Is Democracy Failing in Africa?

Caitlin Williscroft

West Africa’s most famous democracy faces an unprecedented democratic test. Will Senegal fade into a democratic recession, like many other African countries; or will Senegal’s opposition gain power, strengthening the country’s democratic traditions? Take a break from the GOP and Euro crisis. Follow Senegal’s elections. The decisive outcome will either strengthen pluralism or bolster one man’s quest for power.

Here’s a brief snapshot and some interesting tidbits on the 2012 Senegalese Presidential Elections.

Senegal is commonly referred to as the beacon of democracy in West Africa, which is not entirely unsurprising considering Senegal’s geographic proximity to neighbors (i.e. Mali’s latest military coup) with a history of coups or the fact that Senegal engulfs The Gambia’s dictatorial regime. Senegal’s highly celebrated democracy faces serious strains amidst a growing opposition that threatens to destabilize the country should Wade win the run-off vote slated for March 25th.

Abdoulaye Wade is Senegal’s big man. Wade first gained Presidency in 2000, unseating a long, uninterrupted rule of the Party Alliance. Wade was once the “President of the streets” and now, at 85, he is running for his third term—a controversial move deemed permissible by Senegal’s Constitutional Council. Senegal’s constitution was amended in 2001, limiting Presidents to two terms in office. Wade, initially elected in 2000, claims that the constitutional provisions cannot be applied retroactively, meaning his Presidential bid is legal. His legal argument: his first term in office does not count towards the two term limit. Wade’s political justification for his re-election: his desire to complete the “Seven Wonders of Senegal”—a series of high cost legacy projects that are divorced from the realities of everyday Senegalese struggling with rising costs of food prices.

The Constitutional Court also banned Youssou N’Dour, Senegal’s internationally acclaimed musician from the Presidential race.  The Court’s contentious decision sparked widespread demonstrations across Senegal, and opposition leaders vowed to render Senegal ungovernable should Wade win a third term.  Banning Youssou N’Dour from the Presidential only made the musician a stronger and more prominent critic of Wade’s power.

A musical twist

Hip hop and rap artists in Senegal are politically charged, and use music as means to relay their messages to youth. Protests in Senegal culminated in the “mouvement du 23 juin,” where civil society gathered in masses to protest Wade’s latest attempt to skew chances of victory in his favour.  On June 23, Dakar witnessed massive protests following Wade’s attempt to amend the constitution in two ways: (1) by lowering the percentage of votes needed to win the first round of a Presidential election and (2) create a vice-President position. Both amendments were seen by the opposition as a means to secure victory in the 2012 elections. Protests erupted, and successfully forced Wade to withdraw his constitutional reforms, and as a result large civil society movements erupted, opposing Wade’s political rule. As a result of this demonstration, two groups: M23 (Mouvement du 23 Juin) and Y’en Marre (roughly translated to I’ve had enough) emerged, ensuring momentum was not lost.

M23 does not endorse a specific opposition candidate, but has successfully mobilized youth through social media, protests and their undeniably catchy tunes!

Other famous musicians, like Awadi, creatively use the Senegalese tradition of tea drinking, ataya, to condemn Wade’s third term in his music video Mame Boye. According to Senegalese custom, you drink two cups of the Mauritanian mint tea—one bitter and one sweet—not three. In the music video, the old man (a symbol of Wade) asks for a third cup of tea, and the young boy points to the “ataya constitution,” which clearly outlines a 2 cup limit. The rest of the video unfolds, and results in the old man stomping on the constitution. The end caption says it all: any similarity to actual persons or events was on purpose, not accidental.

Round 1: February 26, 2012

Fourteen contenders battled for Presidency during the first round of polls, three of whom were former Prime Ministers under Wade. Wade predicted a “crushing majority,” but as early results indicated otherwise, he humbly conceded a run-off was unavoidable.  A run-off is the opposition’s biggest advantage and Wade’s biggest downfall as he failed to leverage on his most significant advantage: a highly fractured opposition. During the first round, Wade led the race with 34.8% of the votes, and the closest opposition was Macky Sall who won a total of 26.6%, according to official results released by Senegal’s Electoral Commission. Senegal’s run-off is slated for March 25th.

Round 2: March 25—“Out with the Incumbent”?

Wade is battling with his former Prime Minister Macky Sall, and faces growing discontent with his quest for power. Opposition leaders, civil society and M23 are rallying behind Sall and his slogan: “Out with the incumbent.”  N’dour is backing Sall 100%. Sall was Prime Minister from 2004-2007, and many argue that Wade was instrumental in grooming him. And the question must be asked: are Sall and Wade really that different? Overall, Sall is hard to resist, he is running on the reduction of costs of essential food, limiting the powers of the centralized Presidency and reducing a President’s mandate from seven to five years.  Sall has widespread appeal. He isn’t Wade, and at 50 he represents a younger generation.

Senegalese artists, naturally, didn’t keep quiet. A recent song released by long-time musician Ousame “Ouza” Diallo, Le Vote, has a strong message: if you’re offered a bribe, take it. But vote for you wanted, anyways; never give into vote bullying.

A looming democratic deficit?

African leaders like to grasp onto political power, and alter constitutions when necessary to extend their authority. It’s a cliché that rocks the continent, and analysts fear Senegal may fall into the label of a “democratic deficit”—where country’s make significant progress on democratic indicators (fair/free elections, handing over power, civil society participation etc.), but then slide back when individuals creep into authoritarianism.

Senegal’s first round on February 26th went relatively uninterrupted despite the opposition’s frustrations with having a rally in Independence Square in Dakar banned. Leading up to the first round, tensions were high, but ultimately, the Senegalese upheld their commitment to democracy. The opposition has not rendered Senegal ungovernable, yet.

Round 2 is harder to predict. The stakes are higher and if the opposition does not feel their vote is respected, and Wade wins, anything is possible.

Want More? 

In short: don’t miss Senegal’s run-off Presidential elections on March 25, 2012. You can follow it on BBC Africa, Al Jezeera, Sahel Blog, Seneweb;  on twitter, follow the hashtags: #SUNU2012, #M23, #Wade and #MackySall.