Why you should care
Because democracy is powerful, and Senegal may map the way for the rest of Africa.
In a continent where democracy has proceeded in fits and starts, Senegal, on Africa’s western coast, has long been seen as a beacon of hope for the possibilities of civilian rule. But the nation of 13.73 million people* recently confronted a return to autocratic rule — confronted and rejected it, by voice and pen and not by sword.
Until last year, however, Senegal’s democracy had been rather dormant. In 2012, as Senegal watched a military coup extinguish its neighbor Mali’s young democracy, it learned that its 85-year old president, Abdoulaye Wade, was planning some rather undemocratic measures to extend his term and pave the way for his son’s succession. In recent years, the nation had stood by as Wade consolidated his power and lavished gifts on his family and cronies, including a $27 million, Statue-of-Liberty-sized monument in his honor.One of the few African nations never to have suffered a military coup, the former French colony of Senegal has enjoyed elections as far back as 1848. Today it is a thriving democratic republic with three branches of government and a multiparty system. And as President Obama experienced on a recent visit, when he was jeered widely for criticizing the 95 percent Muslim nation’s criminalization of homosexuality, it is a democracy that is not afraid to express its opinions.
But in 2012, as Wade went from padding his nest to building a dynasty, the people of Senegal fought back. Fiercely. And without weapons.
Senegal aspires to be a middle-income country and eventually an economic African tiger.
At every turn, the people of Senegal had a response to their big man’s power grab. When Wade first announced he would seek a third term, in defiance of the two-term limit, he was mocked openly in the media. One political cartoon showed him at a cafe, ordering a third cup of coffee while removing a sign reading: “Everyone just two cups.”
When Wade nevertheless persisted with seeking re-election — and attempted to change the constitution to make re-election easier, by lowering the required vote from 50 percent to 25 percent — protests flooded the country. Fueled by Senegal’s youth and deep musical culture (including hip-hop artist Akon), more than 200 organizations joined together in the streets as musician-activists composed rap songs to rally public opinion against Wade.
When Wade prevailed in the first round of voting with 35 percent, the 12 other candidates rallied around the runner-up, a former geological engineer named Macky Sall. Then, on the day of the runoff, in the most comprehensive election monitoring ever conducted in Africa, observers dispersed to more than 11,000 polling stations across the country, where they text-messaged vote tallies to a secure server to protect against cheating.
Now Senegal is attempting to build on that democratic momentum under its new leader. Step one: improved governance. Check. There is not only a recently established ministry for the promotion of good governance, but also a recently dissolved senate, which had been created under Wade and had come to more closely resemble a playpen for his cronies than a legislative instrument. The result: Sall handed Wade a 66 percent to 34 percent thumping, Wade conceded defeat, the Senegalese people celebrated in the streets that night, and then they returned to their normal lives the next day. No violence, no coups, no troops, no vote-rigging — but a major turning point for Senegal and for democracy in Africa.
Step two involves what Senegal’s new president sees as a prerequisite to significant economic growth: social justice, including fair taxation, universal health coverage and poverty reduction. Macky Sall has proposed no less than “a Senegalese New Deal ,” starting with a cash-transfer program designed to aid the poorest citizens in a country where per capita income is still $2,000 a year and adult literacy hovers around 40 percent.
Building on the foundation of peace and stability provided by better governance and a more equal society, step three is to grow the Senegalese economy. Slaves, gold and ivory were once the main exports from Senegal’s ports, but today the economy centers on fishing and agriculture.
Having entered iron, gold and zircon mining contracts with foreign companies, Senegal hopes to expand and diversify its economy and create an environment that is more attractive to foreign investors. According to President Sall, “Senegal aspires to be a middle-income country” and eventually an economic “African tiger.”
That’s ambitious, to be sure, but Senegal has the process and institutions in place to make big dreams possible. A Senegalese proverb says, “It is better to walk fast than to grow angry at the forest.” If Senegal can keep its stride, it could be the pacesetter that transforms the entire continent into an African tiger.
* The original version of this story incorrectly cited 2010 population figures for Senegal. The population of the country as of 2012 stands at 13.73 million. – Ed.