A historical look at Senegalese democracy

Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obsanjo arrived today in Dakar as a representative of the Economic Community of West African States to meet with the M23 opposition group, which is protesting Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade’s bid for a third presidential term as unconstitutional. (Ironically, Wade himself was among those who criticized Obsanjo in 2006 when he sought constitutional changes to allow for a third term as Nigeria’s president).

Meanwhile, technically illegal protests continue in Dakar in advance of Sunday’s vote, with tensions running high and occasionally spilling into deadly violence.

But with five days to go until it appears that the 85-year-old Wade will prevail to “win” a third term in office unitl the year 2019, just how strongly rooted is democracy in Senegal?

The French-speaking, predominantly Islamic, West African nation has has three leaders since it gained independence in 1960: Léopold Senghor until 1981, Abdou Diouf from 1981 to 2000 and Wade since 2000.  With a population of 12.8 million and a GDP per capital of less than $1800 per year, Senegal has neither been among Africa’s political nor economic showcases, but neither has it been the scene of the kind of ethnic and political violence or economic catastrophe that have plagued much of post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa.

Senghor was a leader of political and literary Négritude movement in West Africa, which sought to define African “blackness” as a contrast to colonialism. A renowned poet celebrated in France, Senghor remained incredibly welcoming of French capital — economic, political and cultural — well after independence. He continued to take advice from French advisors and to allow French companies to run key Senegalese businesses, giving Senegalese policymaking a highly neocolonial feel in its first two decades. Nonetheless, for much of Senghor’s rule, Senegal remained a one-party state. In 1976, however, Senghor moved toward democratizing Senegal by allowing a highly controlled multi-party system, with a law that contemplated three officially recognized parties: a socialist party (a space taken by Senghor’s own ruling party), a liberal democratic party and a communist party. Senegal’s economy never soared in its first two decades, although its exports began to diversify from the groundnut (peanut) industry into fishing, phosphates and other sectors.

Senghor transferred power in 1981 to his hand-picked successor, Diouf, marking the first time in postcolonial Africa that an Africa leader gave up power voluntarily. Diouf oversaw somewhat of a mixed economic and political bag as well. Diouf continued and expanded the breadth of Senegal’s multi-party tradition, allowing ever greater numbers of parties. From 1982 to 1989, Senegal formed a confederation with The Gambia, Senegambia, out of mutual security concerns, but the confederation never bloomed. Senegal’s economy tanked in the 1990s, as did many economies across Africa, and Senegal became every more dependent on foreign aid (even in 2000, aid represented about one-third of its government spending).  Notwithstanding the stagnancy, in 1986, Diouf launched what might be one of the most successful policy initiatives throughout all of post-colonial Africa: an incredibly far-sighted anti-AIDS education and prevention program that worked with civil society and religious organizations to promote condom use and safe se and also registered sex workers in Senegal with regular health testing.  The initiatives are credited with keeping Senegal’s HIV/AIDS rate under 2%, an incredibly low rate for sub-Saharan Africa.

In the 2000 Senegalese election, Diouf lost in the second round to longtime opposition candidate Wade and his Parti Démocratique Sénégalais by a vote of 58.5% to 41.5%. Remarkably, Diouf conceded the election to Wade and left office peacefully.

Wade’s two terms in office have not resulted in any incredible economic or political achievements of note. G. Pascal Zachary, in a piece for The Atlantic last week, called Wade (who once worked in government alongside Senghor) a “museum piece,” the last gasp of a stultified Francophile ruling class that has governed Senegal since independence:

Wade is a politician of persistence without purpose. He is neither puppet nor puppet master in Senegalese politics, but rather a triumph of form over content. His only credible achievements are negatives: Senegal has not had a civil war (like Sudan), not had an Islamic uprising (like Nigeria), not hosted a genocide, and not had a military coup.

For the Senegalese — a people of great culture, dignity, drive, and committment — not having this or that horrible outcome is no longer enough. They need progress, which their president since 2000 hasn’t delivered. Wade must go.

Seen in that light, the decision to ban popular rapper Youssou N’Dour from the presidential election, Wade’s own intransigence in seeking a third term and the heavy police presence harassing and attacking the opposition in the days leading up to the election, are a full step backward in a country that has a strong, but by no means entrenched, democratic tradition.

Whether Obsanjo and others in the international community can change this trajectory — or have the sufficient will to change it — in advance of Sunday’s vote, with 13 opposition candidates vying against Wade in the first round vote, seems unlikely.

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