Senegal's president concedes defeat, a welcome step in region of coups

After winning court permission to run for a third term, overriding a constitutional ban, President Abdoulaye Wade steps aside – breaking a pattern of Senegalese leaders overstaying their welcome.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
President Abdoulaye Wade casts his ballot for president at a polling station in his home Point E neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal Sunday, March 25.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade came to power in 2000 riding an electoral wave of reform. But by late last year, when he sought and received a court’s permission to run for a third term, despite the constitution’s specific ban on it, he angered the country’s voters. He did not defy them, however. In presidential elections that wrapped up yesterday, Mr. Wade conceded defeat and congratulated his opponent, Macky Sall.

Given the deadly riots that preceded the first round of elections in February 2012, this was a welcome end to what could have become an ugly political crisis.

Senegal is widely regarded as one of West Africa’s more stable democracies, largely because of its relative lack of military coups, but its leaders have shown a pattern of overstaying their welcome. Wade’s decision to step down will be greeted by regional leaders with relief, especially after last week’s sudden coup d’etat in the neighboring nation of Mali.

"The big winner tonight is the Senegalese people,” Mr. Sall said in a press conference overnight. “We have shown to the world our democracy is mature. I will be the president of all the Senegalese."

Wade, meanwhile, played the gracious loser. "Results coming in suggest Mr. Macky Sall has won,” Reuters quoted him saying last night. “As I always promised, I called him in the evening of March 25 to congratulate him."

Although Sall came in second behind Wade in the first round of elections in February, he was widely predicted to be the winner in the second round as Senegal’s many opposition parties backed him. A sluggish economy and growing unemployment worked against Wade, particularly in a country with a 30 percent jobless rate. Senegal has also begun to suffer the effects of a regionwide drought, leaving some 800,000 Senegalese hungry.

Recent coups in the region

While most West African nations carry out the rituals of formal democracy, with freely operating opposition parties and regularly scheduled elections, ruling parties have a tendency of manipulating the process, intimidating opposition parties, and holding onto power for decades at a time. As a result, public frustration is periodically expressed through coups.

In Guinea, after the death of longtime President Lansana Conte, a Guinean army captain named Moussa Dadis Camara launched a coup in December 2008, promising to cede power after elections were held. Capt. Camara only ended up ceding power a year later after being shot in the head by one of his own aides. (Camara survived the attack, but retired from politics.)

In Ivory Coast last spring, former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat, leading to an armed revolt by the supporters of Gbagbo’s main opponent, Alassane Ouattara. Airstrikes by French and the United Nations helicopters against the president’s palace helped to end the four-month stalemate, in which at least 400 people were killed.

And in Mali last week, junior Army officers launched a coup d’état after repeated protests against the government’s failure to provide the army with adequate arms and food to fight against northern Tuareg rebels. The African Union has suspended Mali’s membership, and opposition parties have called for swift elections, leaving the mutineers politically isolated.

Senegal's democratic record

Senegal, by contrast, is one of the few countries on the continent that has not had a military coup, and this fact gives the country greater credibility in international forums and gives investors greater confidence in the country’s stability. Even under French colonial rule, Senegalese have exercised the right to vote since 1848, and have sent deputies to represent them in Paris.

Yet despite having the right to vote, Senegalese do not enjoy full rights to free expression, human rights advocates say. Human Rights Watch issued a report late last year warning of an increasing pattern of government repression against critics of the Wade administration, and the United States embassy in Dakar issued a rare public statement against Wade’s attempt to alter the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.

The US, the statement said, “is concerned that a constitutional law that would so fundamentally change the system used to elect Senegal’s President for the past 50 years has been proposed without the benefit of a thorough, meaningful and open debate among a broad spectrum of groups and concerned citizens, and that making this change so close to the next elections could result in weakening Senegal’s democratic institutions.”

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