Isaac Mangena
Isaac Mangena

Senegal’s democratic leap forward

“Democracy is constructed like an edifice, freedom by freedom, right by right, until it reaches its snapping point.”

When Senegal’s former president Abdoulaye Wade prophetically coined this saying years ago, he definitely didn’t have the 25th of March 2012 in his mind as the day when he would unceremoniously “snap”.

The 85-year-old was trounced by his protégée Macky Sall in a run-off election last Sunday. And, contrary to the notoriety of African elections, Wade accepted defeat and graciously stepped down, congratulating his nemesis.

Wade was never a saint but I believe that since he came to power, Senegal has become a beacon of hope in West Africa.

He turned Senegal into a fledgling democracy – save for his misjudgments towards the end of his career. In comparison with other countries in this region plagued by rebellions, bloodsheds and flawed elections, his country managed to stand out from the rest.

Just as Senegal was embarking on a smooth process of elections and transition, across the border in Mali, mutineers were engaged in an overnight coup. The country is the latest member state of ECOWAS in crisis.

Peace in Guinea-Bissau is still doubtful after the election last week which saw the military chief killed. The elections came after a turbulent period of coups and countercoups in that country.

And who can forget the civil war that followed the disputed elections in Ivory Coast, where current president Allassane Ouattara ousted Lauren Gbagbo?

No doubt, the instability that surrounded Senegal during its own elections presented a fertile ground for unrest during and after the Senegalese took to the polls.

These elections and the subsequent ousting of Wade was the latest test for democracy, not only in Senegal, but in the whole West African region – and Wade and his country miraculously passed it.

It was easy for Wade to cling to power and degenerate into a dictator, and one cannot rule out that he was probably tempted.

But it was clear to Wade that he would lose, first when he was booed in Dakar in the first round of the polls and then when he failed to get the outright majority he had hoped for in the first round, settling for only 34 percent. Then opposition parties ganged up against him, securing over 50 percent of the vote between them in the first round.

It was easy for Wade to deliberately set state machinery in action to help rig the polls even before the second round of voting started (as was allegedly the case in the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe). He could have refused the outcome (like many other sore losers on the continent), cried foul and stirred up anger among his supporters like Laurent Gbagbo did in Ivory Coast. The opposition would have protested and Wade would have set security forces on them; blood would have flown for many weeks or even months to come – until another unity government was formed by the African Union, or the military launched a coup to take control of the country from civilians. Or, as one could expect, the French would have become involved, and Wade would have been dragged out of the presidential palace in torn underpants like Gbagbo.

As Thomas Fessy of the BBC alluded, there were fears that Wade’s candidacy for a third term meant he would try to cling to power at all costs, and tarnish the country’s image as a peaceful and stable democracy.

The former president proved many wrong.

Given, he had his faults but which leader doesn’t? Former SA president Thabo Mbeki had his flaws when he peacefully left, so did Rupia Banda in Zambia, and even Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria. And the least said about the former US president George Bush’s mistakes, the better. But these leaders avoided bloodshed by conceding defeat.

Wade’s presidency was marred by allegations of corruption, nepotism and stifling of media freedom. He presided over violent protests last year in which six people were killed when he tried to change the Constitution and presidential terms to enable him to stay in power. He also came under fire when he started to position his family as his successors, putting them in powerful government positions, which outraged activists.

“Senegal hasn’t suffered from a military takeover since independence but Mr Wade’s intention to run again was seen as a “constitutional coup” violating a two-term limit,” Fessy wrote.

Apart from his ills, Wade was arguably seen as a grandfather of democracy in West Africa and even the continent. He was the go-to person for most of the leaders in crisis in the region.

He was regarded as one of the Big Men, but didn’t act like some of the Big Men who consider themselves God-given to the continent to rule forever.

As noted by TIME magazine, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Angola’s Eduardo dos Santos, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi “persistently try to subvert elections and undermine the rule of law; across the continent, almost without exception, (they are part of) the ruling elite (that) uses public office to amass private wealth”.

Before this past weekend, Wade would have been part of this group, even though some pundits argue that Senegal’s democracy model is a bit different and did not give Wade room to do as he wished.

There are some ingredients for potential conflicts that exist in other countries that do not exist in Senegal, argued Ousmane Sene, director of the West African research centre in Dakar.

“We are not used to voting along ethnic lines or religious lines,” he told Al-Jazeera. “And you could say we are immune to some of these ingredients for tension: ethnic divide, religious divide, which makes it easy for us to have an election without major problems.”

And what makes Wade different is that he played the role of peer-police in the region and the continent. We will remember how he fell out with President Mbeki (the two were initially close as the drivers of NEPAD along with Olusegun Obasanjo) over Mbeki’s soft stance on Zimbabwe. And Wade has been hands-on in Liberia, Nigeria, Guinea(s), and Ivory Coast.

Author Michela Wrong, who wrote extensively about Africa and its leaders for more than 15 years, says the reason African presidents cling to power is simple: it is all about money and the cronies around them who fear prosecution, something Wade seems to have managed to avoid.

“It is not just an aging president who cannot bear to step down, there are also all the generals that he befriended, his aides, his wife, the family members who went into government,” Wrong said. There is a whole entourage who do not want him to step down.”

But in the end, Wade managed to set up an edifice of democracy brick by brick, and upheld it when he graciously snapped out of it a respected African statesman.

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  • 29 Responses to “Senegal’s democratic leap forward”

    1. I have heard that Wade went on a massive infrastructure spend, presumably on borrowed money, and the money is now spent but there has been no promised increase in jobs.

      What worries me is that we are following every FAILED African experiment in SA.

      March 28, 2012 at 12:07 pm
    2. Sterling Ferguson #

      @Mangena, I must say that this is a great article and you leave no stones unturned. Your analysis of the political development in Africa is very good, because many African writers are always trying to blame others for their problems.

      March 28, 2012 at 12:11 pm
    3. Sterling Ferguson #

      @Beddy, did Wade go to the Cayman Islands to his shell companies?

      March 28, 2012 at 2:36 pm
    4. Peter Joffe #

      I quote from the article – “It was easy for Wade to deliberately set state machinery in action to help rig the polls even before the second round of voting started (as was allegedly the case in the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe)”. “Allegedly’ we all know that the results in Zim we rigged as they have been many times with the active support of the ANC and Mbeki.
      A travesty of justice but “democracy” does not work in Africa because the majority who are generally unproductive and uneducated, vote equally unproductive and uneducated people into power who then prey on the production and knowledge of the minority. The Chinese will never have a democracy because as they say that if they have ‘democratic’ elections the peasantry who are the majority will end up running the country and strip it of its wealth and progress. Just like what is happening in South Africa and has already happened in most “democratic’ countries in Africa.
      One man one vote can and does work when all are educated but this is not the case in Africa. African “Democracies” usually end up as “Democratic Dictatorships”. We already have a one party state in South Africa and soon, once the Secrecy Bill comes into being, we are well on the way to another Africa “Democratic Dictatorship”.

      March 29, 2012 at 9:14 am
    5. Graham Johnson #

      @Peter Joffe

      “the majority who are generally unproductive and uneducated, vote equally unproductive and uneducated people into power who then prey on the production and knowledge of the minority. The Chinese will never have a democracy because as they say that if they have ‘democratic’ elections the peasantry who are the majority will end up running the country and strip it of its wealth and progress. Just like what is happening in South Africa”

      An excellent summary of the SA siuation. And in order to prey on the minority, the majority blames them for the reason that they are uneducated and unproductive.

      It’s the perfect death spiral.

      Stop it, someone…

      March 29, 2012 at 10:10 am
    6. Peter

      The Chinese do have democracy at the local level, and the locals, all 500 of them, sit in the Central National Parliament – what they do not have is a Regional government.

      China has 500 different languages, tribes, and customns – which is why most authority is at local level.

      March 29, 2012 at 11:52 am
    7. Breyten Breytenbach #

      Surely, having the 90-year old Wade stopped – essentially by close monitoring from CSOs – in his folly of trying to secure and consolidate his family’s loot, and thus have Senegal conform to the minimum exigencies of a normal state, cannot be described as “a leap forward to democracy”! Can one’s expectations really be that low?

      Wade did not install the relatively stable ‘alternance’ of elected power in Senegal. On the contrary, he came perilously close to destroying it and only gave up when his bluff was called. Or when his sponsors gave him the cold shoulder and “the street” largely made up of unemployed youngsters who cannot vote turned against him – as they would against whoever is in power. The rot and cynicism introduced by Wade, making of patronage the leverage of political power in the country, essentially bribing everybody (probably his ex-Premier Macky Sall as well), and with his dreams of grandeur and of a dynasty – may well have become systemic. Let us see what the National Assembly elections will bring in June before crying ‘democracy’.

      March 30, 2012 at 12:02 am
    8. Sterling Ferguson #

      @Joffe, in Germany in the 1930s this country had some of the most educated people in the world and Hitler was able to take over the government by democratic means. He then made himself the dictator of Germany and started WW2. The same can be said of Japan where the people were very educated and Tojo was able to take over the government and make himself a dictator. I think that in most cases a country with a large educated middle class will less likely to support a dictator but, not in all cases.

      In the US for a long time the women and blacks were not allowed to vote in this country. The US was ruled by a small minority of rich white male until the beginning of the 20Th century. In most southern states the blacks were not allowed to vote until the 60s. This was also true for the southwestern part of the US where the Latins were not allowed to vote. So, one can see many countries have a problem with democracy especially if the country is multi-racial.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:38 am
    9. Sterling Ferguson #

      @Beddy, I respect your ability to do research on the subjects you write about. Most people are not aware of the deep division in China and this area is a bunch of countries. As a matter of facts, in 1949 this was the first time China had united in a thousandth years.

      March 30, 2012 at 7:48 am
    10. Peter Joffe #

      @Sterling, It is common knowledge that Hitler rigged the elections and murdered his opponents but yes, it was supposed to be a democratic election. As the knowledgeable electorate saw what was happening they did nothing, hoping that the nightmare would not materialize. Well it did and they lost their lives, their businesses and their futures. If we in South Africa sit idly by and watch the destruction of our legal system, the constitution and law and order, the same will happen here. At least we have a large amount of people from all races who can see the goals of the ANC and will do our best to stop them. The latest case of our new Top Cop is an example of Zuma stacking the odds in his favour. Stuff the country but stay out of jail is what this is all about. Allow free access to the tax monies for the privileged few and stuff the poor because there is not enough to go around anyway.

      March 30, 2012 at 8:05 am
    11. Peter Joffe

      Actually Hitler came into power as a minority leader in a co-elition government, then rigged a lot of things and changed the constitution. Hitler never got the majority vote of the Germans.

      March 30, 2012 at 9:42 am
    12. Sterling

      Thanks. It has taken me 8 years of research to try and find out where black racism in SA came from with the ANC in 1994.

      This week the last penny dropped. We have imported racists myths from the black diaspora which bear no relationship to SA history and cultures at all. And black racism in places like America and Australia are reactions to white racism.

      I thought that America was the most racist country in the world – but this week I read 2 books on Australia, who seem even worse.

      None of the Black Diaspora or the White Racists have any concept of a brown race which is not a mixed race but indigenous brown. In the USA Coloreds are a mixed race of black slave and white master. In Australia “yellowfellers” are a mixture of “blackfellow” (aborigines) and “whitefellers”.

      Ther is NO HISTORICAL ACCURACY in the myth that blacks were suppressed in SA for 350 years – because, to start with, there were no blacks in SA for the first 200 years except refugees from abuse by tribal chiefs (like the Fingo).

      South Africa is the ONLY country in Africa where the original brown people were not killed off by migrating blacks, because their white descendents got to the Cape before the blacks.

      The whole of AA/BEE is based on a historical myth.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:11 am
    13. Thought Leader Editor #

      Comments not relevant to this post will be deleted.

      March 30, 2012 at 10:29 am
    14. Sterling Ferguson #

      @To the editor, you are right lets stay with the subject.

      @Peter, Beddy, in order for to have a successful democracy, it has to start from the grass root level and work it way to the top. In most places in Africa the government is run from top down and the people have no voice in the government. In SA the people on the local level should be running the services such as; schools, water, sanitation and fire departments. The national government should be an advisor to the local governments to make sure the guidelines are follow. If the leaders on the local level are not doing their job they can be voted out of office. Every community in SA should have town halls where the people can go to air their problems. Giving the people a voice in the government on the local level will create a culture of democracy.

      March 30, 2012 at 11:48 am
    15. Sterling

      The biggest problem is that the whole civil service, including all municipal staff, is disfunctional because of AA/BEE which means people not trained or competant can be employed by the state.

      Thank the Constitutional Court who decreed AA/BEE not racist.

      March 30, 2012 at 12:48 pm
    16. Sterling Ferguson #

      @To the editor, you are right lets stay with the subject.

      @Peter, Beddy, in order for to have a successful democracy, it has to start from the grass root level and work it way to the top. In most places in Africa the government is run from top down and the people have no voice in the government. In SA the people on the local level should be running the services such as; schools, water, sanitation and fire departments. The national government should be an advisor to the local governments to make sure the guidelines are followed. If the leaders on the local level are not doing their job they can be voted out of office. Every community in SA should have town halls where the people can go to air their problems. Giving the people a voice in the government on the local level will create a culture of democracy.

      March 30, 2012 at 1:01 pm
    17. Sterling

      You are still missing the point – the “people at local level” and in fact also “people at other levels” often can’t even read and write.

      The Minister, in one of the radio discussions on SAFM, admitted that only ONE of all the councellors of the Ventersdorp municipality could read and write – and they run the budget and the town?

      March 30, 2012 at 2:50 pm
    18. Sterling Ferguson #

      @Beddy, you should go to Brazil and you will be shocked at how the non whites are treated in that country. When one turn on the TV, one will never see a dark face unless a show is from the states. When one look at the makeup in the Brazilian congress one will not see very few dark faces even though the country is fifty percent black. If one goes to a restaurant and one is black, one will see there is no other blacks in the restaurant. The waiter will come with out knowing and try to speak English with you. When the waiter is asked how he knew I spoke English, he will tell you no black come in here except Americans. If one look at the stats on education in Brazil, one will find that less then one percent of the blacks in the universities even though fifty percent of the population is black. The blacks that I met in Brazil will tell you that Brazil is the most successful racist country in the world. Up until recently most black Brazilian were shame to be called black.

      March 31, 2012 at 1:21 am
    19. Sterling Ferguson #

      @Beddy, most Mexicans are brown people so that’s not true about people in the US don’t have a concept of brown people. Most Americans are interested in making money to live the good life and not worry about people complexion like in SA. The I have a dream speech is a reality in the US and we have seen the mountain top.

      March 31, 2012 at 8:41 am
    20. Sterling Ferguson #

      @Beddy, why don’t the government open second chance schools so the people can go to school at night? In Brazil the government setup schools like this and was very successful in stamping out illiteracy.

      March 31, 2012 at 12:06 pm
    21. Sterling

      The reports I have got is that there is little racism in Brazil, but I have never been there.

      What impresses me is how they have moved from the highest inequality figure on the Gini Co-efficient to one of the countries with the lowest levels of unemployment and higest levels of growth in less than a decade.

      Maybe because they did NOT throw out their productive whites?

      March 31, 2012 at 1:39 pm
    22. Pre 1994 the Government had not second chance schools, but second chances at university. If you were over 24 you did not need matric to enrol at University. Like everything else in the former socialist state that has also gone.

      April 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm
    23. Sterling Ferguson #

      @Beddy,Brazil was successful in running a racial state because nobody in Brazil will admit to being a racist. As a matter of facts, if you go to the government to bring racial discrimination charges against a company, the government would have you arrested at one time in Brazil. In Brazil today there are AA, anti-racist laws to protect the people, and EE laws to protect the women in Brazil. The Brazilian history books have been rewritten to show the role the blacks played in developing this country. In the old history books in Brazil the blacks role in Brazil had been excluded. In the US and SA the whites passed all kind of apartheid laws against blacks and Brazil got better results without doing none of this.

      April 2, 2012 at 6:48 am
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    25. Sterling

      I am no expert on Brazil – but they certainly have got something right judging from their recent growth and employment stats.

      April 2, 2012 at 1:59 pm
    26. Sterling Ferguson #

      @Beddy, when Lula became president, everyone thought he was going to nationalize the industry like he promised before becoming president. After he became president Lula made an one hundred and eighty degree turn on all of his promises. The first thing he did was reformed the civil services system that was bleeding the country dry, he privatized most of the government owned companies, he open Brazil up to foreign investments and the market hit the ceiling and he was able to use the surplus to pay off Brazilian debts. He was able to use to institute social programs such as; hunger programs for the poor, mass education and many families for the first time children are going to school, he setup housing programs and health programs in every state. Lula also spoke out against racism in Brazil and appointed blacks in the government for the first time.

      The problem with Lula is in Brazil the president is directly elected by the people and he had to be accountable to them. Lula party was never able to control congress and he had to compromise with this Congress to get his bills passed. Unlike SA where nobody is elected to office and accountable to the people.

      April 3, 2012 at 9:41 am
    27. Sterling

      And were the Brazilians dumb enough to introduce Affirmative Action/ Black Economic Empowerment – like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malaysia and Sri Lanka (all failed or failing states, please note).

      April 3, 2012 at 6:43 pm
    28. Sterling Ferguson #

      @Beddy, the Brazilian government gave AA to white that wanted to come to Brazil from Europe in the form of land. The military didn’t allow blacks to come to Brazil and didn’t give the blacks in Brazil land after the war of triple alliance. When you speak of AA, you make it sound like a dirty word but, the Canada government gave AA to the French speaking Canadians. There was AA in Malaysia between the original people in Malaysia and the Chinese. AA wasn’t copied from the US as a matter facts, the US was the last country to institute AA . Brazil has AA for the none white and it’s alive and kicking. In SA, AA is given to the people in the ANC and their cronies which is the wrong way to institute AA.

      April 4, 2012 at 6:46 am
    29. Sterling

      AA only works where is is used to help a minority. In South Africa it is used to prejudice a minority -, like in Malaysia and Sri Lanka.

      Mathematically it can never work – taking away the jobs of the 10 percent minority that is educated is not going to give employment to the 90 percent that is uneducated.

      Are the French a minority or majority?

      And does Brazil have only AA or also BEE (which is a different animal altogether).

      In South Africa AA was not good enough for the ANC because there were so few educated blacks as a result of the ANC insisting in the 1950s on “liberation before education”.

      April 5, 2012 at 6:24 pm

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