• A version of this post appeared on the blog "Freedom at Issue." The views expressed are the author's own.
As Senegal prepares for a pivotal presidential election on Feb. 26, some citizens and outside observers are weighing the possibility of a popular uprising akin to last year’s Arab Spring revolts, with large numbers of Senegalese taking to the streets in defense of their political rights. Another, even more troubling scenario would entail a violent postelection standoff between the entrenched incumbent and forces loyal to his would-be successor, as occurred a year ago in Côte d’Ivoire. The fact that such outcomes are even being discussed illustrates how far Senegal has fallen under the stewardship of President Abdoulaye Wade, who is seeking a third term in office.
Senegal is one of the few African countries that has never experienced a coup d’état, and it is often considered among the great postcolonial success stories with respect to its record of civilian rule. In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, Senegal has been rated at least "partly free" since the mid-1970s, and even climbed into the "free" category during Wade’s first presidential term.
Wade was quite popular at home and abroad when he first came to power. He had forged his reputation as an opposition leader during the two-decade presidency of Abdou Diouf, and faced arrest in the violent aftermath of the 1988 elections, which the opposition had denounced as fraudulent. His rise to the presidency as the candidate of the Democratic Party in 2000 marked a significant milestone for the country, which had known only two presidents since independence in 1960, both from the Socialist Party.
However, political tensions increased during Wade’s second term, which began in a climate of doubt surrounding the legitimacy of his 2007 reelection. Since that year’s poll, the government has amended the constitution more than a dozen times, and the public has grown resentful of the 85-year-old Wade’s apparent attempts to ensure that his son Karim eventually succeeds him as president.
Political sources of popular frustration have been compounded by high unemployment rates, continual power outages, and the flagrant misuse of public funds. Some 48 percent of Senegalese are unemployed, and 54 percent live below the poverty line, even as energy and housing costs are on the rise. Electricity shortfalls have already triggered civil unrest. In June 2011, power was cut to homes in Dakar for nearly 30 hours, leading demonstrators to attack the headquarters of the national power company. Security forces responded with a harsh crackdown. In an egregious example of wasteful spending, the government recently erected an enormous, North Korean–made statue called the “Monument of African Renaissance” at a cost of $27 million, and Wade has said he is entitled to 35 percent of any revenue generated by visits to the site.
It is in this atmosphere of political and economic disrepair that Wade has decided to run for a third term, a step many view as unconstitutional. The Constitutional Council, siding with the president, reasons that because the two-term limit was imposed in 2001, it does not apply retroactively to Wade’s first term. At one point in the summer of 2011, the administration also attempted to lower the vote threshold for a first-round victory from 50 percent to 25 percent, in a bid to avoid runoff elections. The move set off violent opposition protests. More recently, on Dec. 22, opposition Socialist Party youth leader Barthelemy Dias allegedly shot and killed a man during a confrontation with Wade supporters in Dakar. Since then, clashes between protesters and police have become increasingly violent, spreading throughout the country and touching the lives of ordinary citizens. On Jan. 30 in Podor, a quiet town some 300 miles north of Dakar, two civilians were killed when police fired live rounds at protesters.
Growing antigovernment sentiment has fueled the formation of several new opposition movements with mass appeal. Foremost among these are Y’en a marre, or “enough is enough,” and the June 23 Movement (M23). The latter is a coalition of 60 opposition and civil society groups, while Y’en a marre is led by socially engaged hip-hop musicians from the group Keurgui, who strike a chord with younger Senegalese. However, this popular mobilization has not resulted in a strong and unified opposition. The well-known singer Youssou N’Dour hoped to challenge Wade in this month’s election, but the Constitutional Council rejected his candidacy on the grounds that he lacked enough valid signatures. A total of 14 candidates remain, and none appears likely to pose a serious threat to Wade in the first round.
Many Senegalese feel that Wade has taken everything and they have nothing left to lose. If the incumbent is seen as having stolen the election, the country’s long record of peaceful transfers of power could come to an end. France, the United States, and the United Nations have begun to take notice of the deteriorating situation, but Foreign Minister Madicke Niang recently rebuffed external criticism of Wade’s bid for a third term, saying, “Senegal has nothing to learn from anybody concerning democracy.” The international community will clearly need to show unity and determination in insisting that the upcoming vote be conducted fairly, transparently, and peacefully; that the police refrain from using excessive force against protesters both before and after the election; and that any postelection complaints be adjudicated impartially, in accordance with the rule of law and democratic norms. There are only two weeks left before the balloting, but it is not too late to shore up Senegal’s wavering democracy.
Brendan Harrison is a Program Associate at Freedom House.
Get daily or weekly updates from CSMonitor.com delivered to your inbox. Sign up today.