Senegal's Democracy in Danger

I do have a small history of writing about Senegal: It's a country that I find very interesting, with a longstanding and unique position in the history of Francophone Africa. I even thought about studying abroad in Dakar, but I ultimately chose Strasbourg, and you can tell from the blog that was a very rewarding experience. I've had a couple opportunities in my classes at Georgetown to do a little bit of research on the country, in one case analyzing its political system and all of the country's past elections, and in another case looking at its relationships with France and China. I posted that second paper on the blog - Senegalese Analogies: Parallels in Chinese and French Interaction with a West African Nation - and afterward I even posted a follow-up that noted the paper's popularity in Google searches.

Now, however, I'm looking back to that first paper - the one that analyzed Senegal's elections and politics, and the one I didn't post on the blog. I still don't think I'll post it, as I'm not very proud of the writing, but I do think it had some very important points that are relevant to Senegal's current turmoil, so I'll be referencing it a little bit here.

What is Senegal's current turmoil? Well, turning to any number of news organizations through the wonders of internet search will give you a pretty quick answer. Putting "Senegal elections" into Google should do it, although if you're reading this blogpost sometime far into the future, I think you'll have to add "2012." Senegal is scheduled to hold presidential elections on February 26th - only three weeks away. (Parliamentary elections are due in June.) Here are two good articles about what's happening:

Wade election bid poses risk to Senegal stability: US (Reuters)
Senegal in danger: The view from the ground (Al Jazeera English)

President Wade, photo from here
If you don't want to read the articles, I will summarize in a single sentence: Current president Abdoulaye Wade is intent on running for a third term, even though there was a constitutional amendment passed during his first term (with his support) that limited presidents to two terms. Understandably, this is incredibly upsetting; third terms are unconstitutional for American presidents as well, and if Obama wanted to run again in 2016 after winning in 2012, it would create a lot of turmoil. The difference would be that the US Supreme Court would (hopefully) strike down such a bid immediately, while in Senegal the constitutional court has now agreed with Wade's crafty argument that because the term limit was imposed during his first term, it should limit him to having two terms after the first.

The truth is, Wade had announced he would run for a third term all the way back in 2009, even before I wrote my paper on Senegalese democracy over a year ago. My conclusion for that paper was that the power to amend Senegal's constitution should be placed squarely with the people, rather than with the President, who currently has the power to revise and amend the constitution without even having the approval of a popular referendum. (Download the constitution here and look at Title III Article 52 and Title XII Article 103.) Last June Wade tried to do this very thing and amend the constitution to create a new post of vice president - which basically would have allowed him to instate his son as his successor. Thankfully, public uproar over the scheme forced him to back down. When it comes to the election in three weeks, however, the worry is that the uproar this time might not be enough. Wade might well be reelected.

Senghor, photo from here
Now, perhaps at this point you're wondering, "If a majority of Senegalese still want Wade to be president, why should we even question that?" The problem is that political elites in Senegal have manipulated democracy for a long time - in practically every election since its independence in 1960, in fact. In the first election, national leader Léopold Sédar Senghor designed things so that the whole country constituted a single electoral district, meaning that the party that got the most votes (his) received every seat in the parliament. Talk about a set up! Senghor stayed president for twenty years, and then his appointed successor Abdou Diouf was president for twenty more. Wade himself was an opposition leader for many of those years, so it was hailed a great success in 2000 when he was elected president and finally broke the one-party dominance that had lasted since independence. Even with this win, however, there were still many unfair electoral manipulations in place, but Wade didn't get rid of these when he took power; he's been using them to his own advantage.

Most every news article you'll read about Senegal talks about what a stable and democratic country it has been - an example for all of Africa. Now, I think it's wonderful that Senegal's last fifty years have been so peaceful, and I also don't want to ignore positive developments overseen by leaders like Senghor. What I'm trying to say, however, is that Senegal's elections have never been fully liberated from the machinations of elites, and Wade's bid to extend his time as president is just the latest example. I don't know what will happen in Senegal in the next few weeks. I hope there won't be more deaths, but I also hope that real change will take place. That will mean not just getting a new president, but also gaining new political freedoms and the right of the people to control the voting system themselves. All we can do is hope.