Uzbeki beki stan stan

Stories of the demise of authoritarianism have been greatly exaggerated: Senegal’s elections and prospects for democracy

In David Meyer on February 24, 2012 at 10:41 am

Western Africa is often looked to as the best example of democratic development south of the Sahara. Of course, as any Africanist can tell you, trying to make generalizable statements across multiple African states is a foolhardy endeavor at best, given the vast diversity of the continent, not only from sub-region to sub-region, but in internal state politics as well. However, with Hillary Clinton’s recent democro-tour of four West African states and the amount of self-congratulation and feel-good speeches about the future of democracy in the region, the average outside observer would be forgiven for thinking that things are only looking up for free and fair elections.

In fact, democratic activists are quite concerned about the February 26th first round of the presidential election in Senegal, and with good reason. The incumbent, President Abdoulaye Wade, has carefully positioned himself for another victory while opposition groups have decried his candidature, which they view as illegal, and taken to the streets, facing off against heavily armed state security forces. Mr. Wade, who, for some reason, looks supremely unhappy in the majority of photos he appears in, won the approval of Senegal’s Constitutional Court to pursue a third term in office, despite the new constitution, which he designed, limiting presidents to two mandates. The reasoning behind the ruling was that, since the new constitution came into force after he took office, Wade is only subject to the new law from that date onward. Opposition groups were quick to point out that this flimsy legal reasoning takes a turn for the absurd when one considers that the five-member Constitutional Court was fully appointed by President Wade.

The court decision, on January 27th, led to an immediate outbreak of protests against the regime, largely spearheaded by opposition groups, namely Y’en a marre (colloquial for “fed up” or “sick of”), which has been focusing on youth mobilization, and Mouvement du 23 juin (named after the successful June 23, 2011 protests against the ruling party’s proposed amendments to the new constitution, which were decried as an attempt to further entrench the current regime in power), an opposition alliance that includes political parties, civil society organizations, and human rights groups. At least seven people have been killed in protests since the start of the presidential campaign and many more have been injured in clashes with state security forces, including Africa’s most famous singer, Youssou N’dour, who was banned from contending the presidential election (the remainder of the links are in French). President Wade has expressed his regret for the deaths, but was quick to blame one of the main opposition candidates, Idrissa Seck, for the deadly clashes.

The latest drama has focused on state security forces blocking opposition groups from protesting at the Place de l’Indépendance in central Dakar. Thankfully, though scuffles have continued this week, the protests have been largely non-violent, which gives hope to those praying for stability in the country. EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton has called for the Senegalese authorities to respect the right of the people to protest, while the small EU observation mission had previously promoted an end to violence in the wake of the clashes in the capital. Ashton also praised the arrival of an African Union observation mission led by the ex-Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. Obasanjo has the unenviable task of attempting to maintain a peaceful situation on the ground, especially as the fractured nature of the opposition has led many observers to conclude that Wade is headed to victory and thus uncharted waters in terms of opposition response. At the very least Obasanjo has pulled off the zinger of the campaign thus far, noting, in reference to his standing down from the Nigerian presidency under pressure from the opposition and other African leaders, including Wade, “If President Wade advised me not to run for a third term, which I didn’t do, he is without a doubt capable of advising himself [on the matter]” (translated from French, apologies as I wasn’t able to locate what he likely said in English).

So, what is there to do on this matter? As noted above, many are already calling the election for Wade because of his power of incumbency and his image which, though it has been recently dragged through the mud, still stands as someone who has worked hard to pull Senegal out of economic stagnation. The opposition and many average Senegalese are likely to disagree with this, especially as questions over how much Wade’s reforms have helped the poor and how much they have fed corruption in the country remain quite salient. There is also worry that Mr. Wade is grooming his son, Karim, to take his place and thus establish a political dynasty (this was implicit in the June 23 protests mentioned above since one of the failed proposed amendments created a new position of vice president, which was viewed as a not-so transparent attempt to allow Wade to consolidate familial power). The best chance the opposition groups are going to get is if they’re able to rally behind a candidate for the second round of voting. Hopefully whoever makes the runoff will be able to mobilize a large enough anti-Wade contingent to make the contest close. Of course, this presupposes that Wade will be unable to win in the first round and, given the strength of patronage politics in Senegal and the power of incumbency, this might not be too farfetched, even without any vote rigging.

And where does the U.S. stand on all of this? Following Wade’s court victory, the State Department called on the incumbent to cede his place to the next generation of leaders. This is fairly strong language, despite the fact that the U.S. noted its respect for the Senegalese political and legal process. In addition, the White House released a generic statement on respecting electoral norms and guaranteeing a free and fair election. This can be seen as a weak follow up to the earlier semi-attack on Wade. However, it’s more than likely a slight recalculation on the part of the U.S. government, as a peaceful electoral process may seem preferable to the incitation of more violence in the capital. U.S. leaders may fear a variation of the post-electoral crisis that gripped Côte d’Ivoire in 2010-11. At this point, all the international community can do is wait out the results, the die has been cast and it’s too late to keep Wade off the ballot. In fact, pushing too hard against the incumbent may lead to a panic compounded by the popular protests, which could only lead to further crackdowns. If the monitors find few irregularities in the process itself the key truly will be the mobilization of the opposition, but don’t hold out too much hope for Wade’s democratic defeat. While some opposition groups are also demanding the cancellation or delaying of the polls, this might only allow Wade to consolidate his position. I’m pessimistic that that type of action would foster greater stability or democratic accountability. As mentioned, for better or for worse Wade is going to remain on the ballot, the actual results and reactions thereof will determine how the international community can properly respond.

Ironically, in September 2011 Mr. Wade made an appearance at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris to accept the “prix Houphouët-Boigny,” awarded to those who have “contributed in a significant manner to the promotion, seeking, safeguarding, or maintenance of peace.” Though the prize in and of itself is somewhat of an irony (named after the first President of Côte d’Ivoire, who is often accused of promoting “peace” only in a manner that benefited the interests of the former colonial master, France), the instability that has gripped President Wade’s Senegal since then has led to fears that more sustained violence may break out if he wins reelection. Of course, protests against Mr. Wade have been a part of Senegalese political life for many years now and the tepid reactions of Western states recall the stability and profit-seeking Françafrique that defined Houphouët-Boigny’s rule in Côte d’Ivoire. In his acceptance speech, Mr. Wade poked fun at his age, which his critics like to seize on in calling for his resignation, declaring “There is no age limit for fighting” (my translation of “Il n’y a pas d’âge pour combattre”). While the context was a fight for peace, a much different battle has been taking place on the streets of Dakar and within Senegal’s fragile democracy. Let’s hope that President Wade realizes that this type of prolonged fight for political power would be devastating for both his country and his people.

-David Meyer


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