Senegal has seen its share of political ups and down. Yet, under founding father Léopold Sédar Senghor and his successor Abdou Diouf, the country moved forward and it was spared major social upheaval, unlike some of its bordering nations. The soft conflict in the southern region of Casamance has been the real sore spot of Senegal. Muslim make up most of the population, Christians are only 6%, but very influential. The very first president was a practicing Catholic. Much of this was to change during Diouf’s successor, Abdoulaye Wade. Wade has been in politics for ages, and he founded an opposition party after asking for advice to Senghor, back in 1974. He run for president several times, but was elected only in 2000.
During his tenure, Wade has come under criticism because of allegations of corruption, nepotism and constraints on freedom of the press and other civil liberties. In a nation tolerant of personal belief, Wade often made remarks against Christians and openly sought the support of marabous. The latest of his gaffes was comparing a statue to African Renaissance he had built near Dakar to Jesus’ images in churches; a remark that attracted the condemnation of both Muslim and Catholic clergy. He later apologized.
Earlier this year, Wade won a court case that allowed him to vie for the seat of president for a third time. He argued that the constitutional provision limiting the terms in office to two did not apply to him, since it was approved after his first election. People opposed his vision, and Wade escalated the confrontation with the opposition by blocking some opposition members from running for president and deploying the police to stop public outcry, six demonstrators died.
In February’s Presidential first round, Wade fell short of a majority gathering only 34.8%. Main opposition leader Macky Sall came second with 26.6%. This prompted most of the other 12 candidates to back Sall in the runoff. Senegalese and international observers alike feared that Wade would try everything to stay in power. Notwithstanding his 85 years of age, he still a commanding figure and is known for not backing down easily. The second round of vote took place on Sunday March 25. By evening, polling station after polling station was reporting a clear majority for Sall. With an unexpected move, Wade called Sall and conceded he lost.
Surprising as it was, the move allowed people to descend in the streets of Dakar to celebrate, and international leaders to praise Senegal for a peaceful and successful exercise in democracy. AU Commission chairman Jean Ping said the peaceful conduct of the presidential elections “proved that Africa, despite its challenges, continues to register significant progress towards democracy and transparent elections”.
Senegal’s new President is a 50-year-old geologist who served as President Abdoulaye Wade’s prime minister between 2004 and 2007 and before that held the interior and mines portfolios. He also oversaw the successful re-election of Mr Wade five years ago, heading his electoral campaign – and went on to become president of the National Assembly. But the politician proved he was no ruling party lackey when he dared to call the son of the president before MPs over allegations of mismanagement. In the end, he resigned from his post in the National Assembly and from the ruling PDS party to set up his own movement, APR-Yakaar.
Since then, he has been on his campaign trail to say that country should come before party and ethnicity. Although he was born in Fatick, his parents are Fula people from the north of Senegal and he says growing up as an outsider has given him his vision. The symbol he chose for his new party is a horse, surrounded by stars – representing the 14 regions of the country and the Senegalese diaspora.
In the past weeks, to receive the support of the whole opposition, Sall promised that he will shorten the presidential term to five years from the current seven, and enforce the two-term limit. He also promised to bring in measures to reduce the price of basic foodstuffs. This is all very well, but not nearly enough. Sall will have to tackle the economic crisis and try to reduce unemployment, which now runs high, especially among the youth. For now he has the population firmly behind him; but this support could prove volatile. The second round of election was as much an approval of Sall as a vote of no confidence in Wade. Wade is now gone, it will be up to Sall to gain the trust of the people and strengthen thir democratic spirit.