After 12 years in power, President Abdoulaye Wade finally bowed out following defeat by his protégé and former prime minister, Macky Sall, in last month’s run-off vote. The election followed weeks of riots in major cities and towns across the country over Wade’s decision to run for a third term. As Sheriff Bojang Jnr reports from Dakar, expectations are high for the new president.
Two months ago, there were fears Senegal would plunge into an election-related civil war. In the run-up to the March polls, opposition activists, mainly young people, took to the streets of Dakar and elsewhere for weeks, demanding that President Abdoulaye Wade withdraw his controversial third term bid.
The riots resulted in at least six deaths, and the destruction of property worth millions of CFA francs. For at least two weeks, most shops and businesses in the city centre of the capital Dakar were closed, while schools and universities had shut down for several weeks before that.
Many people feared the worst as violence escalated and tension rose days before the polls. Foreign journalists flew in from around the world in anticipation of the “imminent” post-election violence.
In contrast, tourists and some foreign nationals quickly flew out of the country in fear. Potential foreign investors stayed away to “wait and see” whether it would be safe to invest in the country. And rich Senegalese, including government officials, sent their families abroad for protection. But less than three hours after the first run-off result was announced on 25 March, Senegal proved the sceptics wrong, and showed the world how democracy worked.
As early results showed a clear lead for Macky Sall, President Wade, in the presence of his wife and two children, phoned Sall to congratulate him. “The results announced so far have shown that you are the winner of the election… I congratulate you and wish you all the best,” Wade was quoted as saying on the phone from the presidential palace, and that was enough to avoid whatever dangers or doubts anybody had anticipated might ensue. Within minutes, Independence Square in the centre of town, which had been the epicentre of pre-election riots, saw thousands gathering to sing songs and dance. Many of them shed tears of joy.
Among them was a young woman called Sene Oumy. Waving a Senegalese flag, she remarked: “I decided to join the celebrations because it was here in this Square that the police flogged and tear-gassed us a few weeks ago when we attempted to hold legitimate anti-Wade rallies. Tonight we are back here celebrating our victory and no one is beating us. This is the Senegal I have always wanted.”
World leaders quickly lauded the country for the democratic and transparent manner of the polls, and more importantly, for the swift transfer of power.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, praised Wade “for his gracious and statesmanlike actions” and said the civic responsibility displayed by all political actors and civil society manifested “Senegal’s strong democratic commitment”’. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, described the events as giving “hope for the rest of Africa”. US president Barack Obama joined in, congratulating Sall for his victory and praising Senegal as “a leading example of good governance and democracy at work”.
In the sub-region, Nigerian leader Goodluck Jonathan praised Wade “for graciously accepting defeat, showing great maturity and statesmanship”, and said “if there was ever any doubt, this election has proved that the foundation of Senegalese democracy is rock-solid”.
A few days after he lost the election, Wade extended his good gesture towards Sall by urging his outgoing ministers to support the incoming president in developing Senegal, and make themselves available to serve the new government if called upon. Wade even left the presidential palace a few days earlier than he should, “to enable the new leader to move in before forming his government”.
Until a few years ago, Wade was the darling of the Senegalese people, who had come to power in 2000 after over two decades in the opposition.
Serigne Diagne, a political analyst in Dakar, said: “For nearly 10 years from 2000, the people, the media, and religious leaders had advocated that Wade be given all the time in the world to do whatever he wanted to do with the country. For all those years, we believed in him and there was hardly any attempt to scrutinise him or challenge his decisions.”
But Wade’s love affair with the people started going sour following continuous economic hardship, rising youth unemployment, and regular power cuts, among other issues. While he succeeded in infrastructure development, such as building highways and large bridges in many parts of the country, there was growing disillusionment over his economic policies, failure to curb corruption, and of course the power of his son, Karim, in the government.
“Technically Wade is responsible for his own downfall,” Diagne added. “Because the people gave him too much power, he thought he was more powerful than the country. He changed from being a democrat to an arrogant ruler. He had said over and over again that no one else could lead Senegal but him, yet he wanted to impose his son on us as if we live under a monarchical system. And that’s why he was voted out.”
But Wade’s supporters blame his defeat on “hatred” by the opposition and a spirited campaign of calumny in the West.
The election of Macky Sall, a 51-year-old geological engineer, has restored hope in Senegal. There is a huge wave of goodwill blowing towards him and expectations are very high. As a result, Sall, unlike Wade, will not be given carte blanche to do whatever he wants with the country.
He has inherited a government with limited resources to spend due to corruption and excessive spending by Wade’s government. His first challenge is to turn fortunes around.
The anti-Wade protests over the past few months were pioneered by young people whose grievances were propelled mainly by unemployment. Sall has the huge task of quickly creating jobs to satisfy these youths, who effectively campaigned for him. Reducing the prices of basic commodities and fuel were some of Sall’s campaign promises. He now has to find cash for subsidies. According to
Abdou Lo, a Dakar-based independent political analyst, the new president has just about a month to bring the prices down.
The challenge to ensure a regular power supply is daunting. Schools and universities had been closed due to a teacher’s strike. Students and parents are worried that they will lose an academic year unless the teachers are brought to work immediately.
Fighting corruption and nepotism, as well as finishing the infrastructure projects started by the Wade government, are other challenges.
As Amath Kane of the anti-Wade Y’en A Marre (“We’re fed up”) movement remarked: “I’m happy for Macky Sall but I’m also sorry and worried for him. The Senegalese people are not the most patient in the world. If Macky is unable to deliver within months, the goodwill will quickly fade and people will be after his head. This is the way things are going to look for him, unfortunately.”