Democracy wins in Senegal

Relief after news of Sall's win and democratic transition, following the bitterly contested presidential election.

    The streets of Dakar erupted when two-term President Wade conceded defeat to his opponent, Macky Sall [EPA]
    The streets of Dakar erupted when two-term President Wade conceded defeat to his opponent, Macky Sall [EPA]

    Dakar, Senegal - Relief. Jubilation. Levity. And most of all: Liberation. These are the emotions that surged up as I, along with 12 million Senegalese citizens in Senegal and abroad, heard the news at 21:30GMT last night that President Abdoulaye Wade had congratulated his opponent, Macky Sall, on his victory at the presidential election.

    Indeed, as the first trends began to emerge, following a day of voting in the second round of polling that saw the participation of more than 3 million Senegalese voters (at least a million more than in the first round of voting), it became evident that Sall had crushed Wade in most polling stations. The l'observateur newspaper said the margin of victory was as wide as some 67 per cent for Sall to 33 per cent for Wade, but full results will be released in coming days.

    As we heard that President Wade, believed to be at least 85 years old, had actually called his opponent, 50-year-old Macky Sall - his former prime minister and protégé - congratulating him on his victory, a collective sigh of relief swept over the entire nation. When Wade admitted defeat even before the official proclamation of results, paving the way for Sall to become Senegal's fourth president since independence, even the most pessimistic of us - prone to believing that the politically savvy Wade still had tricks up his sleeve - had to join that sigh.

    Spontaneous celebratory marches burst onto the streets of Dakar, as people spilled out en masse to celebrate in exuberance the birth of a new era for Senegal.

    Many also stayed home, contended smiles on their faces, relieved that Senegal was definitively saved, and its democracy out of the woods. Peace has returned to Senegal.

     Initial results declare Sall winner

    Democracy put to the test

    News of a defeated incumbent calling the new president-elect in any other context would have perhaps not been breaking news. However, it came against the background of much fear for the future of Senegal, a beacon of stability and democracy in an unstable region, which boasts a long tradition of multi-party elections and peaceful transfers of power.

    Following 40 years of being led by socialist presidents Senghor then Diouf, Wade was elected in 2000 under the mantra of sopi, a Wolof word that translates into "change". After seven years in power, that change was not forthcoming, instead a rather heinous attempt at grooming Wade's son, Karim, to serve as his successor and next heir in line, turning the republic into a monarchy.

    A popular resistance movement, named the Mouvement du 23 juin - or simply M23 - rose on June 23, 2011, in response to Wade's attempt to change the constitution, and was the first mass public mobilisation to oppose Wade. When it became clear that Wade was going to run for a third term, the M23 raised its tone, rallying the citizenry on the 23rd of every month, crying out: "Don't touch my constitution", and the even more resonant "y'en a marre" [French: "We have had enough"]. They called for a substantive democracy with social and economic rights for all.

    Despite mounting popular pressure, Wade pressed on with his attempt at a third term in the presidential chair. When the country's highest legal body, the Constitutional Court, validated Wade's candidacy on January 27, 2012, mass public protests erupted across Senegal, leaving nine dead and dozens severely injured.

    Wade was an intruder in the electoral competition, the opposition and civil society maintained. But run Wade did - as if in an attempt to see for himself what he was still worth in the eyes of the voting youth that had parachuted him to power in 2000. Yet he secured only a timid 34 per cent win in the first round of voting, facing a divided opposition, and was followed by Macky Sall, who secured 25 per cent of the electorate.

    For the second round of voting however, all 13 opposition contenders rallied behind Sall, giving him a genuine chance at defeating the presidential incumbent in the final face-off. And defeat Wade he did on March 25, in a crushing manner that defied even the most optimistic prognoses.

    A happy outcome: Democracy's win in Senegal

    After being held hostage for three months of electoral hold-up under President Wade, Senegal has emerged from a bloody tempest of pre-electoral violence as a stronger democracy.

     Senegal's Wade concedes election defeat

    Indeed, Senegal's young democracy was severely put to the test in the months past. But the Senegalese citizenry proved its maturity by peacefully going to the polls both on February 26 and in even larger numbers during the run-off. They proved the power of the ballot over that of the street or the rifle, and again provided an exemplary lesson of democracy on the continent.

    The patriotism and professionalism of the Senegalese army, remarkable by its absence from the streets during the polls, was also notorious - leading many to think that the Senegalese army was really the silent hero of the nation's democratic transition. Indeed, a development such as that in neighbouring Mali could have been easily imaginable had the army decided to come out of its barracks in the heights of Senegal's politico-constitutional crisis.

    Senegal's democracy is the big winner today - not Macky Sall, not even Abdoulaye Wade - but popular sovereignty, as demonstrated in this nation, this truly democratic African nation. The people of Senegal have spoken; so loudly did they speak that their voice could not be ignored, indicating the way forward to resolve future political stalemates.

    Noteworthy also is that Senegal will now have its first fully-fledged Senegalese 'first lady'. Mrs Sall, born Mareme Faye, is indeed a true daughter of the land, who will, as the talk of the town has it, bring the enchanting smell of Senegalese women's incense to the presidential palace. This also breaks the long tradition of French first ladies, pervasive in this former French colony. Is this also an omen of an end to FrançAfrique, the French-African political mafia infamous for its closed-door deals? Doubtful, given that some contend that Sall's campaign financing came from the French group Bolloré [Fr.], reportedly desperately trying to regain control of Dakar's Autonomous Port, after President Wade's son, Karim, had placed it in the hands of Dubai World's DP World.

    What next for Senegal?

    Whether or not this marks the end of FrançAfrique, a new era now begins for the country of Senegal under its new, younger leadership. The challenges remain large and weighty: a dilapidated health sector, an education system in crisis, a non-performing economy highly dependent on petroleum imports, and an idle youthful population thirsty for jobs.

    Will Sall rise to the task on all these challenges? Will he deliver on the substantive democracy that the Senegalese youth called for under their resonant slogan y'en a marre?

    Sall has five years to show his true mettle. And whatever ensues, one fact remains certain: the new Senegalese citizenry, which the M23 has given birth to and whom we saw willing to fight to the death for its democracy and constitutional sovereignty, will be watching over him, alert and vigilant.

    Arame Tall, pursuing a PhD at Johns Hopkins University, specialises in climate risk management and is the Climate Centre's technical adviser for West and Central Africa.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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