laurent Gbagbo of Cote D’Ivoire, who is currently in custody and awaiting trial at the Hague. Such a scenario would have caste Senegal and Abdoulaye Wade to the company of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, Muammar Ghadaffi of Libya, and their likes in the region and around the world.

However, Mr. Wade chose to concede politely to his ex-Prime Minister in a telephone conversation, making him one of the few leaders in the region who chose the road less travelled by, making all the difference for his country.

So in an era that will go down in the history books as one of leaders in the Middle East and Africa, and beyond, clinging to power to the point of no return, let it be known that President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal has set an example for them all and graciously backed down after a raging contest worthy only of the most sturdy of democratic systems.


– Khalid ElBushra


(Featured image: Serigne Diagne)

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