Yesterday Senegal held the second round of its presidential elections. Two-term President Abdoulaye Wade was seeking a third term, a move which – combined with widespread anger at his perceived economic failures and autocratic tendencies – called a significant urban protest movement into being last year. In the first round in February of this year, Wade won a plurality (35%) but not the majority needed to avoid a run-off. Between then and yesterday the opposition coalesced around runner-up Macky Sall, who is currently mayor of Fatick but whose resume includes time as prime minister and president of the National Assembly. Last night, after voting ended, Wade conceded to Sall, indicating that the latter’s victory must have been massive. Results are not yet available; I will update when they are. According to Wikipedia, Sall will take office on April 1.
My feeling is that a change of leadership is a good thing for Senegal in and of itself. It will lower the political temperature of the country and allow for a re-thinking of its trajectory. News articles and analyses over the past month have stressed the relationship between Wade and Sall – the latter “owes his political career to Abdoulaye Wade” in the BBC‘s formulation – and some have implied that Sall’s style of governing will not differ strongly from that of (the early?) Wade. Even if there is continuity in policymaking, I think that had Wade remained in office, there would have been serious protests and general uncertainty concerning the future of the country.
With that said, Sall will not have an easy job. One task is to define it. The contours of the Senegalese presidency were thrown into question by the changes and maneuvers Wade made as he sought to remain in power, and by wavering over term lengths and limits that goes back decades. Sall has campaigned in part on limiting the power of the presidency, for example ensuring that presidents can only serve, at most, two five-year terms. Other problems Sall will confront concern the economy – electricity generation, job creation, poverty, etc. Some of the protest fervor last year and this year focused on Wade the man, but it also focused on economic and infrastructure issues. Indeed, protests over electricity shortages occurred well before the “June 23rd” movement came into being. Sall will face massive pressure to make progress on solving these issues, progress that is meaningful to ordinary people, within his first term.
Senegal’s election has meaning beyond the country’s borders, but I think that meaning is both bigger and smaller than some people say. French President Nicolas Sarkozy calls the outcome “good news for Africa,” which prompts two questions: First, why just for Africa? And second, although I agree with Sarkozy that it is good news, will what happens in Senegal affect what happens elsewhere on the continent? Opposition victories in African presidential elections are major events. But the last one that I am aware of, that of Michael Sata in Zambia’s September 2011 vote, does not seem to have played any significant part in shaping what happened in Senegal yesterday. Events in each country have a lot to do with that country’s internal dynamics and the specific external forces that influence them. One country’s transition can inspire activists in another, but inspiration only goes so far without the conditions and the strategies that make change possible in a given place.
In that vein, we can compare Senegal and its neighbor Mali, where a recent coup has left the country in confusion, but only to a certain extent. They are both African countries that were supposed to hold presidential elections this year; one did and one didn’t. The contrast is striking – but so is the contrast between the pasts and presents of the two countries. This is not the first time that civilians have been in power in Senegal while soldiers rule Mali. Nor does Senegal, despite periodic violence in its southern Casamance region, face a conflict like the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali. My point is, we should not over-generalize based on cases. I do not believe the coup in Mali heralds a wave of coups across Africa, nor do I believe that Senegal is ground zero for a continent-wide democratic movement. That is in no way meant to take away from the triumph of the Senegalese people; in fact, I think to treat it on its own terms, rather than as some sort of weather vane for Africa, gives it more dignity and importance.