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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