Q&A: Senegal faces democratic test

Combination of incumbent set on holding on to power and weak opposition could tarnish Senegal’s democratic credentials.

An anti-government protestor flees from tear gas at a protest in Senegal's capital Dakar, February 21, 2012. Hundreds of opposition supporters clashed with Senegalese security forces in the capital on Tuesday as European Union observers criticised a ban on protests and an African envoy jetted in to try and stem rising violence [REUTERS]
An anti-government protestor flees from tear gas at a protest in Senegal's capital Dakar, February 21, 2012. Hundreds of opposition supporters clashed with Senegalese security forces in the capital on Tuesday as European Union observers criticised a ban on protests and an African envoy jetted in to try and stem rising violence [REUTERS]

Tensions continue to rise in Senegal just days before presidential and legislative elections are due to take place.

A new crisis looms over the West African country as opposition candidates continue to warn that they will make the country “ungovernable” if President Abdoulaye Wade goes ahead with his candidacy for a third term.

President Wade, in power since 2000, received the go-ahead in January from the country’s highest court to run for a third term, much to the ire of opposition parties and a large segment of the Senegalese population, growing increasingly frustrated with Wade’s insatiable thirst to hold on to power.

Despite the growing unrest in his country, and repeated calls from opposition parties and activists for Wade to relinquish his  candidacy, the incumbent remains adamant he will participate in the polls due to take place on February 26.

The breakdown in communication between the opposition and the incumbent, the scale of the ongoing tension and the vociferous nature of the daily clashes between opposition supporters and police have surprised many.

Ayo Johnson, a political analyst at Viewpoint Africa, spoke to Al Jazeera about Senegal’s democratic culture, Wade’s presidency and why this country is at such a crucial juncture in its history.

Senegal has always been considered to be a stable country since it secured independence in 1960. What made it different from other post-colonial countries on the continent?

This was a former French colony, whose peace-loving people hardly showed any dissatisfaction and their emotions where not openly expressed.

With a small-scale rebellion, Senegal was able to build on solid foundations to become a relatively stable economy; this culminated in the handing over of power by peaceful socialist rule, and subsequently to the rule of President Wade, who without doubt is Senegal’s most flamboyant and charismatic leader.

Senegal has nevertheless struggled economically – high levels of unemployment, poverty and income inequality have dogged the country historically. How did it manage to gain a reputation as a stable economy despite those facts?

The history of many countries in Africa is synonymous with coups, war and instability caused by poor governance and inequality with an ever widening poverty gap.

Senegal managed to come through the post-colonial period relatively unscathed and it was this image that symbolised Senegal’s peaceful significance in contrast to a continent usually associated with chaos.

This [image] was created despite the fact that conditions in Senegal were no better than most other countries [and] where tolerance levels were at odds with most African leaders.

Having validated his candidacy with country’s top court, why does the incumbent face such opposition to a possible third term as president?

Senegal is a thriving political hub with varying political parties numbering over 80. Wade is a career politician, leading a party that he has led since its formation in 1974.

Wade had popular support when he was first elected but that supported faded as reforms and the promised trickle down of the country’s wealth did not materialise for the vast majority of the population.

Despite the president’s visionary stance over the years, his disregard for the two terms limit is seen to be a step too far for many who says he is changing the constitution to extend his time in power.

Many African leaders including Wade should be aware and come to terms with the fact that the presidential job is not for life, but for a term or series of terms.

Wade is a leader who has passed his sell-by date and should relinquish power and allow the next generation to take the reins of authority. Strength comes not by holding on to power but by respecting the principle that guarantees that power. A president must respect the constitution, listen to the people and respect the call for change.

Looking at his presidency since winning office in 2000, how has Wade fared as a president?

Wade has built roads schools and hospitals, but should have done so much more. Poverty, inequality, lack of jobs, disillusioned youth, a president that refuses to leave power, a president that spent a lot of money on statues; he does appear to have not invested in his people.

With anti-Wade sentiment being reflected in the media, who are Wade’s supporters?

Wade supporters are those whose lives will be fundamentally changed if he were to leave or relinquish power. There are so many that fed of this gravy train, and they have the most to lose. If Wade were to lose power, they would suffer a loss of control and influence.

How do we explain what some say is a weak opposition in this election?

Opposition is weak due to a lack of interest, lack of resolve and an unfair political and electoral system that’s hell bent on guaranteeing Wades presidency. This is despite popular opinion and sentiment that calls for political change and for Wade to go.

Opposition leaders say they will make Senegal “ungovernable” if Wade does not relinquish his candidacy. What are the likely scenarios to emerge from these elections for Senegal?

The young, the educated and those whose feel that their voice is not being heard, will demonstrate and continue their protests.

The opposition are not strong enough to topple Wade and the international community especially the African Union delegation are only there to tick the electoral observation box. Wade is unlikely to face any sanctions or penalties for disregarding the will of the people.

Wade will be declared the winner and the observer mission will express concerns with electoral commission and more than likely the opposition will be urged to take their grievance to the courts.

There is no doubt that that we are witnessing a difficult period in Senegal’s history.

Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @azadessa

Source: Al Jazeera

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