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Senegal Holds On to Democratic Tradition Despite Turmoil

By Susan Katz MillerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 22, 1990



DAKAR, SENEGAL

DESPITE a turbulent two-year period of strikes, rioting and election violence, the president of one of Africa's few democracies says he remains committed to a multiparty system and tough economic reform. Senegal's Abdou Diouf introduced a multiparty system in 1981 and has been carrying out an structural adjustment program called for by the International Monetary Fund. In an interview on the eve of a trip to Washington last week to meet with President Bush and officials of the World Bank and IMF, President Diouf discussed the difficulties his country is facing.

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Economic hardships springing from IMF-sponsored reform programs have given opposition parties plenty of ammunition to challenge the government. And Senegal's relatively free press has provided a raucous forum for the views of all sides.

But Diouf denies that the economic reforms carried out under IMF auspices have been a primary cause of the unrest in Senegal.

``Before the presidential campaign, all the measures of structural adjustment had already been put in place, and explained to the public. They were not happy about making sacrifices, but they accepted them with an extraordinary discipline,'' Diouf said.

``But during the electoral campaign, you saw the devastating demagogy of the opposition. They made people believe things which could never be true. They said, for example, that they could sell rice at 60 CFA [francs, totaling about 20 cents] per kilogram.''

Diouf says that implementing an economic reform program is difficult in a country with pluralist politics and a free press.

``It's obvious that I have a lot more trouble implementing these unpopular measures than other African countries do,'' says Diouf. ``They say the two countries in Africa which have made the most progress on structural adjustment are Senegal and Ghana. But you should at least give Senegal some extra credit, because it is much more difficult to undertake these unpopular measures in a democratic country.''

Diouf contends that the democratic principles have not interfered with economic development.

``I think that if we had not been in a democratic system, we would have made less progress,'' he says. ``I sincerely believe that if there hadn't been democracy, and therefore a certain taste for initiative, a certain freedom to undertake things, I think we would have advanced more slowly.''

Senegal has been a favored recipient of United States aid because of its relatively open political system, but it will now have increased competition for that aid, not only from newly democratic countries in Eastern Europe, but from a number of African states that have moved toward multiparty systems recently.

But Diouf, a seasoned diplomat, professes not to be overly concerned about losing his privileged place.

``I think we have a credibility with donors and that they will continue to have confidence in us, inasmuch as we continue to be serious and to deepen our democracy. Because democracy is never a completed process,'' Diouf says.

Although it has 17 legal political parties and independent press, Senegal has been criticized for the way it administers elections, for a government monopoly on television and radio, and for occasionally arresting opposition journalists.

But it does continue to pursue reforms, such as the privatization of industry and the streamlining of government bureaucracies.

Other West African nations, such as Gabon and the Ivory Coast, announced moves toward multiparty systems recently after extensive protests.

``Those who are moving toward democracy now are being pushed by the law of the streets,'' Diouf says. ``In 1981, when I decided on an integral multiparty system, I wasn't pushed by anyone - my people were even surprised, and some of them thought I was going too far. But even when there have been difficulties I have said that our democracy is irreversible.''